Old is New – Bound for Glory (1976)
Wednesday, May 20, 2009 9:45 AM
Hal Ashby's fifth film, Bound for Glory, seems a perfect fit for a director interested in outsiders and nonconformists.The film follows the exploits of Woody Guthrie during the dust bowl era. It is based on Guthrie's autobiography, which apparently is not all together based on fact. The picture was nominated for several Academy Awards, winning a best cinematography Award for Haskell Wexler. It was recently screened at the Aero (which features Klipsch Cinema Systems) in Santa Monica, California with Wexler and two of the stars in attendance - David Carradine and Ronny Cox. It sounds as if... it didn't go as well as planned.
The setting is a Texas town in 1936 that is rapidly vanishing. Everyone is trying to come up with a plan to make some money, and most of those plans involve going to California. When we meet Guthrie (played rather brilliantly by Carradine) he is a sign painter and part time musician. He has a wife and kids to feed, and the economic challenges put a strain on the family. After a huge dust storm hits, there is even less opportunity, so Guthrie takes off hitchhiking for California to try to find income to support his family.
The film meanders with Guthrie as he hitchhikes and hops trains, meeting new people along the way. Eventually he comes to identify more and more with the thousands of poor and out of work people he finds living together in labor camps (Wexler reveals the camp with the first steadicam shot in film). A fortunate break allows him to start making an income as a musician, enabling him to bring his family out to California, but he never forgets the downtrodden workers and continues to be involved in the union movement. Even if your politics slant the other way, Bound for Glory is an interesting and well told tale.
As was common in films of the decade, Mr. Ashby paints an unheroic portrait of the protagonist. We see him, warts and all. Guthrie can seem completely committed to his family, but then cheats on his wife repeatedly. He is a complex, if frustrating character to watch. Carradine really brings a lot of passion to the performances, mostly in the movie's second half. But what keeps the movie really going is the excellent music. If you enjoy Woody Guthrie or folk music in general, you won't want to miss this film.
The disc was released in 2000 and unfortunately includes no extra features. The image is high quality and preserves the dreamlike fogginess of the dusty plains. The music still sounds great in 2.0 mono.
The first connection that came to my mind was the boxcar rides of the experimental film I'm Not There, about various phases of Bob Dylan's life (there is a Guthrie phase). Walk the Line was a well made, more conventional biographical film based on a musician. Not about a musician, but Martin Scorsese's The Aviator also portrays the early, formative years of a legendary figure on the rise.