The script for Neil Young's first feature-length film, Greendale, comes, naturally enough, from a cycle of songs the beloved rocker wrote about the Green family, a middle-class clan struggling with the complexities of the modern world in rural northern California. Released first as an album of the same name and then toured as a stage show, the film -- which opens at the Orpheum Theatre this week -- deviates from the commercial norm in a variety of ways.
One of the most intriguing is Young's use of song lyrics to drive the narrative and supply all the dialogue. Shifting easily from one appropriately ragged, country-inflected tune to another, Young and his band Crazy Horse sing the necessary words, and the mostly amateur actors (including several members of Young's family) lip-synch when the director deems it appropriate to do so. Combined with the grainy, naturalistic Super-8 images, the Greens' music-backed saga has an appealing, just-plain-folks feel about it. The Greens could really be any middle American family that's been nearly overwhelmed by drugs, media saturation and a changing political and economic system that sacrifices everything for the sake of the bottom line.
The film's heroine is Sun Green, an idealistic high school girl who blossoms into a proactive environmentalist as her uncle Jed is jailed for shooting a police officer and her grandfather is killed in the media frenzy that follows. While her name may seem obvious and her exploits brazenly symbolic (she chains herself to the enormous gilded eagle in the offices of the demonic energy corporation Powerco), Sun's story gains considerable power from the steady, grooving pace of Young's music and his reliance on a simple visual style that makes good use of a hand-held camera. Audiences at theaters with lesser sound systems may have difficulty following the action, but at the Orpheum screening I attending, Young's lyrics were easily understandable.
If Greendale looks a little like a color version of a Jim Jarmusch project, that's no accident. Jarmusch employed Young's original soundtrack on Dead Man and later documented the rocker's amplified work with Crazy Horse in Year of the Horse, an atypical concert film that captured the rawness of Young's live performance. Young says the look of the latter film made an especially strong impression on him.
"Year of the Horse was on Super-8, too," he says over the phone during a break from his current American tour. "Super-8's a great thing. And Jim likes long scenic shots with music, which I've always loved. He's just got a great way of making a picture."
Contrasting the more natural look of Super-8 with carefully chosen news-crew video of Grandpa Green, Young also uses the smaller film format to make a statement about media manipulation. "It's saying to people that slick doesn't matter," he says firmly. "It's meaningless. Content is what we really are."
As for the film's message, Young says he's definitely taking on the new, corporate version of America that's emerged during the current Bush presidency, just as former Democratic candidate John Edwards did in his now famous "Two Americas" stump speech. "That was a great speech," says Young. "It was about real life, and this film is about real life in this little town, and it's not really made up. It's about things that could happen and things that are happening, and these people are going through them and reacting to the change that's going on about them."
With only brief runs in most markets, Greendale is unlikely to reap big profits. But Young doesn't care. Indeed, the fact that he's already received good press and pats on the back from the independent film community is reward enough. "You know, it's already expanded far beyond what I thought it would be," he says before breaking off to rest his voice. "And I really feel very gratified by the fact that the film community has accepted it. I'm sure I love making films as much as they do."