“I saw a film today, oh boy…”
Some of the lyrics from The Beatles’ apocalyptic Sgt. Pepper-era song “A Day In The Life” are actually quite apropos to Neil Young’s recently re-visited and (apparently quite) reinvented 1982 film Human Highway.
Issued briefly many years ago in an earlier rougher cut that was, from what I’ve been able to garner over the Interwebs, misunderstood and not particularly well received back in the day, I never actually got to see the original version of Human Highway. But I’ve heard bits and pieces about about it from various friends and acquaintances who have — most recalling consistently only the long jam between Neil and Devo on his soon-become-classic rocker “Hey Hey, My My.” Amidst the cobwebs and strange of these memories, no one mentioned anything about the underlying bigger message of the work.
So, I can sort of understand why Neil took his time to revise the film…
If you poke around on YouTube, you can find that 10 minute new wave jam journey which for the new edition has been honed down to a more contextually appropriate 2 minutes or so in length. As much as I personally like the 10 minute version, I do think this change is for the better. It is also probably the most visible indicator of many hard filmic decisions that I am guessing were made to focus Human Highway into a seriocomic surrealist drama that makes a clear and important point.
“But I just had to look…”
Before I get to that, let me get to some actual audio flavored details of interest for you, Dear Readers, before I go back to the movie. The 5.1 surround sound track on Human Highway is basic, but effective, mostly used for special effects moments. The sound is universally quite good with clear dialogue and punchy musical sequences. The movie includes a performance by Devo singing the folk classic “It Takes A Worried Man” (in classic Devo style — don’t expect The Kingston Trio version here kids!). We also hear Neil’s own “Goin’ Back,” opening track from his 1978 album Comes A Time, used to carry a poignant and spiritually rejuvenating scene (more on that later).
According to the Wiki, Neil spent about $3 million on this film over the years so it is not fair to use any terms like “low budget” or “cheap” when describing Human Highway. But there is a quite wonderful sense of innocence in the production that — at least in this incarnation of the film; remember I have not seen the original version — I find quite charming and endearing. There is a playful sense of golly-gee-whiz whimsy throughout that pushes the film along and keeps your interest without driving the viewer to nit pick on flaws.
“Somebody spoke and I went into a dream”
That said, somehow, Human Highway ‘s pastiche effectively tells its end-of-days tale amidst an imagined radioactive future. It all takes place in a town called “Linear Valley,” a community populated by characters quirky, strange, lonely, clueless and even a bit manic. There is the sort of happy-crazy Chef (named “Cracker,” played by Dennis Hopper) and the bitterly privileged son of a deceased business owner (played by Dean Stockwell)….. There are periodic cameos by pre-superstardom Devo who — literally glowing in red radiation jump suits — cart around barrels of nuclear waste in a carefree whistle-while-you-work manner as they sing their daily woes away, like Snow White’s dwarves marching off to the mines, Hi Ho, Hi Ho…
“About a lucky man who made the grade”
Neil himself is impressive as the hapless-but-lovable clod named Lionel. a character who is one part vintage Jerry Lewis (right down to his dorky buck-toothed appearance and goofball behavior) and one part young Mickey Rooney (replete with sugar coated ‘golly-gee-whiz can do’ enthusiasm). By the end, Lionel somehow becomes the central hero of the film (even though everyone dies in the end!)
Russell Tamblyn — who (according to the Wiki) has acted in films made by Cecil B. DeMille and is perhaps most notably remembered as the leader of The Jets gang in the original film version of West Side Story — as Fred, is a clueless but lovable sidekick to Lionel. They have a special slapstick charm together on screen even when delivering pun-like dialogue.
Cinematically, the movie has a wonderful Tim Burton-meets-Ed Wood sensibility that is at once compelling, utterly unreal, suitably strange, often dreamlike and frequently quite cool. There is a even a choreographed dance sequence toward the end as earth blows up which falls this side of Bye Bye Birdie and Rocky Horror, leaving the deceased cast to climb a golden stairway to heaven.
Meanwhile, we find Devo character Booji Boy (pronounced “boogie”) lonely and alone as the last spud on earth — Devo fans note what I just did there — reading an angry punk-flavored revisionist treatment of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” making the film’s ultimate point clear and very in your face in case you missed it.
They even use subtitles to make sure you get the message.
“And though the news was rather sad
Well I just had to laugh”
Neil Young’s Human Highway may make you chuckle but it may also make you cry with its poignant warnings about saving Native American culture and our environment. For a movie created 30 some years ago in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — there is a recurring tribally-adorned space ship from Lionel’s dream sequence which seems to bring down Native Americans to reclaim the planet and restore its natural harmony– the take away theme has never been more timely.
Consider this in the face of recent protests by activists challenging construction of an oil pipeline over sacred American Indian burial grounds in North Dakota.
If you are perhaps questioning our current careening 21st Century times, where things sometimes seem to be going down the highway to hell, Human Highway may be just the antidote to help rejuvenate the spirit, hopefully stimulating some to wake up. Its a call for help to prevent this bleak nightmare from become a harsh reality.
Available on Blu-ray Disc or DVD for a very reasonable price at retail, Human Highway is a no brainer for Neil Young fans and enthusiasts of surrealism and message movies alike.