In his 2012 memoir Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young writes that he made Human Highway because he “needed to do something besides music to keep fresh and have a musical perspective.” By the time the film had its premiere in August 1982 (at a benefit for San Francisco’s National Academy of Child Development), it had been in production for four years, during which Young kept his musical perspective by recording several albums and directing the 1979 Crazy Horse concert film Rust Never Sleeps (the one where the roadies are dressed like Jawas from Star Wars). For both, Young used the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, and was assisted on Highway by actor Dean Stockwell, who pitched in on the script along with Young, co-star/choreographer Russell Tamblyn, associate producer Jeanne Field, and editor/post-production supervisor James Beshears.
In addition to wearing multiple hats on the production side of things (including contributing songs to the soundtrack from his forthcoming album Trans), Young was one of several performers who takes on dual roles in front of the camera. The main one is dorky auto mechanic Lionel Switch, who dreams of being a rock star like his idol, Frankie Fontaine (also Young, credited as Shakey). Devo singer and keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh pulls off a similar double act, playing one of the radioactive Nuclear Garbagepeople — collectively referred to as the “Nukies” — as well as Devo’s rubber-masked and squeaky-voiced mascot Booji Boy, who becomes Human Highway’s mascot as well. For sheer unpredictability, though, it’s tough to beat Dennis Hopper’s turns as cracked short-order cook Cracker and the paranoid Stranger passing through who, echoing the Nukies’ spirited rendition of the traditional folk song “It Takes a Worried Man” (which they whip out while transporting leaking barrels of nuclear waste to an undisclosed location), is wearing a button that brands him a “WORRIED MAN.”
Indeed, anxiety is the watchword of Human Highway, and one of Linear Valley’s most anxious transplants is Otto Quartz (Stockwell), who has inherited Otto’s Corners upon the death of his father and can’t figure out how the old man turned a profit with his screwy business model. (Stockwell also appears briefly as the late Otto Sr. at the end of the film, by which time such materialistic concerns have been rendered unimportant.) Not only has Otto Jr. begun instituting new, draconian rules, he also fires one of his employees without warning and plans to let everyone else go and torch the business for the insurance money.
All things considered, Lionel’s dim-bulb friend Fred (Tamblyn) couldn’t have picked a worse day to apply for a job at the gas station where he works. (Of course, when Fred offers to work the whole day for free, Otto is more than happy to take him up on it.) Fred’s other reason for coming around is to be close to Irene (Geraldine Baron), a waitress at the diner next door. Similarly, Lionel has a thing for her co-worker Charlotte (Charlotte Stewart, late of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, in which she played Mary X), but she only has eyes for Earl the milkman. That just leaves poor, laid-off Kathryn (Sally Kirkland) out in the cold, but at least she’s not in danger of being paired off with a total goober.
The world these characters inhabit looks a lot like the American southwest circa 1982, or the closest approximation Young’s crew could conjure up on the soundstage where the bulk of the film was shot with its obvious painted backdrops. Per the news reports on radio station KGLOW, the threat of war is “more imminent today that it was yesterday,” and the reasons for international conflict are familiar to anyone who lived through the decade. There are also bizarre touches like the Arabic license plates, a detail that goes unremarked upon because it’s just a fact of life for them. And the top story in the Megapolitan Times is “Oil Rich Indians in Space,” a narrative cul-de-sac that is the impetus for one of the digital embellishments Young made while preparing the film’s 2014 director’s cut, which was still being re-worked at the time of Waging Heavy Peace’s publication. “I will be excited to close the book on Human Highway,” he wrote, but flawed as it is, one thing it can’t be accused of is being boring.
This is especially true of the twelve-minute dream sequence that incorporates the 16mm footage Young shot in 1978, the highlight of which is his extended jam session with Devo on “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)” with Booji Boy on lead vocals. Even in its cut-down form, the clip has a manic energy that shows Young was perfectly willing to cede the spotlight to five spudboys from Akron, Ohio — if only temporarily. As for Bernard Shakey’s filmmaking ambitions, with the exception of 2003’s Greendale, they’ve largely been confined to concert films and documentaries about Crazy Horse and CSNY. Guess that’s one way to keep his music in perspective.