Odd to finally see this in 2009, after the outgoing president has NOT been impeached and none of the people responsible for the Iraq fiasco or any other well-documented Bush administration crimes have been held accountable in any way (and the war in Iraq is not over yet, and now we show every sign of escalating our well-intentioned disaster in Afghanistan). Now we have a new administration presiding over a ruined economy, a corrupted society, and a population bombarded with years of deranged, disingenuous propaganda to the point where many of them have no clue why they are so angry, but if you question their reality they will kick your teeth in for flag and family. No wonder “hope” is the buzzword so many have clung to during this last election; what else have we got? We are still screwed, and it won’t change overnight.
So let’s go on a nostalgia trip, all the way back to 2006. The old folk-rock institution Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young has already scheduled a reunion tour when Neil Young spontaneously gets a bug up his butt about the Bush administration, the war, and the hapless US media, and quickly bashes out a new album of songs reflecting the state of the union. Living With War may, in retrospect, have been a tipping point for the country, an inflammatory protest album wrapped in patriotic rhetoric and compassion for soldiers and their families, veering between outright sentimentality and righteous anger. It was an immediate work of musical journalism framed in terms that average Americans could relate to. Urban cynics like myself might have been more drawn to something like Mudhoney’s Under A Billion Suns, but it was Young’s album, with its blaring trumpets, anthemic choruses, and closing cover of “America The Beautiful” that spoke to the so-called heartland and may have been just enough to open a few minds. (We are treated to some nice footage of the 100 voice choir being recorded for the album.)
Anyway, with an urgent new album in the can, Young goes back to his old bandmates and lays down the law: the tour is now the “Freedom Of Speech Tour”, performing songs from Living With War augmented only with material that is relevant to the war-crazed USA of 2006. Crosby, Stills and Nash quickly go along with the plan and we’re off. Right away we see who’s in charge. At one point, Crosby admits that CSNY is a benevolent dictatorship with Neil Young as dictator, not because he bosses the others around, but because he’s the one who has the good ideas and knows how to see a plan through.
The pruning of their back catalog actually serves the other three songwriters well because their protest songs have aged far better than most of their love songs, which often reek of self-indulgent male hippie pomposity, or pointless, nonsensical gibberish like “Helplessly Hoping”. Mostly, we get a very smart reimagining of their repertoire, drawing on the other members’ solo material as well to find the best, most relevant stuff like the little-heard “What Are Their Names”, a highlight of Crosby’s odd, meandering post-psychedelic solo debut which is rearranged here as an a capella audience participation game. (The idea of finding out where the goons in power live in order to “ride right over this afternoon and give them a piece of my mind” never fails to charm me, all the more in this decade because…well, isn’t that precisely what Cindy Sheehan was trying to do in the first place?)
But a tour in and of itself is not enough to reach this fragmented country (plus there are many people who would never shell out $200-300 to see a rock show…I certainly wouldn’t), so Young, or his cinematic alter-ego “Bernard Shakey”, plans a film right from the start, recruiting war correspondent Mike Cerre to serve as the tour’s “embedded reporter”, riding in their van and, most pertinently, interviewing audience members. These sequences are crucial to the movie, keeping it from being a mere “follow a bunch of superstars on the road” wankfest. We see a lot of people there who clearly needed something like this just to reassure them that they’re not insane traitors for seeing things the way they do. We see some who are very politically articulate and others who are just into hippie nostalgia. And of course, we get plenty of people who completely lose their shit because don’t they understand, the Muslims all wanna kill us! Then there are the odd ones, like a guy who identifies himself as a “conservative Republican from Tennessee” who is elated with the show because he is also against the war and highly critical of the Bush administration. Welcome to the real world, pal. Baby steps, baby steps…
The big confrontation, and a centerpiece of the movie, happens at a gig in Atlanta on a day that one of the Bush administration’s many nebulous “terror alerts” has been in effect all day. Cerre takes us to a local radio station where a pair of morning show cretins who call themselves “The Regular Guys” are ranting about how unfair and egotistical it is for celebrities to have the audacity to try to influence their audiences. (Not that the “Regular Guys” are local celebrities intending to influence their audience; oh no, they’re just regular guys after all.)
All this sets us up for a classic Dylan-At-Newport moment when the band breaks into Young’s blunt singalong, “Let’s Impeach The President”. (There’s a hilarious scene earlier in the movie where a TV reporter actually asks Young, “You have a new song called ‘Let’s Impeach The President’. What’s it about?“) The audience explodes in cheers and boos, until the boo-ers, unable to sway the others to boo with them, stage a mass walkout. Cerre catches them in the lobby and captures their venting: “They have no right!” “You shouldn’t criticize the government because they’re smarter than you.” “He has a lot of nerve to say he’s for the troops and then do that kinda crap!” One particularly scary redneck who seems to have little black holes for eyes says of Neil Young, “Ah’d lahk to kick his teeth in, ’cause he’s a stupid sumbitch!” Hey, if y’all wanted to pay for an overpriced show by some washed-up old 60s rock stars who won’t challenge your world view, you should have saved your money for the next Stones tour. (An afterthought from 2017: The Rolling Stones have actually put out some pretty scathing lyrics about the state of the world on occasion during the last couple decades. Songs like “Doom And Gloom” or “Sweet Neo-Con” don’t often show up in their live set, though. You really gotta love that Keith Richards/Donald Trump story, nonetheless.)
