Though Neil Young's taste level sometimes wavers, reaching a famously low ebb in the '80s and oscillating wildly in the years since, he's remained vital and contemporary in a way that none of his like-aged peers have managed. In response to the massacre at Kent State, Young wrote the classic song "Ohio," but 35 years later, with his leaden anti-Iraq album Living With War, his anger got the best of him, and he couldn't thread the needle in creating great art out of it. Nonetheless, he constructed a tour around the album, assembling his old folkmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, with the stubborn intention of bringing his message to the people whether they wanted to hear it or not. The road documentary CSNY: Déjà Vu, directed by Young under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, isn't a concert film so much as an attempt to gauge the conscience of a nation. And much like the album it's promoting, it's both urgent and regrettably cacophonous.
Though the film officially documents a CSNY tour, make no mistake: This is Young's show through and through, and the other three are around to contribute harmonies, sing a few old favorites, and (most of the time) stay propped up on their aged feet. Young is, as one of them says, a "benevolent dictator," and the "Freedom Of Speech" tour he's conceived supplements the music with provocative news clips, CNN-style factoids, and lots of political talk onstage. At times, the band encounters resistance from the audience, particularly in conservative hotbeds like Atlanta, where some angry ticketholders walk out over the incendiary sing-along "Let's Impeach The President."
For concert-goers to complain about the unexpected surfeit of politics at a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young show is a little like being shocked over the rampant body-slamming at a WWE event. What did they expect? Still, CSNY: Déjà Vu includes a kind of running dialogue across both sides of the political divide, with critics and pundits from the left and right voicing strong opinions about the tour and the war in general. Young intends to show a country divided, but the noise bleeds as if this was a cable-TV shoutfest. and the music isn't much of a relief either, mostly because Young keeps cutting away from the performances. He has an agenda to follow, and agendas aren't usually conducive to great art.