"Homespun" is the first word that leaps in while contemplating Young's charming and moving treatise on provincial America and its deceptively simple denizens. Here we have a collection of rough, rootsy, midtempo rock songs (performed with Crazy Horse) that became Young's latest album, which expanded into this film, which have now morphed into a traveling show, all of which are soon to become a book. Each offers a path into the eponymous town, and all of it feels like Young is personally sitting down with you to share his local and global perspectives over a big slab of coffee cake.
The loose, character-rich story involves the Green family, ranging from pony-tailed patriarch Grandpa (earnest Ben Keith) and his thoughtful wife (spirited Elizabeth Keith) through a couple of generations to feisty teen Sun Green (dynamite Sarah White). We open on what apparently passes for bucolic splendor nowadays, with Grandpa and his grandson, Sun's cousin Jed (Eric Johnson, who doubles here as the devil, and triples as Young's tour manager), reading the paper on the porch of the Double-E Rancho (formerly the Double-L; a sticking point with the locals). Grandpa encourages his charge to employ "a little love and affection in everything you do," but it's also clear that the path to hell winds right through the sticks. This particular homestead, just outside Greendale proper, is owned by Sun's parents, Edith and struggling painter Earl (Pegi Young and James Mazzeo), and very soon we realize that these congenial white people and their setting are about to be rocked in unexpected ways.
For one, when all of them open their mouths, Neil Young's voice comes out. Weird? Oh, heck yeah. But one does accommodate this lip-synching conceit surprisingly quickly, owing to both the songs' loping, conversational quality and Young's obvious commitment to his cast and craft. (The track called "Bandit" is one of the greatest songs in the history of songs, and "Be the Rain" kicks serious ass.) Thus, Greendale is sort of a musical, a bit like a rock video album of yesteryear, and it has even been likened to a marriage of Thornton Wilder and John Lennon. More to the point, imagine a collaboration between David Byrne (True Stories) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet). Or, especially given its trenchant consideration of Smalltown, USA, and media madness, think of Greendale as a kissing cousin to the truly fabulous Shock Treatment, the black sheep sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
One must hand it to Young for his ambitious achievement. Acting as cinematographer to the film's credited director (Young's alter ego, Bernard Shakey), the rocker shot the whole sprawling movie over a three-week period in and around his stomping grounds in Northern California--on Super-8 film! In this age of beer commercials budgeted at a mil or more, this impressionistic-by-default cinematic method demands some aesthetic adjustment on the part of the audience. Greendale is definitely an art film, and sometimes barely that. But you know, while most of the world's critics are struggling to dislodge their tongues from Sofia Coppola's backside, hallelujah for a truly independent film made on a real DIY budget.
Although there's plenty to nitpick here (conspicuously glued-on newspaper headlines that don't even stay glued on!) and one could find more scintillating cinematic cities to explore (Wings of Desire's Berlin, another apt comparison), Greendale grows richer the more one visits it. Sure, the Film School 101 pantomiming is occasionally cringe-worthy, but Young's dramatic archetypes are sharp. When cousin Jed steps afoul of the law and favored local cop Carmichael (Paul Suplee) pays the price, a media storm (shepherded in part by living legend Russ Tamblyn) descends upon the Greens, and the town's apple-pie sweetness turns tart.
At the forefront of these changes is young Sun, who sheds her cheerleader identity to become an environmental activist along the lines of the name-checked Julia "Butterfly" Hill. True to his '60s idealism, Young shapes her as a "goddess" in the "planet war," but it's not pointless posturing and fighting but her humanity and art that turn rousing, even for the non-hippies in attendance. By the time she and her beau Earth Brown (Erik Markegard) are literally racing to beat the devil to what remains of Alaska, and Young's voice rages through her bullhorn, it's impossible not to feel involved on a fundamental level. There's plenty more to be felt in Neil Young's Greendale, the result here being that this critic has become a fan.