Greendale Movie Review: Neil Young's Uplifting Musical Novel

The songs are very good and their sum is better than the individual parts.
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In 2003, Neil Young released Greendale, a concept album, or what he called a "musical novel" that found him backed by Crazy Horse.  Young didn't stop there though. He also directed (under his Bernard Shakey psuedonym) a long form video to accompany the music.

The story is about the Green family who live in Greendale, a fictional town in Northern California. The audience meets Grandpa, who reflects on the problems of the world. He is so aware that he's even able to comment on the narrator of the story. As Grandpa reads the paper one morning, he reveals that with "a little love and affection/ In everything you do/ Will make the would a better place." However, life is not as wonderful and rosy as those sentiments indicate. We learn this as we meet the rest of the clan: Earl Green, a frustrated artist; his daughter, Sun, who wants to save the planet; and their cousin Jed, who looks a lot like the devil.

The film was shot in Super-8mm and blown up to 35mm so it has an extremely grainy look. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but the music and story are so compelling that the visuals and effects don't distract as much as they could. It's like watching the cheap special effects on the wonderfully written, British science-fiction program Doctor Who.

But then there's an artistic choice that I felt was a mistake. When the media descend on the Greens' home to interview them about Jed's killing of a police officer, they cut to the POV of a news camera. The picture is crystal clear as if it was shot on HD video. The transition is jarring and really stands out compared to the blurry blown-up Super-8, reminding us how good images can look, before we are left with the blur again. But then the music and story take hold again.

Like all good musicals, which in a sense this film is, it's the strength of the songs over anything else that makes it work. They are very good and their sum is better than the individual parts. Young has created some interesting stories. He sings the narration and all the character's parts. The actors lip-synch the songs and Young creates different personalities with subtle changes in his voice. The message of Greendale's story is uplifting and so is the notion that Young had something positive to say and was willing to share it at a time when most of the culture focuses on negative aspects.

The music is the electric rock 'n' roll that we've come to expect from Neil Young: a loud, fuzzy guitar that matches the visuals. The amazing power and staying rhythm of Crazy Horse strengthens his singing and playing, and it allows his guitar to solo yet still stay grounded. I found myself tapping my foot throughout the whole movie.

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