Neil Young's politically-charged documentary is moving without being cloying, dark without being despairing, and clever when it could have been just plain obvious.
CSNY/Déjà VuDirector: Bernard Shakey
Cast: Neil Young, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Mike Cerre, Stephen Colbert
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lion's Gate
First date: 2008
US DVD Release Date: 30-8-2008
This startlingly effective documentary covers much the same ground as did Barbara Kopple’s much-loved Shut Up And Sing which chronicled the abrupt politicization of the Dixie Chicks. Both films examine the deep cultural rift between (on the one hand) Americans who adhere to a politics of conservative ultra-nationalism and (on the other) Americans who deeply distrust such an approach.
More specifically, both films address the intensity of the belief on the part of many millions of Americans that musicians and artists should never criticize the United States about anything, ever. In both documentaries, footage of “fans” breaking CDs in half, stomping out of concerts, booing the stage, and denouncing the musicians is given a good deal of screen time.
In many ways, Kopple’s film is really about the Dixie Chicks’ brave decision to turn their backs on these former fans (after, it must be said, initially trying to mollify them), and to recreate themselves for a new audience. They had unwittingly crossed the rift between the two Americas – once the darlings of Red State southern voters, they suddenly found that they were only selling out shows in the liberal Northeast and, ahem, Canada. So, rather than fighting to win back the hearts of those old record-buyers, they embraced their new ones.
But, if Shut Up and Sing was (at the root) about contemporary superstars who waded into politics sort of by accident, and then rebranded themselves as best they could under the new conditions of their fame, Déjà Vu looks at a group of musicians who’ve been involved in politics for nearly 40 years and who (as the title suggests) are up to their old tricks. What’s fascinating here isn’t the sudden condemnation of a formerly beloved band by their most diehard followers over an unexpected recognition of their political position, but rather the sudden condemnation of a formerly beloved band by their most diehard fans over political views that they’ve held and sung about for almost 40 years!
This, above all else, is what makes Déjà Vu such an intriguing film – it is about people who feel somehow cheated and betrayed that they’ve spent their hard-earned money to go and see CSNY only to discover that these 60-something hippies are against war, and greed, and hypocrisy, and corporatism, and George W. Bush’s doctrine. This is like buying tickets to a hockey game and then stomping out when you discover that it takes place on ice. What the hell did you expect?
Now, admittedly, the new material CSNY was singing on the tour chronicled by Déja Vu was pretty incendiary stuff. Culled from Living with War, Young’s recently released diatribe against the neo-conservative Bush era, the songs are hardly unsubtle. If, somehow, people didn’t know that “For What It’s Worth”, “The Campaigner”, “Find the Cost of Freedom”, “Chicago”, “Southern Man”, and “Hawks and Doves” were critical of US policy, they sure knew what “Let’s Impeach the President” was all about.
Director Bernard Shakey (who is in fact Neil Young, by the way) has been making films for about 30 years. They have all been, in a word, amateurish. Interesting, for sure, if you are a longtime follower of this extraordinary artist, but in all other ways, problematic. Déjà Vu (I cannot stress this enough) is not only the best film Bernard Shakey/Neil Young has ever made, it is simply a fine documentary by any standard. It is technically sound and very evenly paced, offering irony, self-criticism, and self-indulgence in measured amounts. It is moving without being cloying, dark without being despairing, and clever when it could have been just plain obvious.
Riffing on the Iraq War idea of the news reporter who “embeds” herself with the troops, Young has former ABC correspondent Mike Cerre embed himself in the CSNY tour, and frames the documentary around Cerre’s reportage. This way, while Young is busy onstage, Cerre is out interviewing the unhappy folks as they march out of the concert hall. They talk to him as though he were really a reporter, and not a member of Neil Young and company’s traveling entourage. It’s a cute, but effective, gimmick.
Musically, it must be said, the film demonstrates that CSNY is – more than ever before – a one-man show. Neil Young was always the most talented, most interesting, and most challenging of the supergroup, but it is here made painfully clear that he is also the only one who has aged without losing his chops. David Crosby’s once soaring voice now sounds hollow, like it’s being projected through a carved pumpkin. Graham Nash still might harmonize with the best in the business, but his timing is off. And the less said about Stephen Stills’ shambling, marble-mouthed, and glassy-eyed performances the better. In general, the non-Neil Young songs the band performs are disappointing.
But, it doesn’t much matter to the film that the band is a bit rusty, a bit underpracticed, and a bit old. As they are booed, attacked, criticized, and (lest we forget) celebrated by thousands of fans, CSNY fosters a dialogue in the audience over the cost of freedom. Indeed, this isn’t really a concert film, not in any traditional sense. In a very palpable sense, the concert footage is about the audience, not the old rockstars onstage. At the climax of each performance, as they sing their gorgeous meditation on sacrifice and waste, images of dead American soldiers are projected one by one on a screen behind them.
During “Find the Cost of Freedom”, mothers and fathers and veterans and teenagers and old folks and blue staters and red staters in the audience, at least for a moment, come together. Their eyes well. The goddamn song is 30-years=old, and was written about another war that is now universally acknowledged to have been a catastrophic expenditure of lives for no great benefit at all. But it’s the same song today, and it speaks the same truth. I can’t think of anything more depressing.