Neil Young’s Human Highway: A Radioactive Acid Trip Through the American Wasteland

By  · Published on April 21st, 2015

In the BBC documentary Don’t Be Denied, Neil Young says the following about his move away from counterculture-era rock ’n’ roll and towards more experimental forms of music-making during the early 1980s:

The 80s were like, artistically, very strong for me, because I knew no boundaries and was experimenting with everything that I could come across, sometimes with great success, sometimes with terrible results, but nonetheless I was able to do this, and I was able to realize that I wasn’t in a box…

After a few years of scant original recording and no touring while caring for his son, Ben, born with cerebral palsy, Young released “Trans” in 1982, his first album to thoroughly integrate synthesizers and other electronic instruments of the era. No longer seeing himself beholden to the instrumental mandates of rockism, Young ventured into, for him, uncharted and surprising musical directions that embraced the spirit of experimentation, regardless of how polarizing the result may be.

Released the same year, Young’s film Human Highway can be seen as another extension of this throw-it-to-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mode of experimentation for a rock star finding his place early in a decade that had grown weary of his genre.

Directed under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey (which Young first adopted for his 1972 concert/art film Journey Through the Past), Human Highway was Young’s third feature, but his first that can be generously deemed a narrative. This oddity, long unavailable on anything but a 1995 VHS release, has recently been remastered and re-released by Abramorama, giving many their first opportunity to see this true work of cinematic idiosyncrasy that defiantly refuses categorization.

The plot, so to speak, follows an array of residents of a small town in the dystopian Linear Valley, a Middle-American wasteland occupied by gas fumes and an array of nuclear toxins that threaten to bring full-blown apocalypse to a place always teetering on the edge of chaos.

Young plays Lionel Switch, an inept garage mechanic too distracted by everything from puppy love to the arrival of his limousine-bound favorite rock star to sense the impending doom ahead. The same can be said of Fred Kelly (Russ Tamblyn), whose modest ladder-climbing aims are continually cut short by his clumsiness. Switch and Kelly, as well as a group of diner waitresses played by Charlotte Stewart, Sally Kirkland, and Geraldine Baron, are watched over by Otto Quartz (Dean Stockwell, credited as co-director), a wealthy heir secretly planning a scorched-earth insurance fraud scheme to rid himself of his minimal responsibilities among the plebes.

Lionel and Fred’s fruitless attempts at getting by are interspersed by the journeys of a gang of Nuclear Garagepersons (played by none other than Devo) tasked with transporting nuclear waste across Linear Valley, their suits radiating in an early-80s Tron glow along the way. A foul-mouthed, apocalypse-heralding man-child named Booji Boy (a Devo creation of Mark Mothersbaugh) at one point witnesses a large barrel of nuclear waste falling onto a biker off screen, then later drinks gasoline while describing the size of his mother’s ass, and spends a good portion of the film’s ending reciting a crude variation of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

At some point during a haphazard limousine repair, Lionel dreams about becoming (wait for it) Neil Young. Flies that glow neon-red crowd the diner. There is a series of arguments about how many sausages said diner can serve. All of this occurs, and all of it takes place on sets and against backdrops that decidedly meet the standards of realism practiced by ’60s science-fiction television series.

The free-spirited, defiant id of the project is best exemplified by Dennis Hopper, who plays a cook seemingly tasked by Young to yell short, improvisational non sequiturs in strained, hoarse intonations. According to Jimmy McDonaugh’s Young biography “Shakey,” a drug-addled Hopper used real knives to embody his character and attempted knife tricks on set, which resulted in Kirkland severing a tendon when attempting to stop him.

Hopper also briefly portrays a millionaire with a zebra-lined car interior.

Young funded the production of Human Highway on and off over four years, financed entirely with $3m of his own money. While the film contains several tropes present throughout Young’s music and activism, namely the environmentalism at the core of the film’s farcical depiction of a nuclear dystopia, the film does not read as a traditional passion project. For a musician known for his polemicism, Human Highway is more of a work of manic midnight satire than a statement, and would feel more at home at trippy late-night screenings than activist gatherings. Befitting a rock musician who suddenly decides to pick up a vocoder, Young shows no concern here with a potential audience, nor in making a film that fits within pre-existing categories and expectations, nor with even conveying coherent meaning – this is a film concerned more with an exploration of ideas (nuclear holocaust, the pernicious myth of class mobility, fossil fuel dependence, the distractions of suburbia) rather than necessarily rendering any coherence between them.

But with the benefit of hindsight that a re-release provides, Human Highway becomes far more legible than it ever could have been to the few audiences who saw it 33 years ago, because it fits strangely alongside several better-known works of less-than-conventional narrative filmmaking that followed.

Young’s comic view of a chaotic, apocalyptic, clearly fabricated dystopia now reads reminiscent of the hyper-real satire of bureaucracy that is Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Human Highway also resonates with (almost to the point of seeming predictive of) David Lynch’s post-Dune career renaissance – not only sporting in Hopper and Stockwell two major players of Lynch’s own ’80s plunge into the dark corners Americana, Blue Velvet, but also Twin Peaks regular Tamblyn (you know him as Dr. Jacoby) here enacting a perfectly campy performance to match Young’s exaggerated setting. Without being too zeitgeist-y about it, there is something in the water in which Young swims here that finds a place for Human Highway nestled amongst great works of subsequent cinema.

As much of a cliché as it is to call a film ahead of its time, I had a distinct feeling throughout Human Highway that this work of cinematic eccentricity would have felt much more at home had it been released just a few years later. In the mid-1980s, Human Highway could have sat comfortably alongside Jim Jarmusch’s breakthrough works at the onset of the late-20th century American indie renaissance (the two later collaborated on Jarmusch’s Dead Man). A few years after that, the first narrative feature by the so-called “Godfather of Grunge” might have been a must-see for irony-prone late-80s/early-90s subcultures. But, as produced somewhere between the height of the midnight movie and the rise of MTV, Human Highway was essentially a film without a given space in which to exist, a movie impossible to categorize between slasher flicks and Stallone sequels.

But that’s also what makes Human Highway feel like such a bizarre discovery today for anyone willing to spend 80-odd minutes down the rabbit hole of Neil Young’s unlikely dystopia. It never really mattered whether the film made sense, fit in anywhere, or whether it was even good. Experimentation, playfulness, and boundary pushing are not the means, but the apocalyptic end.

Human Highway is currently playing in limited release in New York City, with home video release plans for some point before the toxic end times.