review for Journey Through the Past on AllMovie

Journey Through the Past (1972)
by Richie Unterberger review

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.