TORONTO — Thanks to Neil Young, Norman Rockwell is rockin' in the free world.
Young steered his concert tour north for a stop at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he premiered his small-town rock flick, "Greendale."
The film is part Rockwell, part rock 'n' roll animal — a visual rendering of an album that Young describes as a "musical novel." The songs tell the sad story of a family in a once-idyllic northern California community that's struck by tragedy and besieged by the forces of modern media and global strife.
Young shot most of the film footage himself, using a hand-held Super-8mm camera whose grainy, gritty images give "Greendale" the feel of a home movie.
Grandpa rocks on the porch, reading his paper and pining for a bit more love and affection in the world. Cousin Jed pulls a gun on a highway cop and blows him away. Granddaughter Sun evolves from small-town cheerleader to fierce eco-activist taking on corrupt corporations despoiling the planet.
"They're all just characters that just bubbled up to the top," Young said in an interview backstage after performing the "Greendale" songs at a Toronto concert Thursday night. "A couple of songs with the same characters kept unraveling, then a third one, and I kind of had to keep going."
"Greendale" is a multimedia project for Young. The album "Greendale" hit stores in late August, packaged with a DVD presenting a live acoustic performance of the songs.
On his current tour, Young and his band Crazy Horse rage and wail through the "Greendale" songs, accompanied by performers miming the action and mouthing the lyrics.
The film, which Young directed under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, also features actors lip-synching to his vocals. Among the film's performers are Young's wife, Pegi, and his longtime musical collaborator Ben Keith.
Video crews have been documenting the concert tour, and Young hopes to stitch the footage into a concert film that captures the spirit of the live "Greendale" performances.
Young began writing the songs in August 2002 and had them all recorded by the end of the year. The activist flavor of the lyrics harks back to such earlier Young albums as 1989's "Freedom," which featured the anthem "Rockin' in the Free World."
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and resulting U.S. military action lent greater urgency to the "Greendale" songs, Young said.
"The world's quite a place, and Greendale is in the world," he said.
Young pops up briefly in the movie version of "Greendale," impersonating Wayne Newton. But he said he preferred to remain behind the camera and leave the acting to others.
"I hate lip-synching," Young said.