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CSNY Deja Vu
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Revolution Blues"
4 stars

If there has been one constant in the career of musical icon Neil Young, it has been his unending willingness to confound the expectations of even his most dedicated fans. When his 1972 album “Harvest” became the biggest-selling album of his career (a position that it retains today) and the single “Heart of Gold” went to #1 (the only time that has happened so far), he responded to the fluke success of that collection of country-pop pleasantries with “Time Fades Away,” one of the noisiest and most abrasive works. During the 1980’s, he embarked on a radical display of musical eclecticism that saw him dabbling in such odd genres as New Wave (“Trans”), rockabilly (“Everybody’s Rockin”), country (“Old Ways”) and the blues (“This Note’s For You”) in ways that perplexed his followers and inspired his own record company to sue him for making deliberately non-commercial albums. Even after reestablishing his critical and commercial standing in the 1990’s with a series of albums that proved him to be one of the few 60’s-era artists still making vital and important music long after the end of that era, he was still willing to throw listeners a few artistic curveballs and in his new documentary, “CSNY Déjà Vu,” he illustrates the risks and rewards that come when an artist chooses to challenge his audience with new and provocative material instead of simply giving them more of the same.

This particular provocation of Young’s began with the most seemingly innocuous of moves--a 2006 reunion tour with Crosby, Stills and Nash, the folk-rock group with whom he recorded the enormously popular albums “Déjà Vu” (1970) and “Four Way Street” (1971) and the classic protest single “Ohio.” and with whom he has recorded and toured with intermittently in the ensuing decades, seemingly more out of an act of charity to his former cohorts than out of any real sense of artistic inspiration. (It was during one of these reunions, to record the fairly dreadful album “American Dream,” that David Geffen, the record mogul who was the one who sued Young for his genre-skipping ways, made his infamously inelegant but not inaccurate comment that “Crosby, Stills and Nash are old, fat farts! The only one with any talent is Neil Young.”) On the surface, it must have seemed to most observers that this was nothing more than a typical summer concert tour by a veteran group churning out a predictable set of oldies to anyone willing to pay upwards of $200 to hear them--mostly older fans with the desire to revisit their pasts in the most non-threatening way possible and with the financial wherewithal to afford the spiraling ticket prices. However, what few people realized was that the focus of this particular excursion, dubbed the “Freedom of Speech Tour,” was going to be less on their past pop pleasantries and more on the protest songs that made them famous. The centerpiece of the concerts would be their performances of songs from “Living With War,” a loud and angry cycle of contemporary protest tunes that Young wrote and recorded in a flurry of activity earlier that year that was highlighted by “Let’s Impeach the President,” a blistering excoriation of the current administration that was so filled to the brim with righteous anger that the title was actually the most subtle thing about it. Additionally, Young hires CNN war correspondent Michael Cerre to tag along as sort of an embedded journalist in order to capture how the audience responds to this highly confrontational material.

During the first part of the film, we see footage of some of the “Living with War” recording sessions and some of the early stops on the tour. During those initial shows, which pretty much stuck to the blue states in the north, the biggest obstacles that the group faces involve David Crosby’s inability to remember the lyrics to certain songs while on stage and Steven Stills’ inability to stand on his own two feet on stage (at one point, he literally topples over in the middle of a song and while he tries to shrug it off by continuing to play from the floor, he eventually needs to be helped up). Beyond that, the material, old and new, seems to be going over relatively well with younger and older audiences alike and when there is criticism in the press, it centers less on the message that they are presenting and more on whether the show is really worth the huge ticket price. However, even in these seemingly friendly cities, there is a slight ripple of discontent from some people and the group realizes that the real test will come once they begin to play in the southern U.S. cities where support for George W. Bush and the Iraq War were still reasonably high amongst the populace. Things quickly come to a head in Atlanta where the concert goes along swimmingly until the group fires up “Let’s Impeach the President,” complete with the lyrics being printed out on giant screens for all to see. While many in the arena cheer the sentiments and sing along with the group, there are a huge chorus of boos as well and as the song progresses, many people storm out of the concert while voicing their displeasure at Young and his new music--when one disgruntled listener opines to Cerre’s cameras that “I’d like to knock his fucking teeth out,” he seems to pretty much speak for the lot of them.

In other words, they are getting upset at the idea of a group that became famous four decades earlier for their protest songs about the follies of war and the injustices of the world back then for having the audacity to sing protest songs about the follies of war and the injustices of the world that are going on right now. This is bizarre enough on the surface but it becomes even stranger when you consider that while it has been easy to overlook the musical output of Crosby, Stills and Nash over the ensuing years, Neil Young has hardly been a shrinking violet when it comes to protest music--his 1991 tour with Crazy Horse was informed by the first Gulf War and its aftermath and one of his most popular latter-day songs was “Rockin in the Free World,” his stinging rebuke at Bush 41. Have these people not listened to a Neil Young album since the release of “Harvest”? Do they feel that they can only listen to protest songs when they are so removed from the times and incidents that inspired them that they now little more than emotionally defanged aural wallpaper? (I couldn’t help but think of the part in the great “Masked and Anonymous” when Bob Dylan was presented with a listed of approved protest songs that he could sing during a televised concert--the joke was that each one had been transformed into just another commodity to such a degree that listeners would be thinking more about the products they were used to sell than the emotions they were originally meant to inspire.) When the old saw about how artists like Young should just stick to entertaining the people who have spent so much money to see them perform instead of lecturing them about politics, I wanted to know if they felt the same way when Young went through his period in the 1980’s when he was a vocal supporter of Ronald Reagan or when he recorded the much different 9/11-inspired tune “Let’s Roll” in 2002.

