DIRECTED BY: Neil Young (as Bernard Shakey), Dean Stockwell
FEATURING: Neil Young, Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell, Charlotte Stewart, Dennis Hopper, Sally Kirkland, Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo
PLOT: A formless counterculture comedy centered around a garage/coffee shop in Glowtown, an irradiated community located by a nuclear plant in the dystopian near future.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Did you know that, in the early 1980s, Neil Young farted around with filmmaking under the pseudonym “Bernard Shakey” and got Devo and a bunch of aging Hollywood acidheads (Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell) to run around in a goofy apocalyptic musical comedy? You gotta hand it to Young–he can’t act, he can’t direct, but he can make a weird movie.
COMMENTS: Just a hunch, but when Neil Young invited Dennis Hopper and pals out to the California desert to make a movie, there may have been drugs on the set. The cast is not afraid to go all out and look ridiculous, which might be due to being too high to care. Human Highway is a series of mostly improvised vignettes set in the Southwestern dystopia of “Glowtown,” centered around a gas station/diner, with side trips to the local nuclear power plant where Devo work as singing, glowing waste disposal engineers. There are several plot threads: imminent nuclear war, a harried Dean Stockwell trying to cut costs and raise prices to turn a profit, Lionel’s hopeless crush on a waitress, and an upcoming talent show. There’s also a flying saucer piloted by “oil-rich Indians” that shows up every now and then. All of these storylines get dropped when Lionel is conked on the head with a wrench and has a dream sequence consisting of about three Neil Young music videos strung together. He wakes up to the apocalypse, and a dance number.
If nothing else, the cast is interesting. Devo is featured prominently, and Booji Boy (a childlike band mascot/character played by Mark Mothersbaugh in a rubber mask and falsetto) gets some of the best bits. Hopper plays a couple of different roles besides the cook, but he isn’t memorable in any of them. Stockwell doesn’t have a lot of material to work with, and Tamblyn has even less, relegated to the role of Young’s sidekick. With fake buck teeth and oversized glasses, Young is OK, I guess, as Lionel the dopey hick mechanic—but why give himself the toughest comic role, rather than handing it off to one of his buddies who knew how to act? After Neil jokes that he should have died of radiation poisoning because he worked on radiators all his life, we start to get the feeling that the comedy might be intentionally lame, just like the backgrounds he and Tamblyn pedal past on their bicycles are intentionally fake. It’s like a parody of a movie (which is different than a parody movie).
Despite the fact that the flick, which was a goofy lark up to that point, grinds to a halt when Lionel has his rock star dream sequence, more songs would have been nice—if they had been scattered more evenly throughout the film. The musical highlights include Devo doing the folk standard “It Takes a Worried Man (To Sing a Worried Song)” (twice), and a novel New Wave-y collaboration with the band on Young’s “Hey Hey My My” (with Booji Boy squeaking the lyrics while Neil delivers an acidic guitar solo). And who can forget the closer, a surreal post-apocalyptic Casio deconstruction of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (recast as “Breakin’ in the Wind,” with Booji reciting lyrics like “and how many sweating hands will pull pulsing pickles, bright and orange, spewing liquid vile and green”)? Pitched as an anarchic musical rather than an improvised indulgence, Human Highway may have had a shot at being a successful cult film, instead of a legendary oddity sought out by fans of the featured performers.
Human Highway was made in 1982, and for some reason filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio—did they have a TV audience in mind? (It was made at the dawn of MTV and the USA Network’s edgy “Night Flight,” where it would have been a perfect fit). In any event, Highway was barely screened during its initial theatrical run, but found a small audience on VHS. In 2016 it had a limited run re-release in Young’s “director’s cut” edition, which trimmed 8 minutes off the running time. A budget DVD, in a cardboard sleeve, followed later in the year.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…never released until it came to home video in 1996, which is surprising: while it’s certainly way too weird to have played to mainstream audiences, it should certainly have done well on the midnight circuit that still existed when it was made.”–TV Guide
(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)