A bargain-basement musical extravaganza directed by Neil Young under his nom de wobble Bernard Shakey, Greendale is the season’s least expected avant-pop funk-fest—blown up from Super 8, entirely post-dubbed, and splendiferously primitive.
Young’s last project along these lines was the self-conscious concert doc Rust Never Sleeps. Here, he appears only fleetingly, with his recent song cycle—part topical protest, part garage-rock cantata—lip-synched by the cast in lieu of dialogue. Greendale opens in rural America with Grandpa Green (Ben Keith) sitting on the porch reading about government snoopery, then mouthing a “song for freedom.” Inside, granddaughter Sun (Sarah White) watches disasters on TV, then dances around in her room, imagining the summer of love. But it’s evil that has come to Greendale. The town is haunted by TV images of John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge, and the Devil (Eric Johnson), a strutting sharpie in matching red sports coat and shoes, manages to incite the murder of a cop.
Less a feature-length music video than an epic home movie, Greendale comes wrapped in flannel and wearing a baseball cap. Young’s characters drive big old American cars through a Northwestern landscape all the more sad and lovely for being filtered through a soft fog of grain. The supreme composer of rock ‘n’ roll dirges, Young displaces much of his angst onto the visuals. After Grandpa ODs on unwelcome media attention, Sun turns activist. Her anti-war crop patterns and fiery speeches—key phrases sung by Young through a megaphone—land her on network news, although as she blows off steam with an exultant barroom boogie, FBI agents invade her room, plant pot, and shoot her cat.
Young’s Our Town schematics and eco-libertarian, flag-waving anti-Bushism might strike some as naive, but Greendale is a triumph of three-chord energy. The driving Crazy Horse backbeat achieves an entranced Sufi-like climax with a post-9-11 chorus of fist-waving cops and firemen swaying behind Sun, and Young’s disembodied voice exhorting all to save the planet and “be the rain.”