Not that ticket prices aren’t a valid issue. Why did the shows cost so much? The movie kind of glosses over that a bit. These were big shows, with projections and props, but why can’t the punters get that for under $100 at most? There’s no indication that the shows were benefits, which would have been appropriate. I can only think that, well, Crosby and Stills both have expensive medical needs (Crosby and his new liver, Stills and his cancer) and musicians don’t have health insurance. Nevertheless, I do see a blind spot for our heroes here.
After the Atlanta blowout, the tour continues, and Cerre takes us to meet various Iraq War veterans to get their take on the story. We meet a young singer-songwriter Marine named Josh Hisle who started out as a gung-ho metal dude in a uniform, proud of his involvement with the initial “liberation” of the country and overthrow of the government, but after being repeatedly sent back to continue participating in the occupation (where they were locked in a stalemate of “go out, take casualties, come back”) ended up questioning what the whole point was. Accordingly, his songwriting changed, addressing what he was seeing and feeling out there. Here we are introduced to Neil Young’s Living With War website, where musicians are encouraged to send links to their own songs that deal with the issues and charts are compiled. (Somehow this managed to happen without Ear Candle Productions ever hearing about it; we intend to make up for lost time and participate in this project which is still going.) Hisle ends up topping the chart with one of his songs, and Cerre introduces him to Neil, leading to a very nice scene of the two of them playing guitars together. (What is that weird little miniature guitar Neil is playing?) When they talk afterward, you get a sense that Neil Young really wants to connect with veterans and relate to their experience. Later, CSNY are performing the Living With War track “Shock And Awe” and we watch Hisle stock-still, arms folded, staring straight ahead with haunted eyes as the music takes him back to the horrors he lived through.
We also meet a group called Vets4Vets (not to be confused with other groups or websites by that name), who specialize in counseling for the new generation of traumatized veterans from the current messy wars. When Davis and I were spending a lot of time on the local open mike scene, we got to know a few Vietnam vets who were deeply scarred by their experience, and when Bush got his war, I could only think about all the kids who were going to come back as damaged as the guys we’d met. A few of those who returned had the vision to start this support group, and it’s good to spend some time with them in the movie.
Other veterans deal with what went on in different ways. Many have gone into politics, in order to do something about the kind of policies which created the bogus war that they fought in. Stephen Stills is shown spending his days off on the tour campaigning for 14 Iraq War veterans running for office as Democrats. It’s an interesting karmic twist for Stills, who went through a bizarre period of cocaine-induced psychosis at one point where he imagined that he himself was a Vietnam vet.
I actually was surprised to find Stills rather likable in this movie; he comes off as good-humored, irreverent, and politically astute. Unfortunately, the poor guy’s voice has been badly damaged by years of drug abuse, not to mention the cancer treatments he was undergoing at the time of the tour, which also bloated him to the point where he is as huge as Crosby here. On his Buffalo Springfield hit, “For What It’s Worth”, you hear him struggling to get the vocals out, though he gets in a great moment on the final chorus when he lets out a rough, loud scream. (“OK, maybe I can’t sing pretty now, but here’s an AARRRRGHHH you can feel!”) Stills carries himself off with bullish pride (refusing to let a roadie help him back up when he falls down in the middle of a guitar solo) and the strong support of his bandmates. (Nice to see a band who don’t make fun of each other’s weaknesses onstage.) His guitar playing certainly hasn’t suffered (more elaborate and note-riddled than Young’s, which makes for a good contrast), but Stills’ voice problems have a definite impact on a group whose main trademark was their harmonies.
Nash, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be able to hit the high notes he used to, so I noticed that many of the harmony parts on the old songs have been completely rearranged, with Young joining in on the group vocals more than he did when he originally joined the band. His voice, of course, is as weird and unique as ever, but at this late date, it is also by far the strongest. As a result, what Jimi Hendrix famously referred to as “twinkling western sky music” takes on a decidedly rougher hue now. The intense, lurching physicality of Young’s guitar playing dominates the music here, turning a bouncy little pop song like Nash’s “Military Madness” into a real foot-stomper and transforming the instrumental section of Crosby’s “Deja Vu” into something reminiscent of the first Television album. (I kid you not.)
But in spite of all this, it’s not really a music documentary at all. The musical sections are more a support system for a documentary of the state of America just a few years ago. Even if you don’t care much for Crosby, Stills and Nash or even Young, this is well worth seeing just for the people you meet, the stories told, and the spectacle of a group of aging stars daring to go out on a limb and take a risk in order to do something more relevant than an oldies show for baby boomers.