New CSNY film shows a nation far from ‘Ohio’
A film by Neil Young, “CSNY Deja Vu,” hits screens today, even as Crosby, Stills and Nash tour this summer without their colleague. The 95-minute film, part documentary/part concert film, depicts the quartet’s 2006 “Freedom of Speech” tour, where Young’s incendiary “Living With War” material was an integral part of their sets.
But the movie is not just a hosanna for Young’s anti-war material, as they took the savvy step of assigning coverage to Mike Cerre, a veteran ABC correspondent who was with the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
A Vietnam combat vet, Cerre accepts the invitation to “embed” with the tour, which the four musicians admit they are not certain will be well-received everywhere. Young advises the reporter he does not want him to slant the story, and Cerre seems to seek out opposing views wherever possible.
We see the pre-tour rehearsals, and how the other three members accede to Young’s project.
“This band is not a democracy, it’s a benevolent dictatorship,” says David Crosby. “Neil’s in charge.”
More to the point, Graham Nash notes, “There’s always been a certain reality, a certain honesty, as a band, that we’ve always been true to what is going on with us.”
As the band goes through its opening shows, mostly in Canada or safe blue state America, the early rough spots are worked out. But the musicians still harbor their own doubts. Nash and Stephen Stills, who comes from a military family, provide some of the most succinct comments.
“This is a political cartoon,” Stills says. “I take it as that. But maybe these people will listen to these songs and take something away.”
Traversing the country, the concerts get better, with more classic CSNY tunes warming up the crowds for the anti-war content. Cerre notes “the music got better, the message got clearer.” But inevitably, especially in the South, there was negative reaction too.
Radio hosts in Atlanta – first city to (proudly) ban Dixie Chicks music – mock “four balding hippie millionaires out to save the world.” One telling segment has a pair of Atlanta pop DJs discussing the upcoming concert, and one proclaiming the band “egomaniacal” for “telling people what to think.”
Of course, what is a DJ, with no artistic achievement or background beyond reading commercials, who does the same thing?
Cerre even unearths a 1988 Young interview in which he says music should never be entirely political. An ’84 Crosby interview notes that he feels music should only involve topical matters, as “Ohio” did for Kent State, “when something just comes up and smacks you in the face.”
The tipping point of the concerts is usually Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President,” and that prompts first audience unrest. About one-third of them walked out in Atlanta. Cerre does a bunch of exit interviews, when these proper folk aren’t just giving him the finger, and what is striking is their blind loyalty. They don’t want to debate issues or offer their rationale, as much as opposing views in wartime are not allowed, or as one young man passionately says, “There are a lot smarter people down there in Washington and they know what they’re doing.”
One young man sneers, “Nice protest show. Take it down to the Quad, and see if anyone’s interested.” That might be the most depressing snapshot in the film, a 22-year old kid utterly uninterested in his generation’s war.
There are some striking images in the film’s second half, like Stills using his off time to help congressional candidates as the 2006 mid-terms approach. He seems the most measured and articulate, most grounded in the real world, of the four. Stills admits he’d rather see people spending their money on supporting worthy candidates than on $70-$80 concert tickets.
Quotes from media reviews are read by Cerre on the soundtrack as the tour unfolds, ranging from cheap shots about their age to a rabid, witless rant in Asbury Park, N.J., but other critics point out the show makes audiences think. Cerre also discovers that the top-rated song (by downloads) on Young’s Web site is by Josh Hisle of Cincinnati, and recalls seeing him as a singing Marine corporal in 2003 in Kuwait, preparing for the invasion. He arranges a meeting with Young, and they play the young man’s song together in a hotel room, and then Young asks him about how and where he wrote it.
Bo Alexander is part of the production team, and Young includes family photos of Alexander’s dad – who died in Vietnam – in the photo arrays accompanying the music, which touches Bo greatly.
Later a Gold Star mother comes to a show to see the collage of servicemen and women killed in Iraq, which stands behind the quartet as they do an a cappella version of “Find the Cost of Freedom” every night. She’s moved to tears when her son’s photo appears, and wishes more people could see him and his brethren remembered that way.
There’s a poignant segment with Vets4Vets, an organization of Iraq war veterans seeking to aid and comfort their fellow returnees, providing the continuing support they can’t find from their government.
“You don’t have to agree with me,” Young said at one point, “but if I speak what is truth to me, maybe that will resonate with some other people.”
Crosby said, “This tour made us believe in ourselves again. Especially the town crier aspect of what we do. ... Good art makes you feel something, and anger is one of those things.”
Nash admits, “Maybe we’re singing to the choir. Personally, I’d like the choir to get off its a**.”
The Patriot Ledger