The inseparability of a work of art and its underlying political content may seem so obvious that when someone blithely insists on an easy differentiation between the two it can come as somewhat of a shock. In the rousing documentary CSNY: Déjà Vu, directed by Neil Young under the name Bernard Shakey, such a moment occurs when the legendary Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, long known for engaged anthems like “Ohio,” tours the American South with a explicitly political program and a set list dominated by anti-war protest songs. When the group plays Atlanta, the audience, previously united around a series of songs whose political content could be safely ignored beneath rounds of guitar feedback, quickly divides into two hostile camps as Young debuts his latest would-be anthem “Let’s Impeach the President.” While half the crowd sings along to the lyrics projected on the monitor, the other half lets fly angry middle fingers and eventually leaves the building. On their way out, reporter Mike Cerre is there to intercept the offended concertgoers and record their impressions which amount to the fact that, while they enjoy the group’s music, they’re considerably less fond of their politics and, shockingly, that artists have no business expressing any viewpoint whatsoever.
If the rest of Young’s film rarely reaches the same level of intensity, it remains largely compelling in its consideration of the struggles of musicians to meld their art with a political message and present it to a largely indifferent public who just wants to rock out. Mixing concert footage with images of both Iraq and Vietnam as well as offering profiles of several veterans of the former war, Young provides ample contextualization for his project while outlining the continuity of the band’s aims by making explicit (perhaps far too explicit) the connections between their subject of protest in the 1960s and today. By the film’s end, the narrative starts to get bogged down in such easy schematics as well as straining after a too-insistent pathos by switching its principal attention to the (undeniably moving) stories of the war veterans. But, as an inspiring call to arms for engaged artwork in a cultural climate that demands unthinking entertainment (even as the film acknowledges the ultimate inability of artists to effect real social change), CSNY: Déjà Vu can be rather heady indeed.