In May of 1970, Neil Young quickly wrote a song called "Ohio," hotly responding to the Kent State shootings, during which the National Guard killed four students and wounded nine others. He recorded it with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, who had just come off a hit record from the previous year, and the song peaked at #14 on the pop charts. Over the years, Young has recorded several such protest and/or political songs, including 1967's "For What It's Worth," 1970's "Southern Man" and 1989's "Rockin' in the Free World," which slyly took a stab at then President George H. W. Bush by mentioning his campaign speech staple "a thousand points of light." Young is now in his 60s and once again something pissed him off to the point that he has gone back to the recording studio. This time though, there's no beating around the bush (so to speak). No more messages hidden inside innocuous song titles. This time we get "Let's Impeach the President."
Like "Ohio," Young's 2006 album "Living with War," which includes the incendiary "Let's Impeach the President," was recorded quickly, fresh as the headlines. Young even made the album available for a free listen on the Internet. When it came time to tour, however, it was only appropriate that he team up once again with the old friends who helped him out on "Ohio." Together they take the stage behind a giant, prop microphone draped with a yellow ribbon and perform in front of photographs of hundreds of fallen soldiers, victims of the Iraq war. Directing the new documentary CSNY: Déjà vu under his usual pseudonym, "Bernard Shakey," Young chronicles the tour with as much objectivity as he can manage, allowing negative comments to filter through along with the positive. He includes newspaper reviews of the show (printed on the screen and narrated by actors), which range from glowing to middling; most of them call Young and his gang a bunch of "aging hippies" and "dinosaurs." The movie's main point arrives, however, when the band plays the Deep South: Atlanta, Georgia.
The Atlanta crowd seems fine when Young plays his oldies and hits, but as soon as he launches into "Let's Impeach the President," the crowd goes ballistic. Half the stadium remains seated, while half storms out. Young's camera captures the exiting crowd's reaction. Interestingly, not one person actually responds to the actual content of Young's song. No one ever mentions the President and whether or not he deserves to be impeached. Rather, the anger is aimed at the fact that Young said anything at all. The angry crowd seems to agree that Young did not have the right to broach such a subject. One man suggests that we shouldn't criticize the government because "they're smarter than us." Another girl sums up Young's performance: "it was too political." One interviewer brings up the Dixie Chicks, to which a concertgoer responds: "if it was the Dixie Chicks we wouldn't be here."
Both CSNY: Déjà vu and the 2006 Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up and Sing have that in common: that kind of hysterical, instantaneous mob mentality that disregards rhyme or reason. Certainly Natalie Maines' offhand comment during a London concert was far less formal or incendiary than Young's song, so why were the Chicks lynched and Young let off scot free? Not to mention that, in Shut Up and Sing, Maines has even more controversial things to say, all of which have mostly been ignored. This is clearly a case of "freedom of speech, when it's convenient." It's too bad that Young's film doesn't get a little deeper into this mentality. Instead, the band members spend their time "thinking positive" -- Stephen Stills makes several stops to help campaign for forward-thinking local politicians -- and defending their actions, comparing their traveling show to the troubadours of old, spreading messages across the land through song.Perhaps ironically, the soldiers who have fought in and returned from Iraq, as well as their families, seem whole-heartedly to support Young and his music. Speaking of that, the music in CSNY: Déjà vu is tops. That's the most interesting thing about Young; despite his brand of loose, grungy, quickly-recorded rock, he's very finicky about sound quality and he has lost none of his edge. Young isn't shy about showing the early, rough stages in the show, when the band members are learning the songs and getting their mojo back, but by the end of the tour, the songs really soar, filled with crunchy guitars and crisp drums. You can accuse these guys of being dinosaurs or hippies, but Young has remained relevant as a musician through five decades, inspiring hoards of younger bands and constantly challenging himself. This is the best kind of Iraq war documentary, the kind that sends a message, but does not ignore the medium.