“The answer my friend/is breaking in the wind/the answer is sticking out your rear”
This is the poetry of Booji Boy — Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh wearing a baby mask — as he walks through a deserted, post-apocalyptic landscape. This is the beginning of Neil Young’s Human Highway.
Human Highway is legendary for its weirdness. Before it was released on DVD in 2016, the film was notoriously hard to find and only available to those lucky enough to find the laserdisc or VHS copies kicking about. Featuring Neil Young as a goofy mechanic who longs to be a rhythm and blues man and Devo as nuclear fallout cleaners, the film is packed with characters, straying storylines, musical numbers and oddness, making it natural material for this column.
This film is Young’s baby. He co- wrote and directed it back in the late 1970s (with influences as far ranging as Godard and Godzilla), released it for a limited run in 1982, released it again in 1983, and then went on to edit it for years before a director’s cut debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014 and another limited run thereafter. The film is clearly improvised (Dennis Hopper, in particular, feels like he’s doing whatever he wants throughout), and at times the structure even feels like Young (credited as Bernard Shakey) is making two different movies: a nuclear war comedy and a concert film.
At the start of the film Lionel (Young) and his friend Fred (Russ Tamblyn) ride their bikes to work while Devo prep their truck full of nuclear waste barrels to head in the same direction. They dump their waste in Linear Valley, the location of the gas station-cum-diner where Lionel works. Lionel and Fred are goofy and not so bright, and a lot of the plot revolves around their misunderstandings and lack of smoothness. When trying to woo one of the waitresses at the diner (Charlotte Stewart), Lionel can only muster bug eyes and a constant stream of “phoo”s as he exhales sharply, over and over, presumably in awe of her beauty. It’s one of the extended, why-are-we-watching-this-for-so-long kind of scenes that set the tone of Human Highway.
At the gas station, the owner has just died of radiation poisoning and the usual flow of the friendly roadside stop is interrupted by Young Otto (Dean Stockwell, Young’s co-writer/director on this project), the previous owner’s son.
Young Otto wants the place to either run more efficiently or burn to the ground. He gives the diner staff shit (Dennis Hopper is the fry cook named Cracker; and Stewart, Sally Kirkland and Geraldine Baron are the waitresses) and a whole arson/blackmail subplot emerges. Cracker keeps saying Young Otto doesn’t have the same glow his father did, which either means he’s not as lovely as his father, or he literally doesn’t have as much radiation poisoning yet.
Other oddities include Booji Boy drinking gasoline, Cracker feeding a raccoon pancakes and actors playing more than one character, yet the weirdest part of the film is when it suddenly turns into a concert movie.
Lionel gets knocked out while working on a car and has a very long dream sequence that is basically three music videos. The first starts with Devo playing “Come Back Jonee” while Lionel moves through a mosh pit, gets thrown onto the stage and becomes a rock star (you know you’ve hit peak rock stardom when you get milk poured on you backstage). The second takes place when Lionel (the rock star) is on the road and his bus gets stolen by Native Americans who use it to transport a number of cigar-store Indians to a bonfire and everyone dances around the burning statues to Neil Young’s “Goin’ Back.” The finale to the dream sequence is perhaps the most iconic portion of the film: a nearly 10-minute version of “Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue)” with Booji Boy on lead vocals and keyboard, playing from inside a crib. Young knocks the crib over and the already long hallucination ends with a keyboard jam in a tipped over pen.
The musical dream may have been perfect for Young fans who may otherwise find the film tedious, but even this Devo fanatic was exhausted by it. It took me out of the film and by the time it was over I’d almost forgot what I was watching.
However music is important to this film. Lionel hears music in everything he touches — tools, car parts, a hood ornament — and the end musical number (a Monkees-esque dance scene where everyone sings “Worried Man Blues,” dances with shovels and runs around the gas station) is the most joyous bit of chaos in the film.
In the wake of the re-release for the festival circuit, many interviews with the cast mention an incident during filming where Hopper (whose fry cook is constantly waving knives) cut Sally Kirkland pretty badly so she had to go to the hospital and she later sued Young and Hopper for damages. Sounds like the filmmaking was as chaotic as its outcome.
The best thing about this movie: Booji Boy and the goofy friendship between Lionel and Fred.
The worst thing about this movie: All the Arab jokes. There’s some insinuation that Arabs are behind a nuclear bombing that feels unnecessary given all the other nuclear fallout from Devo’s crew that could have killed them. It seems like the recent “directors cut” would’ve been the perfect time to cut out things like white character actor Fox Harris playing a Sheik and repeated use of the term “towelheads.”
How chaotic is it?: While sufficiently unexpected, the dream sequence messed with the tone of this otherwise hyper film, leaving it at a 5.5 on my chaos metre.