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Movie review: 'Greendale'

Chicago Tribune Movie Critic

2 stars (out of 4)

Neil Young's "Greendale" is an odd but sometimes lovable little mixture of great rock 'n' roll and charmingly primitive filmmaking. In 10 new Young songs, accompanied by images, the movie tells the story of a beleaguered all-American family in a small California town coping with the perils of today: drugs, media excess, corporate crimes and ecological disaster.

The family are the Greens of Greendale, a mythical clan and town invented by Young and portrayed by nonprofessional music mates, old friends, family and, on occasion, by Young himself as "Wayne Newton." Watching them fight the power and lip-synch Young's songs is a strange but spirit-raising experience.

The movie was invented to accompany Young's new album (also called "Greendale") and most recent concert tour, and it's something of a one-man effort. Young did almost everything on his film: writing the song-cycle script, singing and playing the soundtrack with his longtime band Crazy Horse, photographing it (under his own name), and directing and editing it as well (under the assumed names "Bernard Shakey" and "Toshi Onuki").

What he shows us are a scandal, a tragedy and a crusade. After the deceptively halcyon opening, set to the song "Falling from Above," we see outlaw nephew and druggie Jed Green (played by Eric Harris, who also appears as a hammy Devil) break Greendale's peace by killing a cop and getting busted. Then, defiant Grandpa and Grandma Green (Ben and Elizabeth Keith) are assaulted by intrusive TV hounds, and Grandpa dies on the porch of a media-induced heart attack.All of this spurs heroine granddaughter Sun (Sarah White) into a battle with corporate villains ("PowerCo") and ecological marauders, until she finally heads for Alaska to mount a movement - bringing down the house and the movie with Young's climactic rendition of his rousing ecological anthem "Be the Rain."

"Be the Rain" should stir your soul, especially if you were around during the social hubbub of the '60s and '70s. But inevitably the one-man band approach (rivaled in recent movies only by Robert Rodriguez ) produces mixed results. You couldn't call "Greendale" a great movie - or even, in most ways, a good one - even though there's something raffishly lovable about the way it's made.

The story's primitivism and Young's excellent musicianship - that wonderfully melancholy voice and knife-sharp guitar - are undermined by the borderline technical work and the non-acting of most of the cast. (They simply mouth the words to the lyrical conversations Young sings.)

In a way, the results are comically awful. If you walk into this movie knowing nothing of Young and his music, you may think you'd blundered into some home movie being run with the radio turned up. But since "Greendale" is really Young's total creation, and since the music itself is so good, this raggedy little movie begins to cast a spell, just like Bob Dylan's self-directed "Renaldo and Clara" or The Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour."

Cinematographer Young has a good, if fuzzy, eye. And the childlike maps and chapter headings are interesting. Best of all, "Greendale" wafts us back to what now seems a simpler, gentler time: the social activist haze of the late '60s and early '70s, that era when youth really thought it could change the world, and post-'80s cynicism and defeatism hadn't yet seized newer generations. So I loved part of it almost despite myself.

When the crashing chords and defiant lyrics of "Be the Rain" close things out, there's a burst of idealism and energy that redeems everything. If you see "Greendale," treat the movie charitably and dig the music.

Directed by Bernard Shakey (Neil Young); written and photographed by Young; edited by Toshi Onuki (Young); production designed by Gary Burden, Jenice Heo, James Mazzeo, Eric Johnson; songs by Young; music by Young and Crazy Horse; music produced by Young, L.A. Johnson; film produced by Johnson. A Shakey Pictures presentation; opens Friday, March 12. Running time: 1:23. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for drug references and mild violence).
Sun Green - Sarah White
Jed Green/Devil - Eric Johnson
Grandpa Green - Ben Keith
Earth Brown - Erik Markegard
Grandma Green - Elizabeth Keith
Wayne Newton - Bernard Shakey (Young)

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