Neil Young Gets Behind the Camera

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Music legend Neil Young directed the feature film Greendale to coincide with his album of the same name. Now available on DVD, Greendale is a hybrid music video and experimental film with a full dramatization of the Greendale story to lip-synched lyrics.

ELVIS MITCHELL: It seems you thought about [the film Greendale] in the way you think about the production of an album. Was that really the way it was?

NEIL YOUNG: The camera moves the same way [every take] because of the guitar playing, the chord changes, the beat, all these things that are ingrained in me from making the record. I know it so well that the camera is just an extension of the guitar and an extension of the band. I found it was like a gift to be able to do that again, to actually play the visuals. You can make the camera move with the music just like you’re playing the song. I love doing that.

M: Almost all the tours are filmed at some point … What fascinates me is that you tend to pick directors who have real personalities—Hal Ashby and Jonathan Demme and Jim Jarmusch. They’ve made movies that are essentially very close to the kinds of movies you have made, if we look at Greendale or Human Highway, which are movies about communities in flux and people trying to sort of deal with that. I wonder if you feel a kinship with them as a filmmaker.

Y: Well, I never really looked at it that way. I think that’s probably a big part of it. I had a respect for these guys. Just respect. … I’d explain what I think to them and I’d say, now you know how I feel, now just do whatever you do. I trust you.

M: Are there directors out there now that you think you’d like to be in business with?

Y: I have seen some things that surprised me. One thing I saw—now the style of the film is not what I’m talking about, but it’s where this film came from—this movie with Jack Black, School of Rock. I was so refreshed by the innocent, positive nature of the film. Everybody’s positive. Jack Black was positive all the time. … And that’s how you get people to come out. That’s how you nurture things to happen. That was the beautiful thing about that film, the way he spoke to all the kids and he made them do the best that they could. That’s what moved me about that film. I mean everybody else was talking about how great all the poses were and all the things he was doing in his performance—it was top drawer, but really what got me was the innocence and the openness and the youth, that part of it.

M: As you talk about this stuff, it sounds almost to me like you’re talking about the ’60s when you first got involved with music and that kind of sense that there was this optimism that music could do things and change things in a way that it does for those kids in School of Rock.

Y: The big message was that you don’t have to be number one. You don’t have to win the contest. That’s not what rock ’n’ roll is about. It doesn’t matter. It’s how into it you are that matters, that you believe what you’re doing. This is what you do, you’re there. This is who you are. For me, that was refreshing. That’s how I feel about rock ’n’ roll.

* Excerpted from the treatment, hosted by Elvis Mitchell, produced at National Public Radio’s Southern California flagship station, 89.9 KCRW-Santa Monica, Calif., and broadcast nationwide. Live and archived streams, and station location list at Mitchell is also a regular contributor to The New York Times.

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