The local nuclear power plant has been dumping its waste around the countryside, and nobody can stop them; the workers there (Devo) have a new batch of barrels to get rid of, and set off on the road to find somewhere to relieve themselves of them, as meanwhile the nearby diner gets prepared for the day ahead. Its elderly owner has recently died, leaving the establishment to his son Otto Quartz (Dean Stockwell), but he has no interest in continuing the family business, as his father got by on the goodwill of his loyal customers, and Otto is far from a people person. The diner doubles as a gas station, and that has two employees, Lionel Switch (Neil Young) and Fred Kelly (Russ Tamblyn), well, sort of...
Something about the medium of film attracts the rock star, and quite a few of them take a few acting jobs, whether to see if they can do it or to show off that they think they can, but some of them go further and turn director. So it was with Neil Young, the acoustic folk rocker who became the so-called Godfather of Grunge; he has mostly concerned himself with the documentary format, be that as subject or at the helm of the movie, but he had two fictional efforts to his name, this one and Greendale which arrived after a two decade gap later. Human Highway was not, shall we say, welcomed with open arms, generally regarded as the kind of production that gives self-indulgence a bad name.
Mind you, name a rock star-led project on film that does not give self-indulgence a bad name, it more or less came with the territory, and this was a doozy. Played out around what looked like a single set, it was conscious artificiality all the way, with cartoonish performances and an air of patronising its characters for laughs at the expense of the simple folk, though it was possible to discern a feeling of benevolence towards them as well, especially as the story drew to its climax. As it was made in the nineteen-eighties, the threat of nuclear Armageddon was hanging over everyone here, leaving this one of many works from the decade to set off what seemed inevitable at the time, but in effect never came to pass.
Young, directing under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey alongside Stockwell, assembled quite the cast, putting himself in the lead role among an ensemble of cult actors, albeit cult actors who had been awarded that status from films that were not Human Highway - there was a lot of baggage brought here that made it depend more often than not how much you had been impressed with the performers' previous work as to how far you would appreciate them as they arsed about under Young's grand design. There was a feeling this was all one big lark, a jape, possibly a tricksterish joke on the audience even if you were in on its point of view, so if there was anything it resembled it was a lower budget predecessor to Talking Heads frontman David Byrne's tabloid smalltown sendup True Stories, only the tunes were sparser.
There was music here, only Young appeared to be more enamoured of his comedy stylings, personally coming across as a cross between Jerry Lewis and one of the supporting hick characters from The Dukes of Hazzard what with the concentration on motor vehicles, though there were no car chases to be seen, indeed the driving and cycling was taking place largely before rear projected images of landscape going by. There were also spaceships orbiting the Earth and a whole Wizard of Oz-style dream sequence where Lionel went out on the road with Devo and became a rock star, offering us their joint version of Hey Hey My My, which seems to be the section that gets most of their fans enthused. Dennis Hopper was the cook, Sally Kirkland and Charlotte Stewart (from Eraserhead) were among the waitresses, but it was Russ Tamblyn who was Young's sidekick, in an apparent try at creating a comedy double act for the eighties, with all its nostalgia for the nuclear age gone by and that worry of impending doom to come. Even in its edited director's cut it was a bit too much to take, with nice bits (the music was fine) but a shade too self-impressed to satisfy and divert.