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For realistic images of the 1930s dust bowl in Oklahoma and Texas, this
is the film to see ... the shabby, frame houses, the dilapidated autos,
the dreary clothes, the grinding poverty, and all that dust. Although
the film was shot in color, the lighting is muted, even in daylight. I
suspect that was on purpose, to show how the dust blotted out much of
the sunlight, and thematically much of the optimism.
"Bound For Glory" is the story of folksinger Woody Guthrie (David Carradine), whose life as a sign painter and hobo during tough times led him to write many songs, the most famous being "This Land Is Your Land". The story begins in Texas, with Woody already married and with children. Eventually, all that dust and dreariness causes him to forsake his wife and kids, as he hitchhikes and rides the rails westward to the promised land.
But the promised land doesn't want any more Okies. And Guthrie ends up eating in free soup kitchens and living in ugly migrant worker camps. He writes music about life as a poor man. He identifies with the problems of migrant workers, stuck with poverty wages, if they're lucky enough even to get a job. He and them resent the cruelty of their arrogant bosses and rich, powerful corporations, which leads him to write songs of protest.
Despite the film's lengthy run-time, only a small part of Guthrie's life is shown here. We never learn anything about him once he becomes famous. Nor do we learn anything about his upbringing in rural Oklahoma. The film is more of a year-in-the-life-of, rather than a comprehensive bio.
"Bound For Glory" looks good, visually, with terrific period piece production design and costumes. And the cinematography is impressive. But the plot pace is very, very slow and deliberate. Everything is understated. And not until the film's end do we get to hear his most famous song. David Carradine is reasonably persuasive as Guthrie. Other performances are fairly standard.
For all the great visuals, the script is somewhat of a letdown. I would have preferred a more conventional biography, with a faster clip. As is, genuinely certified fans of Woody Guthrie are the only viewers likely to have the patience and forbearance to sit through this toilsome and sluggish, though realistic, story.
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.
Hal Ashby had a brief run of brilliance in the 1970s, directing one
eccentric gem after another. But his streak was somewhat interrupted by
this pedestrian biopic of singer Woody Guthrie.
I'm probably not the best person to review a movie like this, because I find it hard to be impartial when commenting on biopics. I generally don't like them, and don't really know why I keep watching them. They're almost always dull and safe, but every so often you come across a really good one, like "Coal Miner's Daughter," and feel hope renewed that others will be as good. "Bound for Glory" isn't bad by any means, but on the other hand it really isn't anything. It's quiet and slow and leisurely and makes you wonder why such a thin story really needed to be strung out over a nearly two and a half hour film. David Carradine is pretty good as Guthrie, who, true to biopic form, was kind of an ass to all the people who actually mattered in his life and a hero to the people -- in this case the poor of dustbowl America -- who felt represented by his art.
"Bound for Glory" won Haskell Wexler his second Oscar for cinematography, and indeed it is the film's meticulous recreation of Depression-era America that is its biggest asset. Leonard Rosenman also won an Oscar for adapting Guthrie's music to the screen. The film received four other Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing. Ashby was that year's unlucky director, watching his film get nominated without scoring a nomination himself.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is 1936 in Pampa, Texas during the oppressive Dust Bowl. Work is
hardly available, even for 24 year-old sign-painter Woody Guthrie
(David Carradine), who doesn't seem to mind as he spends time with his
friends and singing and playing the guitar. Woody's first wife,
long-suffering Mary (Melinda Dillon), is most concerned about the lack
of cash for the growing family (two little girls thus far). After a
dust storm strikes, Woody simply packs up and heads for California,
where jobs are supposedly plentiful. He leaves a note for Mary, "Going
to California. Will send for you all." Constantly struck with
wanderlust (as we shall see), Woody is really a drifter.
