When Neil Young answered questions about the release of his 1982 film "Human Highway" at the South by Southwest Film Festival Thursday evening, he didn't make any great claims for the movie, but he never apologized for it either. Which was appropriate, for the film is a loosely strung-together assemblage of improvised bits that are sometimes amusing, sometimes awkward, but always good-natured.
Standing on the stage of Austin's Paramount Theatre, Young explained that this remastered and re-edited director's cut included a lot of footage and audio left out of the original release.
Wearing his trademark plaid flannel shirt and gray muttonchops, Young said, "I didn't know enough the first time about what I was doing to realize what I'd done. The timing and setup of comedy is so important, and I know a lot more about that now. Now the movie gets laughs; before people would just sit there and say, 'What? Why?' This film seems to have a life of its own. It refuses to die—and we tried to kill it several times."
This dystopian sci-fi story is essentially a comedy, and the funniest thing about it is the character played by Young himself: a dorky, skinny, buck-toothed teenager named Lionel Switch. He rides to his job as the mechanic at Otto's Garage on a bicycle with tassels on the handlebars. He and his best friend Fred (Russ Tamblyn) believe the waitresses at Otto's Café are in love with them, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Lionel and Fred ride their bikes through a landscape that is unmistakably a model train set dominated by a nuclear power plant glowing red. The Astroturf grass, plastic buildings, and railroad bridges are filmed from the eye level of the characters, so it seems we're inside the train set. The radio broadcasts cheerfully report the day's radiation and war-threat levels, which are high, the DJ admits, but nothing to worry about.
Working at the nuke plant are the five members of Devo, all wearing glowing-red jumpsuits and plastic tubes that run from their helmets into their nostrils. Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh helped Young create the music-drenched soundtrack, including a techno-pop version of Woody Guthrie's 'It Takes a Worried Man To Sing a Worried Song' that is repeated several times and climaxes in a big production number as the cast dances with silver, nuclear-waste shovels.
"Dean Stockwell introduced me to Devo," Young said Thursday, "and it was his idea to bring them into the film. He showed me some of their videos, and I got it right away. I'd known Dean since 1967 when we were neighbors in Topanga Canyon in L.A. Most of the people who worked on the film were friends from that time. We used to meet down at the breakfast nook, Every Mother's Son."
When Lionel is working on the white stretch limo of a big pop star, a wrench drops on his head, transporting him into a long dream sequence where he himself has become a big rock star who looks just like Neil Young and sings Neil Young's songs. There's a long road sequence not unlike the Beatles' frustrating "Magical Mystery Tour," before we are returned to Otto's Garage and comic characters such as Cracker the chef (Dennis Hopper), Kathryn the waitress (Sally Kirkland), and Otto Jr. the evil boss (Stockwell). The directing credits are given to Stockwell and Bernard Shakey (Young's longtime alias).
"You have to do other things," Young explained, "because music's not enough. Improvising's great, but it's hard to raise money without a script."
This is not a great movie by any means, but it's often enjoyable and a must for any true Neil Young fan. It will travel the film-festival circuit this year before being released on DVD and Blu-ray. Young would prefer, however, that people saw it in theaters.
"I think it's fun to look at things with other people," he said Thursday. "I'm not a fan of the solitary art experience. I like to share the experience with others; you can feel how they’'e reacting. Why do we always have to be alone now?"