In Greendale, Neil Young, staging what would once have been described as a rock opera, patches together grainy and lurching images of small-town America – meadows and farmhouses, a church and a fishing dock, a drug bust on the highway – that tap the nostalgic potential of Super-8 film. The grain, which has a beautiful lo-fi glow, is so sensuous that it registers more potently than the images themselves: It’s the visual equivalent of the fuzz on Young’s guitar. You may feel what you’re seeing is unstagy and pure – at least until characters like the man with the gray ponytail open their mouths and begin to lip-synch to Young’s latest song cycle. A fractured ”allegory” unspools: murder in the heartland, a family torn apart, pleas for peace and ecology. When a pretty teenage girl named Sun Green uses bales of hay in a field to create the word WAR with a line through it, only to end up shadowed by the FBI, it’s clear that Young has never quite left 1969 behind.
”Greendale” is essentially an 83-minute version of a stripped-down, no-tech music video. In the history of rock-star indulgence on film, I would rank it somewhere between Bob Dylan’s epic carnival of pretension ”Renaldo & Clara” and the overblown messianic doldrums of 1982’s ”Pink Floyd The Wall.” Of course, to those who still hear a raw power in the relentless anvil hammer of Young’s driving, downbeat trance-rock, the artiness of ”Greendale” may seem hip. For me, Young’s music has become wearying, with the same chords repeated over and over, and his increasingly tuneless yowl wrapped around lyrics like ”The moral of this story/Is try not to get too old/The more time you spend on earth/The more you see unfold.” (I felt older by the time he’d reached the end of that line.) ”Greendale” is an avant home movie posing as an anthem by an artist whose message gets grainier the closer you look.