Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #39 Human Highway (1982)
Welcome to the latest installment in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the big-hearted Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a movie that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time one hundred dollar pledge to our Patreon account. The price goes down to seventy-five dollars with successive CNR4 choices and in December I ran a special where you could buy a Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 pick for the low, low price of sixty-five dollars as a gift to another person.
A swell fellow named George Booker took me up on his offer and had me watch and write about 1982’s Human Highway for his friend James Duval. I was excited to receive this particular pledge because I desperately need the money but also because I nurse nostalgic memories of playing the oddball musical comedy during my shifts as a clerk at Four Star Video.
Of course, when you put on a movie as a video store clerk, you don’t really watch the movie. I mean, you could, but it would be unprofessional. Instead you popped it into the VCR and went about your business. You listened more than you watched. Since you had to take care of customers and communicate with coworkers and bosses, you couldn’t even listen with any real concentration. You just kind of let the videos wash over you and your customers.
Since I vaguely remembered playing Human Highway often in my video store clerk days I expected that I’d experienced deja vu throughout director Neil Young and Dean Stockwell’s Reagan-era surrealistic comic fantasy, that once I popped it into the Blu-Ray player a heady rush of double nostalgia would sweep over me as I was brought back to my days as a college video store clerk in the mid 1990s and the early days of the Reagan era, when the then-revolutionary and fresh spirit of MTV infected a series of funky cult rock comedies and vice versa.
Human Highway hit me in the nostalgia sweet spot. It’s part of a glorious, life-affirming wave of outrageous rock and roll comedies from the era: 1980’s The Apple and Rock n’ Roll High School, 1982’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, 1983’s Get Crazy ,1984’s Repo Man and Top Secret and 1985’s True Stories.
Here’s the crazy part: watching Human Highway in 2019 almost nothing seemed remotely familiar, with the possible exception of Devo performing "It Takes A Worried Man", a.k.a. "Worried Man Blues" and that, honestly, could have been because I’d seen the video on Devo compilations I’d also play on the monitors during my video store days.
Was the Mandela Effect at work? Was this a Sinbad-in-Shazam type scenario? Had my foggy brain convinced me that I’d seen a movie over and over again that I’d never actually seen or had the details of this particular experience simply gotten lost somewhere in the fog of time?
It seems weird that I would completely forget a film rife with so many unforgettable moments and sequences, a consummate stoner cult oddity with the dazzling, disorienting quality of a waking dream. How fucking weird and singular is Human Highway? Imagine a more political version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse that replaces Pee-Wee with Neil Young doing a weird Ernest P. Worrell routine and you have a sense of the film’s gleeful, anarchic lunacy.
I want to start a Kickstarter for a Creepshow/Human Highway crossover movie where Stephen King’s dumb as pig shit hillbilly Jordy Verrill from the George Romero-directed anthology and Lionel, the slack-jawed yokel Young plays here, travel around the country investigating crimes together that they never solve on account of being Southern-fried dullards.
When I was a movie critic I would come to movies with an eye towards finding something to critique, something to single out, some flaw, minute or massive, that kept it from realizing its ultimate potential.
These days I come to movies with an eye towards finding something to celebrate, something to love, something to want to share with the rest of the world. I found much to love about Human Highway. For a movie that takes place in a town so overflowing with nuclear waste that some of their inhabitants glow like human fireflies it’s a remarkably sunny endeavor equally powered by the “Let’s put on a show” ethos of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals and the DIY aesthetic of punk and New Wave.
Human Highway looks and feels like it was filmed in a giant dollhouse or a massive pop art instillation rather than anywhere humans might actually live or work or eat. It’s purposefully, intentionally, wonderfully, indisputably artificial, a gonzo fantasy that could only take place in a magical, dystopian, utopian world of rock and roll and not our sad, degraded, and hopelessly inferior real world.
Neil Young shows off his hitherto unknown hillbilly comedy chops as Lionel Switch, an overgrown man-child who works as a mechanic at a gas station/diner newly run by Young Otto Quartz (the great Dean Stockwell, who also co-wrote the script and co-directs) following the death of his beloved father Old Otto.
