Dir: Bernard Shakey. US. 2008. 97 mins.
'The huddled sixtysomethings look like they're comparing prescriptions on stage' wrote one uncharitable US music critic of Crosby , Stills, Nash and Young's 2006 'Freedom of Speech' tour, which stirred controversy with its outspoken anti-Iraq-war stance. Unless you're a diehard fan it's difficult not to see the reviewer's point - in comparison with the sagging supergroup, near-contemporaries the Rolling Stones (whose Shine A Light opened Berlin ) look like spring chickens.
But this is not a rock tour film for CSNY fans so much as a rambling, occasionally thought-provoking, sometimes moving enquiry into the question of whether the sixties protest music generation has lost its leverage over hearts and minds in today's apolitical times.
The fact that it is directed by one of its subjects, Neil Young - using his filmmaker's pseudonym, Bernard Shakey - lends the film added piquancy: the film becomes not so much the chronicle of a newsworthy tour as a committed political artist's sincere attempt to get to grips with an America whose mood seems to have changed utterly since the band's debut around the time of Woodstock and the Vietnam War protests.
As such it makes an interesting companion piece to two other recent 'music and politics' documentaries: Shut Up And Sing and The US Vs John Lennon. Before its bow at Sundance (where it was the closing film), Young can have had little idea that the film - made with DVD and online distribution in mind - might have a theatrical life. But with Fortissimo now on board there will be a good chance of small-scale theatrical action in territories where the acronym CSNY doesn't only suggest a TV cop show.
Young is a smart, media-savvy artiste (he scores brownie points by including that 'prescription' review among several, good and bad, that we hear in voiceover), and CSNY is far from a wallow in the good old times when people marched rather than Facebooked. The musician/director delegates the reporting of the tour and its political and media overspill to TV journalist Mike Cerre, who was embedded as an ABC reporter with US marines during the invasion of Iraq. Cerre, thus, becomes 'embedded' on the band's tourbus as it crosses America: a neat approach, though Cerre's Discovery-Channel voice and the ambiguity of his role as an 'appointed' independent reporter (and co-scriptwriter) is never really resolved.
Several themes are intertwined. One, inspired by the new material the band plays from Young's Living With War album, is a straight, heart-on-sleeve anti-war tale: in the states touched by the bus, we meet grieving mothers, traumatised and repentant ex-servicemen, and a Marine protest singer. Another centres on how contemporary American concertgoers react to songs like Let's Impeach The President, which Young insists on playing even in Atlanta, Georgia (the answer is not brilliantly - especially in Atlanta, Georgia). A third, minor strand are the micro-politics of the band's relationship: though in this case the notoriously rift-prone foursome is united - more or less - by their belief in the message.
Shot with earthy authenticity by Mike Elwell, this is a film that does inspire a certain sense of deja-vu, both musically and as a political documentary. Though, as Young admits, he did try stepping aside for a while to let the younger generation protest - but as nobody came forward, he was forced to carry on himself.
International sales/world distribution
L. A. Johnson