Some things are so crazy, they just can’t be made up. One such artifact was the film”Human Highway” as co-written and directed by Neil Young and Dean Stockwell in the late 70s/early 80s netherzone. The movie was presumably a function of the nuclear anxiety that was in the air like smog back then. Not only nuclear war, with Ronald Reagan brandishing cruise missiles wherever he could, but also the nuclear power industry. With Young being active in the “No Nukes” movement which sought to curtail the spread of an energy source that resulted in cannisters of toxic waste with a half-life of anywhere from 30 to 24,000 years. Additionally, the Three Mile Island accident was front page news at exactly the time this film was being made.
I plunked down cash for the Laserdisc since it had long been a point of DEVO lore that their collaboration with Young on this film had already leaked out on excerpts that were part of DEVO’s longform home videos of the 80s. The band improvised their own dialog, as did many in the film and they performed the song “It Takes A Worried Man” as nuclear waste workers just doing their jobs that only appeared in the movie, and not on any of their albums. That musical sequence was actually directed by Gerald Casale who was given the reins by Young as befitted the collaborative and improvisational experience of it all. The video below has the band reminiscing about the strange experience of it all.
The band also performed music with Young playing a dual role of rock star Frankie Fontaine. It’s hard to believe, but a typically crib-bound Booji Boy sang the Neil Young hit “My My, Hey, Hey” while Young was shredding on guitar as accompaniment on the long version of the song in the film. As for the proximity of Young and DEVO, they were both managed by Elliot Roberts, so the crossover wasn’t as cockamamie as it seemed on the face of things. And DEVO was the source of the line “rust never sleeps” that was further inspiration for Young in the late 70s. So the time when the film was being initially being shot as early as 1978 predated Young’s 1979 “Rust Never Sleeps” album.
All of that, and the desire to react artistically to these angst-producing conditions, drove Young to invest $3,000,000 of his own money into what could be be called a vanity project at worst. But at it’s best, the resulting film, as evidenced by the theatrical cut laserdisc I found for sale in 1996, played like a surreal fever dream wherein the future direction of David Lynch was being painted with Young’s technicolor brush as a way out of the black + white expressionistic horror roots of that director’s earlier films “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man” had established him in. But the casting of Charlotte Stewart, the actress who played the cataleptic Mary X in “Eraserhead,” as the dishy waitress Charlotte Goodnight, showed that the continuum of influence between “Human Highway” and the future [and past] work of David Lynch was flowing in simultaneous [possibly quantum?] directions.
When first seeing this movie in 1995, one could not help but notice that the core of Lynch’s future repertory company was all cast in the film. And Ms. Stewart had already acted in early Lynch student films, including her turn in his then calling card, “Eraserhead.” Dean Stockwell and Russ Tamblyn had been neighbors of Young’s in his Topanga Canyon days in the early 70s. And Stockwell and Dennis Hopper were a buddy team that managed to survive a lot of drug-addled damage. Leading to the increasingly erratic Hopper to improvise his role in “Human Highway” on his own.
Another Lynch-like aspect of the movie was the preponderance of pastel clad waitresses in the garage-slash-diner that was the primary setting for the film, with Young playing his main role as goofy mechanic Lionel Switch with dreams of making it as a rock star one day. But Lionel mostly hung around making goo-goo eyes at the ladies waiting tables in the diner. You can practically smell the coffee and cherry pie of the Double R Diner in these scenes. The long quintuple take of Young bugging his eyes out wider and wider at the sight of purty waitress Charlotte Stewart was spellbinding in its Jerry Lewis-like intensity. In fact, it left Lewis’ famed mugging distinctly in the shade; much to my astonishment.
The mise-en-scéne of all of this was in a candy colored dreamworld where the apocalypse was always looming and seemed to actually happen in the movie’s Busby Berkley inspired finale number. Watching it all today the thought of a young David Lynch, perhaps catching one of the scant few showings of it in theaters of the time was a distinct possibility. The goofy Brechtian tone of the production would cast a shadow over not only “Twin Peaks” [and “on The Air”] but much of the oeuvre of Tim Burton as well. That it was made by a famous rock star trying something new and different under the nom du film of “Bernard Shakey” is just one of those things we can look back on in wonderment.
There was a director’s cut of the movie in 2016 with DVDs and Blu-rays to being the strange production to a wider set of eyeballs. I’ve not had the pleasure but I’m guessing that this one is the one anyone might be able to see currently. DEVO came out of this with new respect for the adventurous Young, but even Neil was getting ready to further shred his “Granola Grandad”1 image with his incredibly divisive “Trans” album by the time that the sun had set on the production of “Human Highway,” which wasn’t released as much as given a perfunctory airing and then abandoned for the 14 years when Warner finallly issued the original theatrical version on VHS and Laserdisc.
- – Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO on Neil Young
“On The Air” – oh man, I had forgotten about that series. I wonder if it’s available somewhere…
As for *THIS* particular piece at the center of discussion, I find it highly amusing that DEVO uses, reuses and presents as new recycled footage from other projects. Look at those first four projects, and not how Human Highway is the most chock full of original footage. The other three are, well, I’d love to see a “definitive” culled together assemblage of those first three video albums with the sequencing corrected and storylines all included instead of cannibalized from one to the next.
I don’t know if I can watch this movie again. At least with Lynch you know he is *intending* to confuse the viewer, to obfuscate the plot, to erase any clear definition of an ending and replace it with ambiguity (at best). Here it seems like Young had an idea with some pals, and … got high. At least, that’s how I remember it. It’s been, what, 20+ years since I’ve seen this. I’ll rewatch those DEVO video album compilations at the drop of a hat and enjoy the cheesy un-plot of narrative connective tissue. But this?