Neil Young’s 1982 film Human Highway is a comedy, a hallucination, an environmental statement, and a few hundred other things that don’t have names. It received mainly poor, confused reviews when it was released, but has since become a cult favorite through shared copies of VHS copies. And now, a new, digitally remastered director’s cut by Young is in the beginnings of a festival tour with plans for a DVD release.
The film stars Young as an ultradorky auto mechanic in a town called Linear Valley, next to a nuclear power plant that is causing unknown disturbances. The assortment of characters, played by co-director Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Charlotte Stewart, and the members of Devo, have a variety of madcap interactions at Otto’s gas station-diner in advance of a planned town talent show, unaware that it’s Earth’s last day of existence. The lone survivor of the nuclear holocaust is Booji Boy (pronounced Boogie Boy), Devo’s rubber-baby-mask-wearing infantile spirit of de-evolution. If you’re annoyed that I just spoiled the ending, don’t be–words cannot explain or replace the experience of watching this movie, which includes a dream sequence that goes on for so long that you assume the narrative has shifted realities.
Human Highway is a glorious headscratcher for anyone with a basic familiarity with scripting and narrative, but even moreso for those who primarily think of Young as one of America’s most serious, lauded rock icons. But at a special screening of the director’s cut at this year’s South By Southwest festival in Austin, Young explained why a project like Human Highway is just as important to his creative process and output as his dozens of albums.
Human Highway was less a formally cast film than a project of friends who had known each other a long time and had a creative rapport. “I always like to be around creative people, people who can improvise and just make things up,” says Young. “You have to do other things, you can’t just do music.”
“We wrote it as we went along,” says Young, quickly corrected by actress Charlotte Stewart: “We wrote it after we went along.” Stewart says the cast would arrive each day knowing their characters, and they’d shoot based on Young and Stockwell’s rough outline. Only then would someone write down a script.
“Improvising is a great way to do things; it’s just hard to sell it in advance,” says Young. “I’ve never been able to make any money for any movie I was involved in, because I always had the script after the fact.”
Despite the initial negative reaction to Human Highway, Young says “it refuses to die. We tried to kill it a couple of times. It was never satisfying to look at it, because I knew there was more to it than we were seeing.”
Young says that 30 years after the film’s release was as good a time as any to revisit and improve it. “I didn’t know enough about what I was doing to really get what it was that we’d done,” he says. “Comedy is a weird thing, it’s a very subtle thing, if you’re trying to tell a story with comedy. I don’t pretend to be any good at it, I’m just experimenting. But the timing of comedy and the way things are set up is so important, and I knew a lot more about that when I did the director’s cut, and I always wanted to make it what it could be. And it’s satisfying because it gets laughs now. At first, when people looked at it they were just like, ‘What? Why?'”
Given the cult status of Human Highway and the dearth of good copies of the film, Young probably could have pressed the director’s cut on Blu-ray or released it on-demand and made instant revenue. But he believes touring the festival circuit first, even given how much else he has going on as a musician and entrepreneur, reflects the way the film was made and is critical to the experience.