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Bound for Glory breaks the trends of the usual bio-pics on musicians
because Woody Guthrie, unlike most, sincerely wasn't out for fame in
the usual sense. He liked recognition from time to time, and to be able
to get his voice out to as many people as he could. But- and this is
from the looks of the film and from what else has come up about
Guthrie- he never sold out. He wasn't a political figure, but his songs
had that driving force of politics, of something inspirational, that
couldn't be reached through typical rhetoric. When Guthrie goes through
the fields of workers picking artichokes or workers at a factory and he
goes on and on singing his protest songs until the bosses beat him up
and wreck his guitar, it's about as close as a political act as one has
ever seen a singer/musician in a based-on-a-true-story picture. But at
the same time Hal Ashby isn't out to make an entirely explicit
'message' heavy movie, even if there is, of course, messages to be
taken to heart.
It's about the man himself, and the times and circumstances that drove Woody Guthrie on his own, apart from his family, in mid 1930s depression era America. One could look at the film as an examination of a man caught in such dire times, of a country where the line between rich and poor was so significant there was barely any middle ground. But one can also look at it as the story of a wanderer, someone who- as his protégée Bob Dylan would later make as his proclamation in Like a Rolling Stone "with no direction home"- always felt a little restless. His journey is what really counts and shapes his music and outlook. It almost comes close to what it must be to have faith; if you want to sing, just sing, as Guthrie tells a bunch of kids (a little simplistic but with a kernel of truth), no matter what it's about. To suddenly find more meaning in the songs from the circumstances becomes part of the narrative, of a man who could be a hero in the historical sense while not being the kind of man who would be entirely one to aspire to be. He's happy to just walk down a road and sing his songs for anyone who will hear, as his family leaves him behind and any chance of conventional success floats by the wayside.
It's hard not to make messages in a film where its character in real life once had the ultimate f***-you to the establishment right on his guitar case ("This machine kills fascists"). But it's the high skill of film-making, and the performance at the lead, that enrich what is already potent, awesome material. Haskell Wexler, the late-great cinematographer behind Cuckoo's Nest and Medium Cool, puts his stamp significantly as a work of Americana of the traditionalist sense: a dust-storm is like something both alien and beautiful, while the train scenes are exciting, lush with vibrancy with dirt all around. Ashby, too, has a mark here from his editing days; there's not one transition from scene to scene that doesn't have a fade, making it a step removed from the usual lot of films at the time (even Ashby's) where just a straight cut-to or a jump-cut would suffice. He could've made this film, in the technical sense, twenty years before and it wouldn't of made much of a difference.
And finally, David Carradine. If Kill Bill is the guiltiest pleasure of his career, Bound for Glory is his serious triumph as an actor. He's got that quality, which may or may not have been like the real Guthrie, that sucks a viewer in even when the character does something or says something that shouldn't feel like it's the thing to do as the protagonist of the story. He's a character led solely by his convictions, and Carradine enriches that through the performances of the songs, and his own self-confidence radiating just walking down a road or going to do something out of the goodness of his soul. From every moment he's on screen, as if in some kind of folk-rhythm mode out of Kung-fu, he's mesmerizing, in a performance that should've been nominated along with De Niro, Finch and Giannini in the best actor race (albeit more low-key than the others). Bound for Glory is a blissful epic of conscience, and a kind of eccentric story a man who lacked any cynicism in his being. Plus, of course, the songs are great, as they're played on the spot without any over-dubbing.
After all these years, finally got around to watching it. Lovely to see
Carradine as a young guy, having seen him in Kill Bill I/II. Haven't
seen _Kung Fu_ (yet).
I was struck by the great, great script. The writing makes the characters both human and mythic, at every level, from storyline motivation to the poetry of utterance under the sway of passions, both conventional and visionary.
The film put me under its spell of biographical story arc, and held me. That's rare and beautiful.
The only production false notes were fleeting instances of the fight choreography failing to convince. Besides that, writing to direction to acting feels "of-a-piece" and seamless. Add to this the set work and costuming and you are absolutely immersed in a great story.
One other disappointment: According to an IMDb "goofs" note, it seems the screenwriter pulled a punch re Guthrie's relationship with the station manager over content: In reality, the rift was apparently not over support for the migrant workers, but over support for the nascent "workers' paradise" in the Soviet Union. I think they should've hewed to history on that one. Maybe it would've put some folks off, but it would also have given the lefties something to really chew on, vs. this sterilized portrait. I'm left-leaning myself, and love the tempering that bits of real history like this impart. The screenwriter/producers should have "nutted up" and eaten this one.
