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Human Highway is a 1982 comedy film starring and co-directed by Neil Young under his pseudonym Bernard Shakey. Dean Stockwell co-directed the film and acted along with Russ Tamblyn, Dennis Hopper, and the post-punk and new wave band Devo. Included is an unusual collaborative performance of "Hey Hey, My My " by Devo and Neil Young with Booji Boy singing lead vocals and Young playing lead guitar.

The film was shown in only select theaters and was not released on VHS until 1995. It received poor reviews upon its premiere and with the benefit of hindsight has received favorable reviews more recently..

Plot

The movie's primary setting is the last day on Earth at a small gas station-diner in a fictional town located next to a nuclear power plant. The characters are diner employees and customers including Young Otto (Dean Stockwell) who has received ownership of the failing business by the Will of his recently deceased father. One employee, Lionel Switch (Neil Young) is the garage's goofy and bumbling auto mechanic who dreams of being a rock star. "I can do it!" he often exclaims. After some modest character development and a collage-like dream sequence the story ends with a tongue-in-cheek choreographed musical finale while nuclear war begins.

The opening scene is a foreshadowing of the gas station-diner destroyed post nuclear holocaust. Devo's character "Booji Boy" (Mark Mothersbaugh) is a lone survivor, but after his cynical prose the opening credits are a return to present time prior to apocalypse.
"What a day!" The story then begins at the nuclear power plant with crass nuclear garbagepersons (members of Devo) who have a superimposed red glow. They imply that nuclear waste is routinely mishandled and dumped at the nearby town, "Linear Valley". They sing a portion of "It Takes a Worried Man" while loading waste barrels on an old truck. The scene is followed by the first appearance of Lionel with his buddy Fred Kelly (Russ Tamblyn) riding bicycles to work on a sunny day. Fred states that Old Otto's death was by radiation poisoning. The characters remain unaware of these implications as Lionel laments that it should have been him that died because he has worked on "almost every radiator in every car in town."

Early in the day Young Otto announces he must fire an employee for lack of money. He chooses waitress Kathryn (Sally Kirkland) who has a tantrum and refuses to leave. After he goes back to his office she sits down at the booth that has a picture on the wall of Old Otto (also Stockwell). Weeping, she chooses on the juke box the Skeeter Davis song "The End of the World".

It is shown that Lionel has a crush on waitress Charlotte (Charlotte Stewart). Fred lies to Lionel about failing to get them a double date. Later, with a lack of specific terms Charlotte and Lionel are sharing their dreams of the future which involve a backdrop image of a house on the hill. When Charlotte says, "If everything goes right tonight, it could happen" meaning the beginning of her singing career at a talent contest, it means to Lionel that they are going out on a date (which actually isn't happening) and could become a couple.

Later, while head waitress Irene (Geraldine Baron) is bringing Young Otto coffee she overhears him lamenting to his mother on the phone about the business and his plans to destroy the buildings and collect on a fraud insurance claim. Irene demands to be included and insists they seal the deal with a kiss. Lionel is at work in the shop and has learned that his wrenches when hit have musical pitch. Lionel plays percussion on his mechanic's wrenches and whistles to a wooden Indian as his audience. A large crowd's roar is heard with a close up of the statue's face.

After an earthquake Earl Duke (David Blue), as the handsome milkman dressed in white, enters the diner with a delivery. He flirts with Charlotte who has a crush on him, "Charlotte ...on my way over here this morning I thought about you and the earth moved." She replies, "You felt it too!" He continues, "Charlotte, have you ever had a milk bath?" While he is there a dining Arab sheik offers him wealth in return for his "whiteness."

Periodically, the nuclear garbage persons are seen driving through the countryside continuing to sing "Worried Man". Eventually they arrive at the diner for gas and food.

A limousine stops at the gas station. After Lionel learns that his rock star idol, Frankie Fontaine (also Young) is in the limousine, he insists that the vehicle will need work. Frankie agrees to let Lionel work on the vehicle. After meeting rock star Frankie, who appears to lead an opulent, sequestered and drug influenced life-style, Lionel says to the wooden-Indian in his shop, "Now there's a real human being!"

