The 80-minute film, shot on 35mm and 16mm on a California soundstage, was self-funded mostly by Young because they just couldn't get it backed.
"It was ridiculous to explain it and we had no script that we could point to to say, 'This is worth hundreds and thousands of dollars,' so finally we just made it, just rented the place for a month or so," Young told the TIFF audience at the Elgin Theatre after the screening.
In Human Highway, glowing red flies, an owl, radioactive garbagemen, Booji Boy, a dream sequence, a singing waitress, sausage disputes and more figure into a tale about a group of small-town oddballs in Linear Valley who work at a gas station/diner not far from a nuclear power plant. The one-day adventure is surreal, absurd, slapstick, musical and cryptically ominous.
Songs include "We R in Control," "Sample and Hold," "Transformer Man," "Computer Cowboy" and "Mr. Soul," all from Young's 1982 electronic-influenced album Trans. There's also Rust Never Sleeps' "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)," played with Devo and Booji Boy on lead vocals, and a Booji Boy version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" ("The answer is sticking out your rear," is one of the new lyrics).
"The soundtrack to the movie is just like the kind of music that they were listening to in the future or past or whenever it was -- a lot of machines. Machines were singing to them," Young said.
In the film, Young plays a dorky car mechanic who longs for waitress Charlotte (played by Eraserhead's Charlotte Stewart). His best mate is volunteer gas station attendant Fred Kelly (song and dance man Russ Tamblyn). Their penny-pinching boss is Otto Quartz (actor Dean Stockwell, also the film's co-director) and the fly-swatting short-order cook Cracker is none other than Dennis Hopper (who also plays the character Strangler). Neil's now-estranged wife Pegi Young has a cameo as a biker chick, and his real-life manager Elliot Roberts has a turn as the snooty British manager of Lionel's favorite rock star, Frankie Fontaine (played by Young). Confused yet?
To add perfectly to the weirdness, the nuclear garbagemen are Devo's Jerry Casale, Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh and Alan Myers, including the band's creepy child-mask mascot Booji Boy (played by Mark), who recites odd lines in his trademark falsetto.
So what inspired Young to write and direct this strange fiction three decades ago? He had directed 1974's Journey Through the Past and 1979's Rust Never Sleeps by then and went on to do 2003's Greendale and 2008's CSNY/Déjà Vu under his pseudonym, Bernard Shakey, which he also is credited under on Human Highway, as well as his real name.
"There was a big picture of complacency, just how people saw everything but they just dealt with it as being reality and no one really questioned what was going on," Young said. "So in these goofy people's lives in our little corner of Linear Valley -- where they never left for the whole thing; nobody ever went anywhere; they never did anything -- they just came and had lunch and left and fueled up, had a little roadwork done, natural things going on, day to day.
"But all through it, [there was] just a complacency of things that were weird they just lived with, that they just kept ignoring and ignoring until finally it just couldn't be ignored anymore," he said, before dropping a major SPOILER. "And they are all dead. It's not really about nuclear power or anything like that; it's more everything, all of those things. There are so many things that we all see and we just live with. So now I think it's time to not do that and start really making some noise."
Roberts, who joined Young onstage after the premiere, alongside Stewart and Casale, said it was a thrill to make Human Highway at that time when nuclear power was a big issue. "To actually have a piece where Neil tried to say something, and it was actually very anti-establishment when we did it, and that's probably the reason why we didn't get any distribution. It couldn't have been the film," he quipped.
Stewart told Young that he had long had such issues on his mind, going back 10, 15 years.
"Yeah, it's just kind of been the way it is," he agreed. "It's always there. We just think about it. A lot of people think about it. They just don't talk that much about it.
"A lot of people see things that are going on that aren't right, that they wish they could change, and they think they can't because they're told all the reasons why they can't, so they become complacent and everybody just forgets about it. And that's what happens when you forget about it, and these [characters in Linear Valley] are some really good people; we related to them; they may be a little dorky, but we're all a little dorky."
Casale called the experience of working with Young on the film "kind of life-changing." "Devo was fresh and green from the Midwest and our whole lives had changed over night. I had directed three low-budget Devo videos and that was about it. And then, suddenly, I find out Neil Young likes us and we get to meet him."
"I grew up listening to Neil Young and after the shootings at Kent State, I used to lay around in my apartment and listen to After the Gold Rush, and suddenly I was getting to write and block out a five-minute piece with Devo, as disgruntled nuclear waste workers in Linear Valley, shooting at Raleigh Studios with 35mm film, and probably cost more per hour than I ever got to use, ever. And it was all because of Elliot and Neil. It was just incredible.
"And, of course, I understood the premise," he added. "I had no idea that Neil felt the same way about the big human condition that Devo did. It was a revelation. It taught me a lesson. And that's relevant. Nothing's changed. The human highway always leads to a drop-off like the Road Runner; these people in Linear Valley were all working and delving into their silly private foibles, not knowing that the end was around the corner."