Anyway, check it out.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
David Carradine, in possibly a career-best performance, gives a
charismatic, laid-back interpretation of American depression-era
folk-singing legend Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby's slow-moving biopic.
The movie follows only a short period of his life. We first meet him in
his home town, eking out a living as a sign-painter. Not sure where
exactly his home-town is, but it's presumably in the Dust Bowl, given
that everything is dusty, and even when the dust isn't in evidence
Haskell Wexler's sumptuous cinematography paints everything a shade of
Guthrie hits the road, leaving his wife and kids behind as he heads for California, the supposed golden land of opportunity. He arrives only to find a land of ramshackle camps and exploited farm workers. To be honest, the film doesn't really offer too much insight into Guthrie's character and certainly doesn't sit in judgement of his shortcomings - such as his infidelity with a wealthy aid worker whom he swiftly leaves when she shows signs of growing serious over him. It's kind of ambiguous - are we supposed to admire him for rejecting the capitalist trappings she represents or condemn him for cheating on his wife?
Anyway, Bound for Glory is still a beautifully filmed, thoughtful reflection on not only a particular individual, but the unique circumstances that permitted his brand of song-writing to reach (and influence) a far wider audience than it might otherwise have done. The period detail is faultless, but to be honest the story isn't too captivating. Watch it instead for the atmosphere and the superb evocation of a bygone era.
Rabble-rousing kid from 1930s Oklahoma heads west with his guitar for a better life, using the hardships of the roadside vagrants and field-pickers for his musical material. Talented Hal Ashby directed this Depression-era dramatization of folk singer Woodrow "Woody" Guthrie from a screenplay by the estimable Robert Getchell (adapting Guthrie's autobiography). However, Ashby allows the narrative to drift and ramble; while some may feel this approach appropriate, the lackadaisical overall feel--coupled with David Carradine's somewhat lachrymose lead performance--fails to lend the film the big emotional heart one longs for it to have. There are certainly compensations, particularly Haskell Wexler's cinematography and Leonard Rosenman's music-adaptation, both of which won Oscars. Guthrie's romantic life plays out like a series of rerun episodes (which each of his women seen smiling from the bedroom), yet there's a great deal of beauty in Ashby's presentation and several witty passages in Getchell's script. **1/2 from ****
I expect it took the counter-cultural period of the 60's and 70's to
get a slice of Guthrie's life onto the big screen. After all, the folk
singer was not only a union radical but pro-soviet as well. I can
imagine how old Hollywood would have sanitized the script on the off
chance of dealing with his life story.
Here, Guthrie's turned into a prairie populist, evolving from dust bowl hobo to union organizer, armed with a guitar and a talent for turning words into music. At 2-hours plus, the movie is drawn out but never drags. In fact, the first hour is a pip as we get an unvarnished look at the down home poverty the rickety shacks, the overloaded flivvers, the rail yard bulls, but most of all, the gritty people just trying to survive a world turned suddenly against them. It's well done, without rubbing your nose in it.
The scene that stays with me, however, is not like anything I've seen. It's the damaged fat guy who shambles up to sign-painter Guthrie and stammers about needing brushes to paint the pictures in his head. The scene's a beautifully composed blend of humanity and understanding as the human lump shambles off, with new paint brushes in hand, while we realize Guthrie's an instinctive man of the people.
No need to repeat the consensus points made by others. I'm just glad the film brought this neglected figure to popular audiences, along with his music. It's a fine period piece about an America that, despite the years, has never really left us.
This portrait of Woody Guthrie has a lot of highlights, including
Haskell Wexler's great photography).
But David Carradine is very good, not great in the lead, and the film feels a bit unfocused.
There's surprisingly little of Guthrie's music performed, and a lot of it played orchestrally as soundtrack, which seemed odd and out of character to me.
I appreciate that this is grittier, darker, and less linear than the standard Hollywood bio-pic. And I love that Guthrie is shown as a deeply flawed man, (e.g. his easy willingness to cheat on his wife). But in the end this doesn't go very deeply into his politics or his music, the two most important things about his life.
While a written biography may cover its subject's life from beginning
to end over hundreds of pages, a biopic that lasts only two or three
hours simply does not have the time to do the same. And yet the best
biopics do justice to an individual's life by offering a slice of their
existence, giving an impression of who they were and what they did.
