Human Highway is Neil Young’s second foray into a full-length feature film, the followup to Journey Through the Past from 1972, and it’s not all that surprising the Canadian would release it in 2016 in a newly-crafted director’s cut. The hour and twenty minutes are peppered with environmental references while the narrative, such as it is, carries an underlying theme about the dangers of nuclear power, all of which connects with Young’s most recent topically-oriented work including the ‘live’ album Earth.
But the weave of non-sequiturs, transparent attempts at humor and mixed-up metaphors and allegories also give this 1982 effort more than a little in common with its equally clumsily executed predecessor. Human Highway suffers as much as its antecedent from a lack of focus in which its series of vignettes, of varying duration, seem strung together more than a little haphazardly rather than based on a carefully-scripted linear plot. There’s no question Young is trying to make some valid points about the evils of corporate greed and the wise use of natural resources, but he’s probably not going to convert the skeptical to his point(s)-of-view and even his fans may find it difficult to take all this seriously, precisely because he doesn’t.
That’s in part because Human Highway lacks the redeeming factor of Journey’s rare CSNY concert footage, only offering limited performance content, here presaging of the rock icon’s Trans phase of electronic-themed sounds. As a result, Neil Young’s most likely going to provoke only scant curiosity about the movie with its reissue, except insofar as it can work as a trivia challenge for the man’s fans. It’s worth noting the recurring appearance of Devo (from whom Young took the Rust Never Sleeps theme), the thespian/ screenwriting presence of Dean Stockwell, whose earlier collaboration with Young gave birth to what’s arguably his most cogent topical statement (the single song “After the Gold Rush” speaks volumes) and the cast inclusions of the artist’s manager as well as Dennis Hopper.
But such nuggets are ultimately of minimal long-term value, except perhaps for Neil Young completists, who, even if they have already watched this in original form as a bootleg or on VHS videotape, may only screen it one more time to make it worth it for themselves–and then perhaps for unknowing but like-minded fans. To Young’s credit, the social commentary at the heart of Human Highway (as with carefully-prepped 2016 concert album) reaffirms the continuity of his creative timeline, as does its DVD/Blu-Ray release as a set-up to a similar reissue of remastered version of the brilliant concert film Rust Never Sleeps.
In conjunction with the studio and live audio out at the time of that documentary’s release in 1979, those works depicted a return to form for Neil Young and no doubt the timing of these cinema titles’ availability carries a similar logic. It’s worth debating if that’s sufficient to placate those among us eager for classic Neil Young, having witnessed a string of projects. (A Letter Home, Storytone, The Monsanto Years) far removed from that recognizable style. If we admire Neil Young because he continues to follows his instincts so loyally, we may have to admit we are right with him, back in the ditch he occupied over four decades ago, during the phase of his career including Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach.