'CSNY: Deja Vu' and you: Neil Young appears in person at a benefit screening of the film Thurs/17 at the Sundance Kabuki. (Photo courtesy Roadside Attractions)

'CSNY: Deja Vu'

Dennis Harvey July 16, 2008

"Shut up and sing!" has been the historied catcall—sometimes less politely worded—for audiences who are fans of a particular artist’s music but take umbrage when their onstage patter gets a little "too political." It was even used as the title of a documentary about the Dixie Chicks, whose mouthing off about our current President famously got them kicked off conservative-leaning country radio.

It’s just possible, however, that no one has yet hurled that epithet at Neil Young, country-, bluegrass- and heavy-rock-influenced as his music has often been. I mean, what could they be surprised by? From "Ohio" (about the Kent State killings of student protestors) to "This Note’s For You" (a catchy riposte to rock’s product-endorsing, corporate-concert-sponsoring nature), and beyond, Neil has always aimed a cranky finger at The Man.

Still, those attracted to the new film CSNY: Deja Vu simply expecting an opportunity to recall those halcyon days drinking Annie Greenspring wine while making out with a longhaired chick (or dude) to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" might be in for a surprise. A strong if not entirely pokerfaced political statement masquerading as a concert flick (though it is that, too), this latest effort by director Bernard Shakey means to provoke. Of course here in San Francisco, where San Francisco Film Society is hosting a special advance screening this Thursday night at the Sundance Kabuki, his message is likely to induce a whole lot more fist-pumping than cat-calling.

Not so some of the audiences depicted in Deja Vu, notably those in Atlanta, where the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion tour’s unabashedly agitative content—one song performed is "Let’s Impeach the President" and disillusioned Iraq war vets are interviewed—sparks some outrage by "patriotic" attendees who didn’t want anti-war protesting (at least not against the current war getting in the way of those nostalgic songs and four-part harmonies.

Who do CSNY think they are? Who does Mr. Shakey think he is? Well, if you don’t know already (and what kind of Neil fan are you if not?), Shakey is the cinematic non de plume of that pissed-off 63-year-old Canadian emigre Mr. Young himself. While he’s hardly racked up a oeuvre in this medium to rival his musical output, he’s no dabbler, having made five features since 1974. That year’s hard-to-find Journey Through the Past and 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps mixed concert footage with cryptic fantasy elements. Three years later, Human Highway baffled many with its odd mix of rock (Neil, David Blue, Devo) and Hollywood (Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Sally Kirkland) types in a bizarro comedy mixing David Lynch/Jim Jarmusch style ensemble eccentricity with an anti-nuke message.

After a long layoff (from movies, not music), Neil broke new ground with 2003’s Greendale, a concept album come to dramatized life. A "movie musical" unlike any other, it focuses on a folksy but imperiled California coastal Our Town as issues of corporate, environmental and media exploitation. It said more about American values (good and bad) than that righteous little s—t Lars von Trier will ever understand.

Likewise, CSNY: Deja Vu promises to be a considerable conscience prick as well as a concert flick. You’ll get something more than the two combined at Thursday’s screening, which benefits both the SF Film Society and veterans’ rights organization Swords to Plowshares…you’ll get Neil himself, who will attend the event and participate in a panel discussion/Q&A session after the film. So pony up $20 SFFS members; $25 general) for a good cause and a good time. If it sells out, fear not: There will be a regular theatrical release later this year.

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