It's been over three months since I watched Neil Young's Greendale, but five review drafts later, I'm none the closer to cracking this tough egg than I was the first time. It's a folk/hippie/rock opera with a cinematic double-edged sword; for every strength, there's a weakness to counter it, and in some cases, they're both one and the same. Young's storytelling is a source of the film's power as well as many of its flaws. The messages doled out are rousing and powerful but only vaguely connected with the main story. Watching Greendale is like seeing what happens when God and the Devil duke it out behind the camera, battling over a project that's simultaneously brilliant and pretentious.
Before I launch into my deconstruction of Greendale, allow me to fill you in on what it's all about...
Young, of such bands as Crazy Horse and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, writes and directs (under the pseudonym "Bernard Shakey") this free-flowing musical journey through the community of Greendale, California. Specifically, Young's eye focuses upon the Green family, a close-knit clan of average folks trying to live normal lives. Grandpa and Grandma (Ben and Elizabeth Keith) sit on the porch and read the morning paper. Teenage activist Sun Green (Sarah White) watches the planet's slow destruction on TV and does her part in rallying support to protect the environment. However, the Green family receives some unwelcomed attention after distant relative Jed Green (Eric Johnson) shoots and kills a police officer. In no time, the media has infested Greendale and begun their collective search for that one big scoop. With her family beseiged by TV crews galore, Sun Green is fueled in her anti-corporate, pro-environment quest and becomes more inspired than ever to fight for her causes.
When people in the music industry get involved with movies, the result is usually one of two things: a vibrant, pulsating masterpice (Stop Making Sense) or a shameless dud (98% of Madonna's resumé). Greendale sits in an awkward position: right on the line separating the picture's pros and cons, with the scale ever-so-slightly tipped in favor of the former. In short, this movie emerges as a mixed bag. Greendale is exactly like a filmed version of Young's recent 10-song "Greendale" album, with Young and his band playing for the near-90 minute running time and the actors lip-synching the lyrics/dialogue, set to images captured by a Super-8 camera. The grainy result looks a bit faded and amateurish, but it's also an ideal fit for the setting, generating a haunting atmosphere surrounding this quiet little town where human troubles both big and small take place, some at the hands of a devilish figure (also played by Johnson) who wickedly dances through the streets of Greendale. At times, Young uses these images to great success, conveying the tone in which the townspeople live and breathe, allowing us to see their hardships. But, although Young acquaints the audience with the more important characters well enough, the "wandering camera" approach he uses to introduce other residents of Greendale eventually leaves them as unfinished supporting players and half-completed subplots. Young shows the general idea of the world the people within Greendale inhabit and defines it, but when it comes to developing separate characters, his touch isn't quite perfect.
Still, while Young's visual medium is more than a little flawed, his musical knack is nothing short of amazing. The songs literally tell the story, and each tune does a perfect job of describing a particular section of Greendale. From the sinister "Devil's Sidewalk," reminiscent of how eerily the Talking Heads' tune "Swamp" was put to use in Stop Making Sense, to the character-boosting "Sun Green," the songs work more wonders for establishing story, character motivations, and mood than what the audience sees. And everything leads up to the grand finale, which, after following Sun Green (played with a subtle, yet luminescent glow by Sarah White) and her encounter with a drifter named Earth Brown (Erik Markegard), practically abandons the cinematic format it had adopted and transforms it into a filmed performance of the movie's addictive, powerful hippie anthem, "Be the Rain." Please don't misconstrue this as a reason to forget the movie and buy the album instead. Not at all, for Greendale weaves its two-sided magic; even though the film's musical elements outweigh the visuals, the latter enhances the power the former exerts.
It's confusing, I know, but that's why Greendale is so difficult to pin down. It's best to enjoy the film as it is and not pay attention to the questions you'll undoubtedly have when it's over. What does environmental activism have to do with a cop killing? Why is Jed Green forgotten about for most of the movie? Why does Young himself appear in a cameo as a Wayne Newton-like figure? I don't know, and I'm not sure Young knows either.
Nevertheless, even though Greendale is a jumbled mess of a film, there's a hidden genius underneath all the disorganization, along with something of an unpretentious attitude at times. By having his voice speak through the characters, Young is admitting that the film is a way to vent all his feelings and to muse on the world of today. Or something like that. There's only one thing I'm sure of: Greendale did a number on me, and I both loved and hated the experience.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Shakey Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)
Review also posted on www.ajhakari.com.