Bound for Glory covers only a few years in Woody Guthrie's life, and
yet the portion it covers is a transitional one, showing his change
from a friendly, easygoing country boy, to a man more cynical but
firmly politicised, with his emotions shaken but his core honesty
intact, and his career on the verge of national fame.
A good biopic is often as much about tone as story, and this requires a good director. Consummate 70s filmmaker Hal Ashby is perfect for the project. His style is just so wonderfully light and tentative. He won't force an idea upon you, but he'll give you time to notice some little snippet of life which adds texture to a scene, for example a split-second shot that reveals one of the hobos being pulled off the train has only one arm. There's a lot of darkness in this movie, a lot of enclosed spaces and shuttered windows. The countryside appears achingly beautiful, but it is only fleetingly glimpsed, over the top of a railway carriage or through a gap in the swirling dust, like some unattainable paradise. The sublime cinematography of Haskell Wexler picks out every mote of dust and finds shape and definition in the swathes of black and brown.
Let's give a word a two now to lead man David Carradine. Carradine has long been one of my favourite actors, even before he was in Kill Bill and everyone had heard of him. He worked mostly in TV and B-Westerns before landing this, his greatest and most apt role, the one he seems born to play. He has no ego. He doesn't play to the camera, and yet he has such presence here, such charisma. He thereby gives a good account of the real Woody, as well as giving us the impression of a life being lived rather than a performance being played. And of course being a proper folk musician he can do the songs justice.
And the songs are crucial to this adaptation. Bound for Glory works much like a semi-musical King Vidor movie from nearly fifty years earlier by the name of Hallelujah. All the music is diagetic it makes sense within the scene, and yet it is used to comment upon the narrative and move it forward, just as a true musical does. When Woody decides to leave his dustbowl home, he never actually states his intention to do so in dialogue, but we hear him singing a lose version of "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You" with its appropriate line about "dusty old dust", which is then picked up in instrumental form as he heads out of town. Later, the scene of Woody playing I Ain't Got no Home in the radio studio segues into a shot of workers in a field as the tune continues, linking the man and his music to their social context. The songs are never merely presented while the story takes a break, the songs exist alongside and become part of story. Bound for Glory does not just show the life of a musician, it shows a musical life.
In Joe Klein's biography of Woody Guthrie, he complained that that the movie "Bound For Glory" was "highly inaccurate". It's been a long time since I read it, but after having seen the movie, I couldn't spot any glaring distortions of Guthrie's life. Besides, you can justify all kinds of changes as artistic license. One thing does bother me, though. In all the pictures I've seen of Woody Guthrie from the time frame of "Bound For Glory", he has a distinctive mane of curly hair, much like what Bob Dylan, a big fan of Guthrie's, would later sport. David Carradine's thin, straight hair couldn't be more different. It doesn't bother me that Carradine doesn't look much like Guthrie (for one thing, he's much taller), but how hard would it be to fit him with a thick, curly wig?
This is a stupefying film. Wexler's camera work brings the correct
light and intensity, Carradine's performance is solid, the sense of
America at it's worst is there. However, this is hardly an accurate
depiction of the life of Woody Guthrie. If you want to know about Woody
watch the American Masters film or, better still read Joe Klein's
amazing biography. The film lover in me recognized this as a well-made
piece, but the woody fan in me was disappointed. Why did they, for
example, speed up such perfect songs as pastures of plenty? Why does
carradine's voice crack in all the places woody's did not? And how come
they could use the name woody guthrie but not lefty lou and cisco
Still it is a film worth seeing. Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers version of so long and reuben james is great as the credits roll. I would encourage teachers to show this to students studying the depression or labor history, but for students of Woody, there is much lacking.
The Dust Bowl-oriented scenes in Bound for Glory were filmed in the Sacramento River Delta in Sacramento County in north-central California but were uncredited. Instead, Bakersfield and Stockton were credited. I should know, I was present watching these scenes being filmed. The fact that the place where I lived was in this film is the only reason I even watched it at all and eventually got the DVD - so I could point out what scenes were filmed and where. Also if some residents were extras and I recognized them I would point them out also. The January 1978 issue of Playboy had an article on movie special effects and the Bound for Glory dust storm scene was featured which included my neighborhood, and that was the only reason my parents bought that issue of Playboy despite the fact that we kids were barely in our teens at the time and this would be a must-read Article with pictures other than the Playmate Pictorial. The day the aerial shot was filmed I was inside the house, so "technically" I was in Playboy, or rather my house was!
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