Neil Young on 'CSNY/DÃ©jÃ Vu'
Tom Huddleston asks musician Neil Young about how his filmmaking alter-ego likes to shake things up
One of the least heralded names in cinema must be that of Bernard Shakey – director, cameraman, movie mogul and alter-ego of legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young. With new tour documentary ‘CSNY/Déjà Vu’ under his belt, Young is happier than ever to talk about the chequered career and promising future of his maverick, camera-slinging split personality.
Shakey was born in the early ’70s, as Young’s solo career was beginning to take off. ‘I really wanted to do something other than music,’ he tells me. ‘I thought I might burn out. I was only 23, 24 years old, I had a lot of energy and I thought I might start making music that was no good just because I didn’t know what else to do.’
His first assignment, rambling documentary essay ‘Journey Through the Past’ (1974), has remained lost for decades. ‘I did the editing on “Journey” myself’, Young tells me. ‘So that was a great education for me. I did a lot of the legwork and a lot of the shooting. I studied with (‘Woodstock’ cameraman) David Myers, he was my mentor. So I learned a lot of different parts of filmmaking to enable me to be a director who knew what he was doing.’
The next Shakey Pictures release was far more accomplished: classic concert film ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (1979). But things took a bizarre turn: Young’s only ‘straight’ fiction film, improvised eco-comedy ‘Human Highway’ (1982), stars Dean Stockwell, Young himself and the group Devo as a gang of radioactive nuclear technicians who run riot in a small town. Young is frank about the film’s unconventional production.
‘I couldn’t explain what I was doing. I didn’t have a script. I didn’t want a script. I wanted a framework for people to improvise around, with talking points for them and characters to develop. I’m a big advocate of improvising, and I think if you get the right people you can do a really good job with it.
‘We had a lot of interesting people working on that picture. One of our grips was Kevin Costner. One of the guys working on the sound turned out to be Slash from Guns N’ Roses. I think that when “Human Highway” comes out in its Blu-ray edition it’s going to have a little moment in the sun. It’s a beautiful looking picture. I’m really proud of it – it’s kind of a kinky, weird little movie but I think it has its place.’
Another tour documentary followed, the grungy, still unreleased ‘Muddy Track’ (1987), which Young insists will be included in his forthcoming ‘Archives’ compilation of music and film. In another strange career choice, the singer next took a cameo in Alan Rudolph’s oddball romcom ‘Made in Heaven’ (1987). But he snorts at the suggestion he might return to acting. ‘That’s the last offer I ever got. I suppose I wouldn’t mind if I got a part I could do well. I have friends who are doing projects which I may have a shot at.’
Skating over painfully literal eco-musical ‘Greendale’ (2003), we come to ‘Déjà Vu’, the most proficient film in the Shakey canon. The film documents Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s explosive US tour in 2006, performing songs of protest to an audience numbed by years of war, misrule and 24-hour cable news. Young even bedded down with the enemy, recruiting ABC newsman Michael Cerre to join him on the road. ‘I asked him if he would like to be embedded in our tour rather than go back to Iraq or Afghanistan. Just check us out, see what we were doing, see what America was up to, how they’d respond.’
America responded vocally, excoriating Young for his strident political stance: the band received death threats all through the South, though little of this finds its way into the film. ‘We were aware of what was happening because we’d seen the bomb-sniffing dogs and we knew that they were checking out my room before I went into it. But we just dealt with it. I didn’t want to introduce it into the subject matter of the film,
I wanted to focus on the soldiers, the Americans living with war and what it was like for them to listen to this music.’
Fired up by ‘Déjà Vu’, Young intends to keep using movies to articulate his personal politics. ‘I’m working on a film called “Linc-Volt”. It’s about repowering the American dream, about building a car that doesn’t have to stop at refuelling stations. My 1959 Lincoln Continental, which used to get ten miles to the gallon, now doesn’t even have to stop. And we’re documenting the development process. It’s a labour of love for me, I’m totally into not only the film but the process, the technology, working with the science and the engineers.’
But for such a cinematic songwriter, surely a return to fiction is possible?
‘If I ever made a film that was like one of my big songs, I’d be way out there, I’d be somewhere in the Fellini area. I’d love to do that because I love the stream of consciousness, ideas and music all at once. I love making abstracts and I think that’s probably where my heart is.’
‘CSNY/Déjà Vu’ is in cinemas now. www.csny-dejavu.com
Author: Tom Huddleston
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