The story behind Neil Young’s insane musical ‘Human Highway’

todayAugust 12, 2023 7

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Neil Young will always be remembered as the political heart of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s songwriting, penning poignant hits like ‘Ohio’ and ‘Helpless’. But in 1978, Young turned his hand to something else entirely, making his first directorial debut with Human Highway, a bizarre end-of-the-world film that followed people living in the small town of Linear Valley, who all work close by a nuclear power plant. 

Young had previously worked on documentaries and filmed concerts under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, but this project was something else entirely, a project that was likened to The Wizard Of Oz on acid thanks to its surrealist aesthetic.

Initially, Young approached Russ Tamblyn and Dean Stockwell and sound designer James Beshears and got to work on the script. He also called on some music industry names, including the still relatively unknown Devo and folk artist David Blue. Late recruits included Fox Harri and Eraserhead’s Charlotte Stewart.

The 80-minute work was shot on 35mm on a California soundstage. Young was forced to rent because they couldn’t get the avant-garde project backed. “It was ridiculous to explain it, and we had no script that we could point to, to say: ‘This is worth hundreds and thousands of dollars,’” he said at the Toronto International Film Festival. “So finally, we just made it, just rented the place for a month or so.”

That investment was a sign of his dedication to the film, which wound up costing Young $3million over the course of four years. But it was worth it for Devo’s Bob Casale, who plays a nuclear garbageman, and said the experience working on the apocalyptic comedy was “life-changing”. Devo had their lives changed overnight, experiencing their first taste of mainstream success during filming with ‘Whip It’.

Casale called the experience of working with Young on the movie “kind of life-changing”. Devo were still musical numbers – it marked Mark Mothersbaugh’s first time composing a film score – and then they discovered they had a fan in Young.

“I grew up listening to Neil Young, and after the shootings at Kent State, I used to lay around in my apartment and listen to After the Gold Rush,” said Casale. “And suddenly I was getting to write and block out a five-minute piece with Devo, as disgruntled nuclear waste workers in Linear Valley, shooting at Raleigh Studios with 35mm film, and probably cost more per hour than I ever got to use, ever. And it was all because of Elliot [Rabinowitz, the producer] and Neil. It was just incredible.”

Aside from Devo’s efforts, the movie featured a lot of songs from Young’s 1982 album, Trans, namely: ‘Computer Cowboy’, ‘Mr. Soul’, ‘We R in Control’ and ‘Transformer Man. Young and Devo collaborated on a cover of ‘Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)’ that featured Booji Boy, Mark Mothersbaugh’s alter-ego.

After its four-year filming process, the often goofy and cartoonish stylisation was widely panned, never making any kind of commercial splash. But Young stayed true to his initial vision, commenting on the monotony of small-town life in his own bizarre way. “There was a big picture of complacency, just how people saw everything, but they just dealt with it as being reality, and no one really questioned what was going on,” he explained.

“So in these goofy people’s lives in our little corner of Linear Valley, where they never left for the whole thing; nobody ever went anywhere; they never did anything, they just came and had lunch and left and fuelled up, had a little roadwork done, natural things going on, day to day.”

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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