I’m not entirely sure why but every time the movie cuts to an image of Old Otto looking stoic and determined with a ridiculous beard and haircut solely designed to make him look ancient and old-timey it made me laugh. Hard. Maybe it’s the graveness of the expression. Maybe it’s the beard. Maybe it’s the hair. Maybe it’s just my love of Dean Stockwell. Whatever it is, a sight gag so weird it barely qualifies as a gag made me laugh more by itself than most films do in their entirety.
Human Highway’s plot can be succinctly, if inelegantly summarized as “A bunch of crazy shit happens, then the world blows up.”
There’s a lot going on plot-wise and otherwise in Human Highway, none of it important, let alone essential. A desperate, unhappy and over-his-head Young Otto plans to burn down his establishment for the insurance money. Nuclear garbagemen played by the band Devo glows with radiation and perform “It Takes a Worried Man” and “Hey, Hey, My My (Into the Black)”, the latter with Neil Young on lead guitar. A desperate man played by Oscar nominee Russ Tamblyn tries to get a job at the diner/gas station by working for free for an indefinite trial period. Rich, glamorous visitors played by double-dipping cast-members Neil Young and Dennis Hopper (who also plays a demented cook) pop by, allowing these two doped-out thespians to really challenge themselves as actors.
Late in the film, Lionel has a fantasy that he sheds his Jerry Lewis-like schlemiel exterior. He stops being Lionel, possibly mentally challenged schmuck mechanic and becomes Lionel, singing superstar mechanic and performs “Goin’ Back.” In this new guise, he’s a fringe jacket-wearing uber-hippie and defender of the dignity of the noble Native American singing earnestly and beautifully and from the heart.
This sequence seems to belong in a different movie, a movie that’s dreamy and psychedelic and gentle, not a bold pop art live action cartoon that’s like a punk rock Monkees for an age of nuclear paranoia and apocalyptic dread. Yet it somehow works all the same because Young and his collaborators have established a Day-Glo, Hellzapoppin universe where the possibilities are limitless and anything can happen and does, a universe that’s at once as cozy and contained as a gas station/diner on the edge of nowhere and as vast as the universe.
The bizarre, deeply personal passion project was personally financed with Neil Young’s rock and roll fortune and filmed over a period of years stretching from 1978 to 1982 by people even more blasted out of their minds on drugs than was typical for the period in either rock or film.
With Human Highway, an iconic rocker from the 1960s and three veterans of Roger Corman’s 1960s heyday were collaborating with a new generation of countercultural rebels in the form of Devo, who steal the movie from one of rock and roll’s greatest icons, who divides his time between rocking out as only Neil Young can, looking overjoyed to be jamming with Devo while wearing a Sex Pistols tee-shirt and exploring a Jerry Lewis side of his personality and persona I never imagined existed but I found weirdly charming all the same.
Human Highway is Devo’s defining cinematic triumph. It’s their UHF, their Rock and Roll Swindle, their Rock n’ Roll High School. The generous and big-hearted Young was passing down the torch to these weirdly simpatico oddballs, these brilliant young turks, these geek-mad-men, these instant absurdist icons.
Young was embracing the future rather than running from it, making a movie that belongs as much to the kids who pop in intermittently to blow the roof off as the dude behind the camera and in front of the camera, who also happened to be paying all the bills.
Human Highway flies spectacularly off the rails in its third act. Having introduced conflicts and threads it has no interest in resolving it literally goes for the nuclear option and makes with the apocalypse with a spring in its step, a smile on its face and a song on its lips.
The highest praise I can give Human Highway is that if someone were to stumble upon it in 2019, knowing nothing about it, I can easily imagine them considering it the single craziest fucking movie ever made, or at least the craziest fucking movie they’ve ever seen. .Obviously it has a lot of competition on that front, but they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
I didn’t just enjoy my trip back in time; I wanted to experience more of this insane universe. I want to read a book about Human Highway or write a book about it or host screenings. I want to live in its weird, warped, simultaneously fragile and sturdy upside down world.
I honestly have never seen a movie quite like Human Highway. It’s messy and alive and crazy and all over the place and above all, achingly, wonderfully human. That’s why it has endured as a true rock and roll movie (there aren’t many) despite being an unholy mess in pretty much every conceivable way.
If you would like to take part in this column, you can do so over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace