Over three decades after Neil Young first unleashed his bizarrely visionary nuclear apocalyptic musical about societal complacency, the singer/songwriter/actor/director came to TIFF to debut a brand new director's cut of "Human Highway" on Wednesday night.
The original cut, which never managed to score much of the way in distribution when it was made in 1982 and exists mainly on worn bootleg VHS copies, is a beloved rarity in the greater Neil Young oeuvre. It’s so hard to come by that even some of his most devoted fans admitted that they hadn't seen the film in years and had to ask Young what was different about the new version in a post-show Q&A with the Canadian legend and members of the cast.
"It's quite a bit different. The original was designed on purpose to be very slow. I really like [French New Wave film icon Jean-Luc] Godard and I love to watch his long shots unfold," Young, clad in a black t-shirt that read "EARTH" and a backwards baseball hat told the audience. "So everything was really slow. I was laughing my ass off because I thought that was really funny with all of these dorky stupid people talking to each other really slow and I thought that was hilarious, but no one else did."
Despite the punchier pace, though, Young's message remains the same.
"It was a big picture of complacency and just how people saw everything, but they just kind of dealt with it as being part of reality and no one ever really questioned what was going on," Young said. "It's not really nuclear power or anything like that. It's just more all of those things kind of at once. There are so many things that we see and just live with, so now I think it's kind of time to not do that and just start really making some noise."
Gerald Casale of Devo, who play a large role in the film, expressed similar sentiments about its meaning to him both then and now. "I had no idea that Neil felt the same way about the big human condition that Devo did. That was a revelation. And that's why it's relevant. Nothing's changed. The human highway leads to a drop off like the Road Runner."
He also expressed how much of a difference "Human Highway" made for Devo. "For me, it was kind of life-changing because Devo was fresh and green from the midwest and our whole lives changed overnight. I had directed three low-budget Devo videos and that was about it, and then suddenly I find out Neil Young likes us, and we get to meet him. And I grew up listening to Neil Young and after the shootings at Kent State [the event that inspired Young's "Ohio"], I used to lay around in my apartment and listen to "After The Goldrush." And suddenly I was getting to write and block out a five-minute piece with Devo as disgruntled nuclear waste workers in Linear Valley," Casale.
Devo weren't the only artists who enjoyed some sort of big break thanks to "Human Highway." After thanking and praising all of the filmmakers and actors involved in the picture, Young wanted to take a moment to thank one particular member of the clean-up crew.
"The guy who we were talking about taking care of the set... what was his job?" he asked his castmates on stage.
"You mean Kevin Costner?" laughed actress Charlotte Stewart.
"Yes," Young confirmed. "He was like our janitor or something."
"He was on the set every day," Stewart added. "He learned everything he knew from Neil."
Producer Elliot Rabinowitz, who was somewhat reluctantly pulled out of the crowd to participate in the Q&A, contributed some important details about the way "Human Highway" was made.
"Neil wrote a lot of it as we progressed. I know that's probably impossible to tell that," he laughed, lovingly teasing the film's eccentric and loose plot structure. "But there was a lot of improv."
In that same playful tone, Rabinowitz blamed The Man for keeping "Human Highway" down all of these years. "It was actually very, very anti-establishment when we did it, and that's probably the reason why we couldn't get any distribution. It couldn't have been the film. Obviously politics played a great deal."
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