Thursday, August 07, 2008

CSNY: Déjà Vu

CSNY: Déjà Vu (2008) is Neil Young's documentary about his 2006 tour with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. During that tour the band played many of the songs from Young's Living with War album—an album that is virulently opposed to the ongoing war in Iraq. Thus we have a film that is about a rock band and also about a war protest. It examines varying crowd reactions to the political agenda of the tour. It also focuses on the aging band members, all of whom are in their 60s (only Stills seems subdued by age—he speaks and sings with a slur that perhaps reflects damage from drugs and alcohol abuse). The issues here include the nation's response to the war in Iraq, the impact a rock band can have on political issues, whether the current political climate is analogous to the 1960s and the Vietnam War. Neil Young correctly observes during the film that the absence of a draft has prevented widespread protests among America's youth because they do not feel at risk. Another question the film considers is whether CSNY can still play together, whether they can play well.

Undoubtedly, CSNY: Déjà Vu seeks to portray the band in a positive light, yet there is a surprising balance here. We see the band members in all their aged glory, especially Stephen Stills. We listen to their ragged playing early in the tour. We are shown varying crowd reactions to their music: the concert in Atlanta provokes walkouts from audience members unhappy with the song "Let's Impeach the President." For the most part the walk-outs were middle-aged adults, and it's difficult to know how representative they were of the audience as a whole. An interview with libertarian radio talk-show host Neal Boortz is interesting—Boortz doesn't condemn the band's tour appearance in Atlanta or its subject matter--he sees it as a matter of free speech, though he notes that the band has to be prepared to deal with the consequences of their attitudes.

One way the film achieves whatever measure of balance it has is the use of ABC news correspondent Michael Cerre as an "embedded" participant in the tour. Cerre spent two tours of duty as an embedded reporter in the Iraq war prior to the CSNY tour, and returned to Iraq after the documentary was made. He wrote and narrates much of the film, offering his own perspectives, which are frequently distinctive from those of the band members. Young apparently asked Cerre to compile news clips and footage from the war for the film. It is Cerre who brings into the film interviews with disgruntled fans and with commentators such as Neal Boortz. He thereby helps the film avoid hagiography, though there are undeniably a few hagiographic elements.

What's most interesting about the film is how it shows the continuing commitment of the band to an anti-war point of view and to music as a form of communication after more than forty years. By the end of the tour, the band is performing better than it has performed in years. One of the band members comments that the tour has enabled the group to rediscover itself.

Neil Young directed this film under the moniker of Bernard Shakey, a name he has used in other directing efforts. The only other Neil Young film I have seen is the film version of his album Greendale (2004). Although that film had its interesting moments, it was more a series of loosely conceived rock videos, based on the album, than a coherent film. In CSNY: Déjà Vu there are moments of deeply felt emotion, of raw political anger, and of transcendence. The film never argues that the band has any effect on the opinions of its audience or on US participation in the Iraqi conflict itself. What it does argue for is the character and persistence of the band, and its commitment to peace and good music.

No comments: