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Greendale

(2003) directed by Bernard Shakey

Neil Young is my favorite musician; I own over 40 of his albums. So, when Greendale came to Atlanta, I had to go see it. Why? It's a Neil Young concept piece. It's written by him. The music is by him. The cinematograhy is by him. Even the direction is by him–yes, Bernard Shakey is Neil Young. Virtually the only thing Young does not do is act in it.

Notice that I called it a "concept piece," instead of a movie. That's intentional. Basically, the entire film is Neil Young's latest album, Greendale, played in its entirety while actors act out the characters. In the rare moments when dialogue occurs, the actors lip-synch what Young sings. It's a weird effect–it feels both artsy and amateurish. Furthermore, the entire thing is recorded with an 8-mm camera that gives it the grainy coat of old home movies.

The story too is suspect. Each of the nine songs that make up the film begin with a hand-drawn map of Greendale, an imaginary small-town in northern California. An annoyingly-unfocused camera meanders around until it settles on the setting for the song. Upon arriving and focusing, the map dissolves into reality; actually, this is coolest effect in this low-budget project. The songs themselves focus on the lives of the Greene family and those surrounding them. I could talk about the plot, but it wouldn't be useful. It's too strange (i.e. the Devil actually lives in Greendale) to suspend reality and too simple to be analyzed cerebrally. Like Bertolt Brecht's musical, The Threepenny Opera, the meaning of the piece is not in the plot but in the themes of the individual songs. Most have some kind of "slightly left of Ralph Nader" message about love, protecting the planet, and avoiding the evils of the world. Neil Young is one of the last proud hippies standing.

Now, if you've gotten the impression that I might not be too fond of the movie, you're correct; it's a wretched movie. As a concept piece however, I kinda dig it. These characters and their lives were dreamt up by Young. He believes what they stand for and clearly had a blast bringing his dreams to life. As a piece of visual film-making, Greendale fails miserably. As a visual compliment to a solid piece of music storytelling, it succeeds. I listen to Greendale differently after seeing this film.

Neil Young has gone on the road to support the movie and the album. During these concerts, actors mimic the parts as Young sings. So, if you saw Neil Young in concert in 2003/04, you probably got all of Greendale instead of the highlight reel that most musicians of his tenure deliver in concerts. This has frustrated the casual fan; I can hear them moan, "c'mon, play Cinnamon Girl." You have to feel a bit sorry for them for wasting all that money. On second thought, no you don't. Greendale, the concept piece, is Young creating art in the best way he knows how–on the edge. If Neil Young can still turn out genuine art, then we should cherish him even if a good live rendition of "Cinnamon Girl" would make us smile. Perhaps he'll play it as an encore.

Overall, Greendale gets a 2 out of 10 on the good movie scale for being an amateurish art-flick. It receives an 8 out of 10 on the bad movie scale for the grin of satisfaction I had after seeing a genuine passionate piece of art by one of my favorite artists.