'CSNY Déjà Vu' should have come along sooner

Ed Symkus

Film director Bernard Shakey was angry. He was fed up with the Bush administration and its disregard of human rights, the environment, the deficit … the list goes on. But he was most upset about Iraq, about the immoral, illegal and very deadly folly that was Bush’s war in Iraq. He decided to make a film that showed how others felt about the same issues, and he would do it with music at its center. Music, after all, was something that Bernard Shakey knew even more about than filmmaking. Bernard Shakey is better known as Neil Young.

Yet one of the first things heard — off-camera — in Young’s documentary about the 2006 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young “Freedom of Speech” concert tour is the sound of people putting him and his fellow protestors down, accusing them of being traitors.

Talk about offering up a balance of opinions! Young’s film works on a variety of levels. There are large chunks of songs being performed at concerts all over the country by Young and his 60-something compatriots — new songs from his terrific “Living with War” album as well as some good old CSNY staples — and there are voices, lots of reactionary voices, from members of the audiences. Some of them offer support; others call for Young’s head. Young wanted to know what America thought of his opinions of Bush and the war, and by golly, they told him. His songs may speak strongly against the man who will go down as the worst, most harmful president in American history, but his film doesn’t take sides.

He enlisted war correspondent and former soldier Mike Cerre to tag along on the tour and interview all kinds of people, knowing full well that even George Bush supporters love popular music. And CSNY has long been out there creating popular music, so he knew that both sides would be represented at the concerts.

There’s also lots of quality time on the tour bus, where other iconic members of the band get their say; and there’s plenty of old footage — a dressing room rehearsal in 1970, brief clips of CSNY’s old bands: Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Hollies. But the majority of this is what happens both onstage and in the audience (and after the shows) during the 2006 tour.

Young reveals at one point that the responsibility of the show is simply to make the audience feel. That’s one goal that’s accomplished with ease, but it’s not always a pretty sight. Cerre notes that concerts in the blue states went pretty well, but that he had some concern about a couple of upcoming red state appearances. Then the tour bus arrives in Atlanta, where the band breaks into the happy-sounding but quite furious “Let’s Impeach the President.” This is where Young gets that variety of reactions he was hoping for. Some of the folks in that audience sing along, their hands waving happily. Others just get up and walk out, emitting a few loud boos, their middle fingers directed toward the stage as they leave. It’s a remarkable sequence, and it shows the awful divide that still plagues our country.

Amazingly, the film never sits still. There’s slightly more music than anything else — a hot version of Nash’s “Military Madness,” with Young ripping out a signature solo; a deeply moving performance of Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” made even more poignant by the accompanying photos of soldiers who were killed in action behind the singers.

But there’s plenty more, ranging from frightening war footage to clips of Young jockeying with Stephen Colbert during a hilarious appearance on “The Colbert Report.” Young also peppers the film with snippets of concert reviews from around the country, showing them on the screen while unseen voices read from them. Again, most are positive, but many are vehemently negative — about the band’s political statements, not the music.

In fact, the music near the beginning of the tour is quite ragged, but as it goes on, the guitar playing gets better and the vocal harmonies get tighter. And then it comes pouring forth: anti-war, pro-peace songs, some of them of an anthemic nature.

Of course, between the songs, we’re as apt to get interviewees making comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam as we are to hear Graham Nash complaining, “We may be preaching to the choir, but I’d like the choir to get up off their ass and do something.”

“CSNY/Déjà Vu” isn’t at all like the gentle Neil Young concert film “Heart of Gold,” nor is it reminiscent of the similar “Leonard Cohen: I’ m Your Man.” It’s closer in style to the Bush-related Dixie Chicks documentary “Shut Up & Sing” — but of much wider musical and political scope and substance. It could really make some waves in America. Too bad it didn’t come along sooner.