Perhaps realizing that audience reactions wouldn’t get more extreme than the Atlanta interlude, the film more or less detours away from the shows for the majority of the second half in order to focus on the stories of some of the people whose stories mirror some of the themes that “Living with War” deals with. We meet a couple of medical students who sign up as medics in order to earn tuition money and find themselves serving as MP’s instead due to a lack of manpower. We meet a reservist who volunteered for two tours of duty overseas and who now counsels vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders as a result of their experiences. We meet a former Marine who, now back home, is now performing anti-war songs based on his own experiences--the tune “A Traitor’s Death” comes to Young’s attention when it is posted on his “Living with War” website, Most importantly, we are introduced to several of the ten congressional candidates who ran for office in 2006 on an anti-war platform (including Tammy Duckworth, who served in the Illinois National Guard and who lost both of her legs as a result--not that this prevented her opponent from labeling her as just another cut-and-run Democrat)--while the though of Stephen Stills appearing at campaign fundraisers in order to deliver speeches, even he is inspired to something resembling coherence (a considerable achievement when you consider the fact that the years have turned him into more of a David Crosby type than David Crosby himself) and of those ten, seven wind up winning their races.

Throughout his career, Neil Young has always maintained a keen interest in using the medium of film as a way of further conveying the messages of his songs as well as his ongoing penchant for formal experimentation as the results, which he has directed under the nom de plume of Bernard Shakey, have been divided between such offbeat concert films as “Journey Through the Plants” and “Rust Never Sleeps” as well as such decidedly bizarre narrative efforts as “Human Highway” and “Greendale,” a Super8-lensed staging of the album that at least one noted critic designated as the best film of 2004. (Okay, it was me but the sentiment stands). By comparison, “CSNY Déjà Vu” is a far more straightforward film and while I can appreciate the relatively sedate formalism that Young has brought to the project as a director this time around but there is a part of me that wishes that he had messed with the format a little bit to give it the kind of rough and uneven energy that made the “Living with War” album such a galvanizing listening experience in the first place. The musical numbers are elegantly shot (or at least as elegantly as can be accomplished with David Crosby and Stephen Stills on the same stage) but only the infamous “Let’s Impeach the President” number from Atlanta has any real fire to it. (Of course, the fact that it is also one of the only times that we get to hear a song in its near-entirety might have something to do with that.) I would have also liked to have gotten a little more detail on the behind-the-scenes interactions with the other band members to get their views on the tour, the material they are singing and the inescapable fact that if it weren’t for Young’s presence, the crowds that they are playing for would be significantly reduced. Sure, each one voices their approval in the most general manner possible but there seems to be a little bit of dissent about the politics both on and off the stage when Stills notes his misgivings over a giant stage prop microphone that has been festooned with a yellow ribbon (presumably the same that appeared on the stage during that 1991 Crazy Horse tour) with an acidic “It’s like Neil’s Tony Orlando and we’re Dawn--there’s something very preposterous about that.” Outside of the occasional moments like that, “CSNY Déjà Vu” has the kind of thoughtful and professional sheen that someone like Jonathan Demme (who directed the stunning 2006 concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold”) might have brought to the project. That is nice and all but if Young wanted a Jonathan Demme film, why not just hire Demme to do it himself instead and subsuming his more eclectic leanings in order to ape Demme’s work--if nothing else, Demme has more experience at making Demme films.

Then again, the sentiments that Young and his fellow bandmates are trying to convey are the kind that are best served by being related in the simplest and most direct manner possible and besides, the film succeeds in enough other areas that its reluctance to experiment grows less and less important in hindsight. As an examination of the current war through the eyes of those who have felt abandoned and disenfranchised by the current administration for years and who are unwilling to take it for much longer, it is an undeniably affecting and provoking experience. As a look of the ongoing battle between arts and politics, it offers viewers an eye-opening look at what can occur when the two meet head-on. Most importantly, it works as a collection of music--while the legendary CSN harmonies have long been a thing of the past (only Nash comes close to approximating the sound of his younger days while the voices of Crosby and Stills have long since been lost to the ravages of decades of excess), when they finally begin to click, they do so with a power that rivals their earlier work, possibly as the result of the evident joy that they demonstrate over being able to do something on stage besides singing “Our House” for the billionth time. “CSNY Déjà Vu” presumably won’t change many minds and those not already predisposed to the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash and/or Young but those with a predilection for either the singers or the sentiments will likely finds this film to be a valuable document indeed. Too bad that the film is rated “R”--as a result, the young people for whom it might be the most valuable--if only to show them that contemporary music can be more than just empty-headed fluff--ensures that they won’t be able to see it for themselves.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16917&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/25/08 00:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/26/08 Michael Lemke This film tells the story of the impact of good music and the inpact of a bad war. 5 stars
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  25-Jul-2008 (R)
  DVD: 30-Sep-2008



Directed by
  Bernard Shakey

Written by
  Neil Young
  Mike Cerre

  David Crosby
  Graham Nash
  Stephen Stills
  Neil Young
  Mike Cerre
  Stephen Colbert

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