For Neil Young fans, the words “Human Highway” can mean one of three different things, two of which are so unlike the third, it’s as if they came from different artists. First, there’s “Human Highway,” the song, one of Young’s gentle acoustic rags, with Nicolette Larson’s soft vocal harmonies and lots of banjo and fiddle. It landed on 1978’s Comes a Time but debuted five years earlier, nearly becoming the title track for a CSNY album that never materialized, a legendary follow-up to Déjà Vu.
None of this has anything to do with Human Highway, the 1980 film directed by Neil Young (as “Bernard Shakey”) and Dean Stockwell, which tells the “story,” if it can be called, of a crooked diner owner in a small town next to a nuclear power plant staffed by the members of Devo as “nuclear garbagepersons.” The cast is cult film royalty: “Dennis Hopper is a psychotic cook named Crackers,” notes critic Steven Puchalski, “Sally Kirkland is a beleaguered waitress; [Stockwell] is the new owner, Young Otto (son of the late Old Otto); plus Neil Young and Russ Tamblyn are frighteningly convincing as two noodle-headed gas pump operators, Lionel and Fred.”
The film is set on the last day before a nuclear apocalypse, a slapstick take on the time’s nuclear anxiety and Young’s stance against nuclear power. His nerdy Lionel idolizes rock star Frankie Fontaine (also Young), then becomes him in a dream sequence full of “wooden Indians” — his backing band. He then jams out with Devo for ten minutes (top) one of the highlights of the film, a performance of “Hey, Hey, My, My” with Mark Mothersbaugh taking lead vocals as Devo character “Booji Boy” (pronounced “boogie boy”).
“By normal standards,” Puchalski writes, “the movie sucks, but it’s a Mutant Must-See for Rock-‘N’-Schlock Completists.” It could also be one of the most influential indie films of the eighties, argues Den of Geek’s Jim Knipfel, leaving its mark on everything from Alex Cox’s Repo Man to David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet (in which Hopper and Stockwell play somewhat similar characters) and Twin Peaks (in which Russ Tamblyn appears), to Tim Burton’s Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure.
Or maybe Young “was simply cursed to be ten minutes ahead of his time,” given that hardly anyone saw Human Highway in 1982. Shot over four years, and mostly financed by Young himself, Human Highway saw a limited release in L.A. then disappeared until a 1996 VHS edit of the film brought it some renown and critical reappraisal. (Its cover quoted an agent at William Morris saying, “It’s so bad, it’s going to be huge.”) The film has since become a cult classic, warranting special screenings like a reunion in 2016 at L.A.’s Regal Theater featuring Young, Tamblyn, Devo’s Gerald Casale, actress Charlotte Stewart, and Cameron Crowe. (See a trailer for the DVD director’s cut release just above.)
At one point during the Q&A, Young turned to Crowe and asked, “Do you think we could get this movie made today?”. The film was made under unique conditions: “no script, improvised dialogue and a daily routine that began with someone asking him ‘What’s the plan today, Neil?’ to which he always replied ‘The plan today is no plan!'” It could get made, if Neil wanted to finance it (and a younger cast could handle the amount of drugs that clearly went into making the film). Given the number of digital distribution channels and Young’s fame, it could also very likely find a wide audience.
But in 1982, releasing a self-financed film, even if you were Neil Young, proved much more challenging. And in the late seventies and early eighties, one of the few ways for innovative New Wave bands like Devo to get wider notice was to catch the ear of stars like Young, who discovered them on stage in 1977 and knew he had to get them on film — before “Whip It” and their first defining hits came out — and show the rest of us what we were missing.