Greendale

Being a Neil Young fan is a bumpy ride, strewn with peaks and potholes, with each head-scratching disaster just a breath away from the next masterpiece. Who could have guessed that his infamous stretch of duds in the new-wave '80s—which prompted his label, Geffen, to sue him for "fraud and deceit"—would end with Freedom, a towering statement of purpose in the wake of the Reagan era? Lately, Young's muse has been idling through a run of respectable albums, including Silver & Gold, Are You Passionate?, and the mediocre concept album Greendale, none of which has exactly set the world on fire. But true to form, Young lays a big fat egg with his dreadful film adaptation of Greendale, which reveals his seemingly ambitious vision of a fictional town in northern California to be far punier than listeners might imagine. Shot by Young himself on 8mm and blown up to a pea-soup grain, this so-called "musical novel" simply runs through the album's tracks and presents a literal interpretation of the story, with characters lip-synching the vocals. Much like Lars von Trier's latest, Dogville, Greendale feels like Our Town, updated to include some millennial politicking on terrorism, globalization, and the environment. But apart from some crude appearances by the media, the suits, and other incarnations of The Man, Young's tapestry looks more like a quilt, covering only the goings-on at a family farmhouse rocked by cascading tragedies. Though the saga begins on an optimistic note with "Falling From Above" ("a little love and affection / in everything you do / makes the world a better place"), matters take a turn when a cousin (Eric Johnson) guns down a local police officer. As the town grieves and camera crews swarm the homestead like vultures, the pressure becomes too much for the family's aging patriarch (Ben Keith), who drops dead of a heart attack while angrily confronting a TV reporter. Yet from tragedy springs hope: The old man's idealistic granddaughter (Sarah White) becomes a leftist activist, first taking on a corporate conglomerate, then hitchhiking to Alaska to save the wilderness from oil concerns. Meanwhile, the Devil cavorts about in a red suit and matching tennis shoes, mugging like Tom Arnold at his hammiest. Backed by his longtime compadres in Crazy Horse, Young's songs stretch into a lazy sprawl, dragged out by the awkward burden of having to tell a story with the lyrics. Only in the powerful final track, "Be The Rain," does Young whip the album and the film into something inspired and forceful, because he no longer has to move the narrative forward. But by then, there's no forgiving the home-movie slackness of Greendale for its numbing dearth of imagination.

More Movie Review