When Journey Through the Past came out in 1972, Neil Young's commercial stock couldn't have been any higher, as he was coming off both a #1 album (Harvest) and a #1 single ("Heart of Gold"). Even the most rabid Young fan, however, would have to admit that this self-directed debut film is at best a flawed experiment, and at worst something of a disaster. The backers of this film were likely hoping for something of a conventional rock documentary, mixing performance footage with backstage scenes and interviews. There's some of that here -- indeed, the scenes of Young performing on his own and as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Buffalo Springfield are pretty exciting. Those clips, however, are interspersed with incomprehensible abstract surrealistic semi-fantasy sequences of a burnt-out mute "graduate" wandering around the desert and city streets; a driverless car moving aimlessly over a beach; period footage of Richard Nixon; and a bit with a nearly speechless Young and a woman drinking and smoking by the roadside that seems to have been deliberately placed in the film to irritate the viewer and drag the already hard-to-sit-through pace down like a lead weight. The problems go beyond the mix of great music with muddled would-be art moviemaking; the camerawork is sometimes shaky, and the dialogue (particularly in the pretty dull offstage scenes with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) is muffled and faint. Some images are so weird, if still ridiculous and meaningless, that they do stick with the viewer, like the part where Young dismantles an ancient car in a junkyard, or the one where black-hooded cross-bearing horsemen circle a beachside obelisk as creepy orchestral music blares on the soundtrack. Yet ultimately it's an inscrutable self-indulgent failure, and one which did actually do some short-term (though not permanent) damage to Young's career, though it didn't stop him from making more strange films received with a mixture of critical bewilderment and derision in the future.
by Richie Unterberger review