Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Deja Vu

Directed by Neil Young under his nom de cinema Bernard Shakey, this CSNY concert doc seems doomed to the hippie vainglory epitomized by David Crosby, Steve Stills, and Graham Nash since approximately 1971, when Young ditched them. Every once in a while, for love or money or the hell of it, Young reconvenes the quartet, and it's always his show. Older, wiser, and off crack, Crosby explains: "CSNY is not a democracy. It's a dictatorship, a benevolent dictatorship. Neil is in charge not because he demands it. It's not because he bosses people around. It's because he thinks about this stuff All. The. Time."

Thinking all the time, the 60-year-old Young birthed another brainstorm in one feverish week of 2006, when he wrote and recorded a crude, overstated, immensely heartening protest album called Living With War. With Chad Cromwell's drums in sledgehammer mode and a hundred-strong ad hoc choir powering home every blessed refrain, I hedged my rave to allow for the likelihood that the music wouldn't "hold up," as they say, and replayed it only when asked to review this filmed version of the album's promotional tour. It sounded great. The movie is pretty good too.

Deja Vu isn't really a concert doc--it makes room for almost no complete songs because its focus is political. Young not only expects trouble on what he dubs the "Freedom of Speech Tour," he invites it by performing nine Living With War songs and projecting a no-holds-barred lyric on a backdrop screen: "Let's impeach the president for lying/And misleading our country into war/Abusing all the power that we gave him/And shipping all our money out the door." As Young explains to narrator Michael Cerre, a CNN Iraq correspondent whom he "embeds" with the tour "to try to get at the story, not slant the story": "Our responsibility to the audience is no longer making them feel fuzzy and warm feelings. . . . The responsibility of this show is to make the audience feel, period." Politely, the mercurial Crosby and the insipid Nash come up with platitudes--not-just-oldies, our-fans-expect-something-different. Only Stills, always the band's most arrogant oaf, admits to misgivings: "The yellow ribbons and stuff, you know, it's Neil's Tony Orlando and we're Dawn. There's something very preposterous about that."

In northern cities, things go smoothly. Cerre interviews a middle-aged Milwaukee longhair who believes Bush is a fascist, as well as a fan in a U.S. Air Force Retired cap who says, "Different war. Different president. Different time. Same problems. Nothing changes." No wonder the "no more war" refrain of Nash's 1971 "Military Madness" gets a lot more sing-along action than on CSNY's 2002 tour. No wonder old and young join in on "Let's Impeach the President."

But as Cerre demonstrates, there are dissenting voices in the audience and the press, and in Atlanta these achieve critical mass. When the impeachment lyrics come up, hundreds, maybe thousands, walk out. "Bullshit!" "The worst concert I've ever been to in my life." "I'd like to knock his fuckin' teeth out." Inside, others boo. Yet even in Atlanta, much of the house is on its feet and singing. Nostalgiacs buy CSNY tickets to fuzzily recall their tuneful youths. But a fondness for pretty music needn't eradicate your conscience, anxieties, or ideals. That's one reason Young has long been fascinated by small towns. Almost anywhere, he believes, old hippies can and do come together with other equally good-hearted citizens.

This goes for Iraq vets, too, and slowly they take over the film: two female medics dragooned into being MPs, one of whom now leads an antiwar group; a motorcycle-riding reservist who volunteered for two tours and now works as a traumatic stress counselor; ex-marine singer-songwriter Josh Hisle, whose "A Traitor's Death" was a big hit on Young's website. Moving stuff. But so are that oaf Steve Stills's extracurricular activities. While on tour, he fund-raised for 10 antiwar congressional candidates--we see him giving a rather cogent campaign spiel. Seven of them won.

Film Comment, July-August, 2008