Lionel's dream

The last quarter of the movie is the extended dream sequence caused by Lionel's bump on the head while working on Frankie's limousine. In the first portion of the dream Lionel receives a phone call just after Charlotte in a phone booth during strong winds. His call is Devo's rock song "Come Back Jonee". He is then seen in a small music venue where Devo is playing the song. At the close of the song he suddenly is shown on stage receiving applause giving thanks to his back up band who are wooden Indians. Back stage he is given a milk bath by Irene who is a nightclub waitress and after is approached by the press. Several newspaper headlines then state Lionel is a new rock star. In the middle portion of the dream Lionel travels with this band (the wooden Indians) and crew (all people from his waking life) by trucks through the desert. The wooden Indians become missing.
Burning wooden Indian from the song "Goin' Back".
"Goin' Back" (a song by Young) begins in the soundtrack the middle portion of the dream becomes more collage like. The entourage has reached their destination looking for the lost band members. They are seen both recreating and bickering while Native Americans prepare a bon fire burning the wooden Indians. Soon Lionel is playing music and dancing around the bon fire which appears to have become the center of a Pow Wow. The last portion of Lionel's dream is in a studio setting and is a ten minute jam of Devo and Young performing "Hey, Hey, My, My".

Finale

After Lionel's waking there is the start of global nuclear war. Upon its arrival the characters are not sure what is happening until it is disturbingly announced by Booji Boy as "the hour of sleep" who then provides shovels, suggests "last minute shopping" and commands everyone to "dig that hole and dance like a mole!" The entire diner cast then does a song and dance adaptation of "It Takes a Worried Man" choreographed by Tamblyn. The planet is engulfed in radioactive glow and then the cast, still festive, is seen climbing a stairway to heaven accompanied by both harp music and the credits.

Production

Much of the filming was in 1978 on a Hollywood soundstage. Over four years Young spent $3,000,000 of his own money on production. A portion of the dream sequence was filmed at Taos Pueblo, New Mexicomarker. The soundstage set which included the diner and gas station was built to Young's specific requests. Young's initial idea was to portray a day in the life of Lionel and his bystanders during the Earth's last day. The actors were to develop their own characters. The script was a combination of improvisation and developing small story lines as they went. Young, Stockwell and Tamblyn were central in the writing.

Dennis Hopper who played the addled cook was performing knife tricks with real knives on the set. Sally Kirkland attempted to take a knife from him and severed a tendon. She spent time in a hospital and later sued claiming Hopper was out of control. Hopper has admitted to drug abuse during this time period.

For Devo it was their first experience with Hollywood. Gerald Casale said the band felt removed observing the odd behaviors including excessive alcohol and drug abuse and rock star adulation with Young as the central "most grounded" person.

The "Hey Hey My My" footage with Devo was recorded at Different Fur, San Francisco. Mark Mothersbaugh as "Booji Boy" during this performance inserted the Devo line, "rust never sleeps". The line would soon after become the inspiration for Young's works with the same name. Young showed the footage of this performance to his band Crazy Horse. Guitarist Frank Sampedro has said they played "Hey Hey My My" "harder" as a result.

Credits

Editing and post-production supervision is credited to James Beshears (Madagascar, Shark Tale, Shrek). The screen play is credited to Bernard Shakey, Jeanne Field, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and Beshears. The members of Devo were asked to write their own parts. Choreography is credited to Tamblyn. Music is credited to Neil Young and Devo. The film's score was the first by Mark Mothersbaugh (Rugrats, Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Herbie: Fully Loaded). Most of the songs by Young in the film would be released on the album Trans.

Cast (in credit order)



Video release

The movie was only released in a VHS fullscreen edition (as well as LaserDisc) by WEA in 1995, twelve years after its initial screening. It has not been re-released, or transferred to DVD as of August 2009. Several scenes from the movie appeared on the Devo music video collections We're All Devo and The Complete Truth About Devolution, and were edited to appear as one continuous video for the song "Worried Man".

References



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