The series "Shakey Fest: The Films of Neil Young" begins Thursday with the local premiere of the director's cut of the eccentric rarity "Human Highway." "Human Highway," which is screening at the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz (with the rest of the series at the Cinefamily), premiered in 1982 and has been seen only sporadically since.
It was around midnight on a rainy Wednesday in September and Young had just unveiled the new cut of "Human Highway" during the Toronto International Film Festival. He was tucked into a corner of a Toronto diner across the street from Massey Hall, site of a seminal 1971 live recording, as he spoke about his filmmaking.
"My films are not super-commercial, but they mean something to me," he said.
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Though not nearly as prolific a filmmaker as he is a songwriter, Young has been making films throughout his career, usually working under the nom de cinema of Bernard Shakey. Besides "Human Highway," other Shakey pictures to be featured in the five-night series include 1974's "Journey Through the Past," 1979's "Rust Never Sleeps," 1987's "Muddy Track," 2003's "Greendale," 2012's "A Day at the Gallery" and the new "The Monsanto Years." Also showing will be Jonathan Demme's 2009 "Neil Young Trunk Show" and Hal Ashby's extremely rare 1984 "Solo Trans."
Though many of the movies in the series are relatively straightforward concert documents, "Human Highway," is more of a fictional film with some musical elements. The new wave band Devo appears for a dazzling rendition of "It Takes a Worried Man" and later accompanies Young on a scorching version of his "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)."
Much of the film was shot on soundstages at L.A'.s Raleigh Studios, with Young specifically wanting the sets to look like full-size renditions of model train sets. The scenes have an off-kilter feeling like a slapstick "Twin Peaks" or a radioactive rendition of "The Wizard of Oz."
A cast that includes Dean Stockwell (originally credited as co-director), Russ Tamblyn, Charlotte Stewart, Sally Kirkland and Dennis Hopper makes up the population of Linear Valley, a small community in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. Young takes on the roles of both young auto mechanic Lionel Switch and dissolute rock star Frankie Fontaine. Longtime Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn makes a brief cameo.
It had long bothered Young that "Human Highway" was out of circulation, but more so, as he put it, that the film hadn't been "maximized." After both the original cinematographer, David Myers, and Young's longtime associate Larry "L.A." Johnson both died in the last few years, Young felt a sudden urgency to return to the project.
"When we lost Larry, I said, 'The thing's got to get done, I've got to finish this,'" said Young. "It's a great relief to finish this. Time marches on, and I didn't want to leave it unfinished and certainly didn't want anybody else to finish it. I wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it and get it done. And I did that."
As for Shakey himself, Young's mysterious filmmaker alter ego, Young was playfully circumspect on when or whether he might next appear.
"Hard to say. He's been keeping a low profile," he said. "I don't think he enjoys the business that much. He likes making films, but he's very cheap. We do the best we can with him.
"Now that Larry Johnson's not here anymore, I have to deal with Bernard all by myself. He's better left alone. But if he shows up, we'll know."
'Shakey Fest: The Films of Neil Young'
When: Thursday to Monday
Where: The Vista Theatre (Thursday) and the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre
Cost: $16 at the Vista, $12 at the Cinefamily. (Free to Cinefamily members.)