Daryl Hannah’s new film Paradox — starring and scored by her partner Neil Young — is available to stream on Netflix now, and it’s predictably batty. An experimental Western film described by Hannah as being “more pot than plot,” it depicts Young and his current backing group Promise of the Real as a band of outlaws hiding out between heists. Meanwhile, Willie Nelson and Young’s manager, Elliot Roberts, stop through to dispense crackerjack wisdom.
Films like this, which have typically been met with mixed reviews by the public, are part and parcel with Neil Young’s body of work. He’s been known to punctuate his album output with directorial and starring roles under his cinematic alias Bernard Shakey. The results have always veered into the eclectic, genre-bending and just-plain-weird.
Here are four such projects:
Journey Through the Past (1972)
In 1972, Young was a hot commodity, with his just-released single “Heart of Gold” hitting No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. On the other hand, Young’s oppositional-defiant disorder is the stuff of legend, so naturally, he followed this commercial knockout with his head-scratching directorial debut. Past starts out as a sort of traditional rock doc, with scenes featuring Buffalo Springfield and his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young bandmates, but Young eventually disappears from his own movie, replaced by abstract sequences featuring a dazed college graduate wandering away from his ceremony and into the barren desert. In retrospect, this would seem to encapsulate the existence of Journey Through the Past and Young’s resolute inability to go with the flow of public approval.
Human Highway (1982)
Flash-forward from Journey From the Past and let’s just pause right here because you’ve really got to love Young’s determination. So far, he’s faced nothing but critical disapproval for his filmmaking career — but, hey, he conquered being an art-house documentarian, so what’s next? Turns out it’s an apocalyptic sci-fi comedy. In Human Highway, Young’s a bumbling auto mechanic named Lionel Switch employed at a gas-station diner, which happens to be located precariously near a power plant. After an atomic disaster, the plant’s nuclear garbagemen (played by Devo) attempt to protect the nearby town of Linear Valley. There are also milk baths, bonfire sing-alongs and a Native American powwow. It’s more of a long, stoned giggle than anything resembling a coherent story. The true thrill of Human Highway lies in the unrepeatable things that happen (hello, The Room!) when you let a lovably overambitious amateur sit in the director’s chair.
Essentially a feature-length music video for Young’s accompanying album of the same name, Greendale strikes a more serious, solemn tone as it mines small-town concerns. The film focuses on a Californian, hippie-leaning family called the Greens, in which each family member deals with various personal tragedies related to the media, law enforcement and ecological destruction. As with the rest of Young’s films, narrative structure and character development is mostly skipped. If you’re onboard with the singer’s lefty politics, then Greendale works as a laundry list of the various axes Young has to grind.
CSNY/Déjà Vu (2008)
This Shakey-produced documentary depicts the fiery Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young undergoing their Freedom of Speech tour in response to the then-raging Iraq War. The four sexagenarians revived their Vietnam-era hits like Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” for a modern audience. Perversely, Young depicts this ’60s revival as less a magical mystery tour than a seriously bumpy ride. There’s abundant footage of irate audiences walking out in droves in response to the bleeding-heart material and even an embarrassing scene in which Stephen Stills falls onstage during “Rockin’ in the Free World.” CSNY/Déjà Vu‘s designated point may be about an old band of brothers standing up for what they believe, but Young’s vision also shows the futility and sadness just below the surface of the hippie dream.