I am a dyed in the wool fan of most things around Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The first time I saw the quartet was circa 1974, and my girlfriend embroidered my denim shirt with their logo. I took a cool picture on the short-lived Still-Young tour two years later, on the nation’s Bicentennial. As for this documentary about their 2006 tour, I had some living-in-the-past trepidations going in. I was steadily shocked and awed that the film exceeded my modest expectations by a long shot. The film’s issues are extremely current and the film leverages the quartet’s burnished past in a far from maudlin way.
David Crosby makes clear at the film’s outset that the band has essentially always left Neil Young in charge. When Young decided that the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war was untenable, he worked through the songs that became Living With War. Never afraid of technology, he made his album available for free, as he wanted “to get the songs out there.” He then rounded up his campadres, and the CSNY 2006 tour was quickly underway. Young, under his nom du film Bernard Shakey, directed the resulting documentary. Rather than a strict concert film, the result is a documentary that owes more than a touch to the efforts of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Hence, black humor is laced with some effective and touching firsthand accounts.
Veteran reporter Mike Cerre parlayed his experience of being embedded with the troops in Iraq to become embedded on the CSNY tour. The result is a well-honed film, which does an admirable job of presenting all sides of the debate. Audience members discuss the merits of four aging hippies charging hundreds of dollars a ticket to shove anti-war songs down the throats of their fans. The setlist is entirely comprised of anti-war songs, some old and some new. Clips from 1970 point out that the band was always taking a political stand. Young’s “Ohio” was rushed to market after the Kent State debacle that left four students dead. The freedom of speech motif runs throughout the film; the band’s usual Persian rugs onstage are eschewed in favor of a huge copy of the Constitution. When a horde of fans storm out of the concert during “Let’s Impeach The President” the film does a credible job of balancing the arguments.
No one brought up the seeming irony of a Canadian (Young) or a Brit (Nash) diving so deeply into American politics, which was refreshing.
One of the many touching moments was the story of Josh Hisle, a vet and musician. Like many vets, he believes he is fully honoring his country by speaking out against the war. In Hisle’s case, he sings as well. The spontaneous jam between Hisle and Young reminded me of the moment in a past U2 tour when Bono invited a punter from the audience to sing his song with the band.
The film balances the music and the talking nicely. Stills looks the worst for wear. Nash and Crosby handle all the delicate harmonies. Young goes into his angular trance during his scorching guitar solos. The news clips of protesters, Presidents and Iraqi roadside skirmishes provide context.
Neil Young has consistently pushed the edge of the envelope musically, politically and technologically. He has been embraced by folkies, hippies, grungers and technocrats. This film further cements his impressive legacy. Long may you run, indeed.