In the wake of the 1979 meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, a gaggle of politically active rock stars formed Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), then presented several massive concerts in the New York City area under the “No Nukes” banner. Beyond the core group, which includes Jackson Browne, John Hall, Graham Nash, and Bonnie Raitt—all of whom have continued to perform anti-nuclear-energy concerts well into the 2010s—the original wave of “No Nukes” concerts gathered luminaries including the Doobie Brothers, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and James Taylor. Highlights from various 1979 concerts were released in 1980 as a concert movie and as a live album, though the roster of artists and songs varies wildly between the film and the LP. Speaking only about the film, No Nukes is more effective as a musical experience than it is as a political experience, but that’s the cost of leveraging celebrity participation to raise awareness of social issues.
In fact, one of the sharpest moments in No Nukes occurs during a brisk opening montage of fans heading into Madison Square Garden for one of the concerts, because someone cynically observes that most people are there for the tunes instead of the cause. It speaks well of the filmmakers and the MUSE team in general that this clip was included, because it reflects the artists’ awareness that building a grassroots movement requires overcoming deeply entrenched apathy. Indeed, it’s perhaps too easy to watch No Nukes today and gloss over the reason the musicians gathered. Even though the movie features impassioned remarks from famed crusader Ralph Nader and a short film-within-a-film about the danger of nuclear energy that was shown to audiences at the Madison Square Garden shows, and even though deeply committed musicians Hall and Nash perform earnest tunes about “atomic poison” and the like, purely musical passages command the viewer’s attention.
Much of the hype around the time of No Nukes’ release concerned Springsteen’s mini-set of three songs, since No Nukes was the first time the E Street Band’s already-legendary live act was shown in movie theaters. The Boss kills it with “Thunder Road” and one of the first live performances of “The River.” By comparison, the Doobie Brothers’ proficient readings of “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “What a Fool Believes” seem ordinary, and even Browne’s fierce version of “Running on Empty” fails to match the fire of Springsteen’s performance. That said, any concert movie that contains Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonizing on “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Raitt ripping through her version of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” and Taylor channeling his inner bluesman on “Your Smiling Face” is doing something right. One could quibble with the structure of the picture, since the shift from the shadowy intimacy of the Madison Square Garden shows to the sunlit sprawl of a Battery Park concert that drew 200,000 attendees is abrupt. What’s beyond reproach, however, is the generosity of the musicians, the importance of the cause, and the wonder of watching people unite beneath the banner of making the world a safer place.
No Nukes: GROOVY