'Greendale'

Neil Young has turned his self-described musical novel "Greendale" into an unapologetically personal and passionately political film that brings the album to life in a way that transcends the traditional long-form music video and defies easy categorization.

The movie version of "Greendale" reflects Young's intention of returning to a simpler, less distracted way of working musically and succeeds in creating a hybrid that is noteworthy for its uniqueness.


FOR THE RECORD: "Greendale" editor —In the Feb. 27 Calendar section, a review of the film "Greendale" mistakenly stated that editor Toshi Onuki was a pseudonym for director Neil Young. Onuki is a San Francisco-based video artist who edited "Greendale."


Beginning by stripping down his own way of making records, Young found himself writing songs that told a story. Not a single story, actually, but many stories, all set in the town of Greendale, centering on the extended Green family.

The fictitious locale with its strong Northern California flavor is nestled on the cinematic landscape somewhere between the true-believer sincerity of John Sayles and the oddball eeriness of David Lynch. Young's own sense of community is strong as he lays out this seemingly idyllic town of farmers, fishermen and artists, with each song serving as a chapter, introduced by a hand-drawn map of Greendale, that clarifies the filmmaker's intentions as it proceeds. Less a linear narrative and more a crazy quilt of intertwined character sketches, "Greendale" unfolds in a vaguely unsettling way as things sometimes make sense only deep into the movie (or with repeat viewings).

From the opening scenes of Grandpa Green (Ben Keith) dispensing wisdom on the porch to cousin Jed (Eric Johnson) during the song "Falling From Above," there is a satisfyingly languid pace that evokes strong empathy for the characters. In the same way people you meet sometimes become the most important people in your life, characters introduced unceremoniously in the film become more significant as the songs play out.

The leisurely tempo also distracts us from the passage of time as the Greens face major changes in the world and in themselves. The fact that the characters speak no dialogue apart from occasionally lip-syncing song lyrics as Young and his band Crazy Horse tear through the 10 songs on the film's soundtrack only enhances the slightly mysterious way they enter our consciousness.

There is an uninflected, voyeuristic quality to watching the nonprofessional actors who are mainly friends, neighbors and cohorts of the filmmaker. These performers, particularly Sarah White, who plays the granddaughter, Sun Green, bring an authentic, unaffected charm to the film even though we never hear their voices.

Directing under his longtime nom de camera, Bernard Shakey, and editing under another pseudonym, Toshi Onuki, Young has developed something that is the antithesis of slick, and visually embraces both the folk and punk sides of his distinctive sound.

The contrast of Young's sweet, comforting warble and the occasional screech and twang of his music is echoed in the vibrantly colorful home-movie feel of what is on screen as it morphs into surrealistically grainy tableaux.

Technically crude by Hollywood or even film-school standards, "Greendale," owes much of its aesthetic to being shot with a $500 German underwater Super-8 camera, then blown up to 35 millimeter for its theatrical release. The tremulous, hand-held camerawork, most of it by Young, who also acted as cinematographer, serves the film's folk-art sensibility.

No stranger to filmmaking, Young has made movies for his own amusement and more ambitious projects such as the concert films "Journey Through the Past" and "Rust Never Sleeps" and the apocalyptic "Human Highway."

Young frames his images like slightly shaky still-lifes in which movement just happens to occur. The natural grain of the blowup produces an organic-food version of Technicolor in which greens and browns and oranges are the palette of choice. Gray skies cast uneasy shadows across the rich landscape, giving way to the darkest of nights in which houses appear to be on fire as their interior lights give off an infernal glow.

If film had feedback, it would look like this.

The familiar image of Young, with his mutton-chop sideburns and straw-like hair sticking out from under his trucker's cap, is seldom in evidence here. The singer-songwriter is glimpsed only twice, once playing "Wayne Newton" and again moving about with his camera during the rockin' Brechtian finale, but the film is completely of a piece with his 40-year music career.

Young would be the first to point out that "Greendale" isn't new territory for him thematically. It dwells on ideas that have always interested him: the significance of friends and family, the environment, the destruction of nature, artistic integrity, corporate greed, the importance of activism, and the resistance to change. What he does here is approach those ideas in new ways in a new form.

Preferring the handmade item over the seamless, mass-produced model, and the resonance of the vinyl LP to the sterility of the CD, Young has channeled this sensibility and fashioned a determinedly low-fi movie. He's like a pastry chef who refuses to frost over his mistakes, concerned with flavor rather than looks.

By the time "Greendale" reaches its rousing crescendo with the anthem "Be the Rain" and Young and Crazy Horse have blown off the barn doors, the Canadian-born artist has crafted one genuinely tasty slice of Americana.

'Greendale'MPAA rating: UnratedTimes guidelines: Mild language in the song lyricsSarah White...Sun GreenEric Johnson...Jed Green/DevilBen Keith...Grandpa GreenErik Markegard...Earth BrownElizabeth Keith...Grandma Green A Shakey Pictures presentation. Director Bernard Shakey. Producer L.A. Johnson. Executive producer Elliot Rabinowitz. Cinematographer Neil Young. Editor Toshi Onuki. Music Neil Young, performed by Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Art direction Gary Burden, Jenice Heo, James Mazzeo, Eric Johnson. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. Exclusively at the Landmark Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 281-8223, and Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818. Neil Young will appear tonight at the Nuart for the 7:30 and 9:45 shows.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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