Neil Young gave us the best description of himself and his music in the title of his 1968 song “I Am A Child.” The magic and genius of Neil Young is that the child-like sense of wonder and fun never left him or his music. Not then, not now (listen to his superbly weird new album Earth for proof of that) and certainly not in 1978 when he filmed Rust Never Sleeps and began principle filming of Human Highway. Both of these films are direct references to Young’s childhood. They are depictions of a man-child adrift in a confusing world of corrupt adult motivations. Neil sees himself as a little boy alone in an oversized world of dangerous machines and corrupt values. He wields his guitar and his voice (like the sharp cutting tools they are) against the inconsistencies and absurdities of the world: environmental genocide, slimy record label creeps, military-industrial capitalists, even the double-edged sword of his own fame. The movies outwardly seem like they are totally different, but a close look shows them to be two views of the same scene.
Human Highway was ultimately released in 1982 to little or no fanfare. It was given a brief art-house and midnight movie run and then essentially shelved for a long time. The negative public and critical reception at the time of its release is not surprising because it is a kaleidoscopic mash-up of ideas and images loosely held together with a cartoonish plot about a small town loser named Lionel Switch who…does some stuff and uh, meets some people and uh….yeah - what happens doesn’t really matter because the overall effect of the movie is that of an 80 minute MTV-style video starring Young, Devo and a number of Hollywood B-listers, (Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell, Sally Kirkland) romping around colorful sets and singing weird songs and making vaguely political statements about nuclear energy and dangerous militarism during the heart of the cold war. The movie is actually quite entertaining if you like Neil Young, and possibly unbearable if you don’t. Although there are a few set pieces like the hilarious “Worried Man Blues” or Neil and Devo performing a wild version of “Hey Hey, My My,” the movie’s real value is as a backdrop to Rust Never Sleeps, the concert documentary Young was filming at the same time he was working on Human Highway.
Upon release, Rust Never Sleeps was universally acclaimed as one of the best concert movies ever made and absolutely nothing has happened in the ensuing 38 years to do anything but enhance that reputation. It remains a completely riveting portrait of an artist at the height of his creativity; simultaneously reveling in past glory and coming to grips with the historical crossroads that will place him directly in the crosshairs of a cultural battle.
Like many of his generation, Neil Young was viewed with skepticism by the punk rock world, and in turn the baby boom generation that Young had so eloquently represented in his earlier years cast a suspicious eye on the nihilistic tendencies of the punks. But unlike so many others, Young did not shy away from the subject, writing an anthem for that crossroads generation, “Hey Hey, My My” (“Out Of The Blue/Into The Black”), which challenged them (and himself) to either get into it or get out of the way. It was bold and a little shocking to many longtime listeners. He also imbued his latest music, highlighted in the movie, with a manic punk-like energy fans had never seen before. Songs like “Sedan Delivery,” “Welfare Mothers” and “Hey Hey, My My” scream with a fury that belies Young’s status as one of the major figures of mellow contemporary rock. In fact every aspect of the performances in this movie show an artist ready to move forward instead of rely on past glory. Even many of his most iconic songs like “Tonight’s The Night,” “When You Dance,” “The Loner” and especially “Cortez The Killer” are given a reinvigorated treatment.
Rust Never Sleeps doesn’t only succeed as a concert documentary, it is also a high concept film with the narrative again revolving around Neil’s own view of himself as a child in a grown-up world. The normal stage gear: amplifiers, tuners, microphones etc. are all covered with oversized prop versions of themselves which dwarf the band. Neil himself opens the show lying on top of an amplifier in a giant sleeping bag like a kid waking up in the back yard. The set is peppered with gags about being a child, and soundbites from the movie, Woodstock, which further the agenda of a little boy lost in an oversized environment. From the opening acoustic strums of “Sugar Mountain” and “I Am A Child” through to the final crunching riffs of “Like A Hurricane” and “Tonight’s The Night,” Neil and Crazy Horse deliver like never before. It is an absolute primer on why Neil Young is so great.
Taken as bookends to Neil’s momentous 1978, these two movies present one of the strongest arguments for creative freedom. Given control of his own destiny, Neil Young was able to produce a lasting monument to growth and the creative process.
- Paul Epstein