So Woody, along with many hobos of the Great Depression, hitchhikes and rides the rails on his journey. By the way, this is the largest migration in US history. Along the way Woody lives in migrant worker camps and "Hoovervilles." Along his travels he meets all kinds of characters, including Slim Snedeger (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) and unionizing folk singer Ozark Bule (Ronny Cox). At a migrant camp Ozark and Woody sing and extort the workers to unionize until thugs arrive and break up the gathering. As Woody observes the miserable plight of many Americans, his social conscience is so raised that he composes and sings many of his folk songs. Note the memorable scene atop a boxcar where Woody plunks away at his guitar while he composes the words to "This Land Is Your Land." Later on there is another set where Woody waltzes into a factory and exhorts the workers to unionize; he is promptly beaten up by security folks.
Ozark Bule helps Woody to get a radio job at KTNS for twenty dollars a week. Most of the mail from listeners is positive, and Woody and singing partner Memphis Sue (Melinda Dillon again) get an offer of thirty-five dollars weekly. Station manager Locke (John Lehne), concerned about his new sponsors, tells Woody not to sing any controversial songs. After all, the sponsors pay for what they want to hear, and they do not want provocative subject matter. But there really is no compromise for Woody. Note that this scene is really inaccurate, as Woody was really advocating support of the Soviet Union. (Then when Russia's Stalin signed the August 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, the leftists were stunned and . . . Oh, never mind!)
An agent, Baker (Bernie Kopell), plans on getting Woody an offer to play for CBS as long as his songs are not controversial. No thanks! And as there is no middle ground, it is time for the detached Woody to move on. Ultimately Woody will work his way to New York where there are many people and unions who will hear the message of his music. Woody is destined to gain even greater acclaim than previously.
The movie focus is on a slice of Woody's life (1936-1940), loosely based upon his 1943 autobiography. The famous folk singer-songwriter and musician is flawed and neglectful of his family, even after he relocates them to California. Although married, he was a notorious womanizer. In his real life the detached Woody had three wives and seven children (son Arlo was not born until 1947). But Woody inspired folks who had nothing except hope; he said one's skin color is not important. Despite his defects he remained idealistic and gave up various monetary offers. Still, he was not an easy man to live with.
The songs, performed by David Carradine, include "This Train Is Bound for Glory," "Talking Dust Bowl Blues," "I Ain't Got No Home," and of course the famous "This Land Is Your Land." The feature may be slow-paced, but there are also impressive golden-colored cinematography and scenic views. There are also authentic and stunning period details, like the shabby frame houses and jalopies. The acting is natural; Carradine is very good as the folk singer who never surrenders his deeply felt convictions. In fact in this movie Carradine is Woody. "Bound for Glory" received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, but understandably lost out to "Rocky," a "top 100 of all time" movie.
Till I saw this movie, I always viewed 'folk music' as tree hugging save the world hippy happy tunes. But from this movie I now understand the emphasis on 'folk'. And really it's not too different from 'punk'. Woody sang about the people he was singing to. Hardships and hopes. Decency before profit. And how great America is, even when America wasn't doing so great. Hal Ashby put's a 'grit' not only into, but onto the film. I could literally feel the dust and grime on me as I watched. And say what you will about David Carradine being a cantankerous S.O.B., but he was cast and played Woody perfectly. To steal a line from Dr. Strangelove - "Woody is a man of the people. But he's also a 'man', if you follow my meaning..." And Ronny Cox I thought was stellar in his performance. All in all, the movie gives me great appreciation for the depiction of Woody, the depression era, and the unsung brilliance of Hal Ashby and the cast. A must have for anyone that's into music, sociology, history, and/or just great film making!
This movie is America. The musician captured the soul of America, or was it the movie that did that? Through financial hardships it seems that there was still overall beauty and love for the country to be found in every corner. The black train rolling through the country side, and the chase of the American dream, only to be confronted with desolate treatment and less then equal human rights. The downtrodden suffered greatly with zero hope. Anger and despair was reflected in the guitar music. America became the place that it is today because of people like this guitar player. Woody was so emotionally attached to the suffering of the people that he neglected himself and his family, or were the two adults just not a good match? Perhaps they did not share the same ideals. I know in my past, I found an individual, who listened to Woody Guthrie, and whom understood me, but it is only after seven years of distance, that i comprehend the depth of the connection and at the same time, the loss. Like Woody, i followed my dream and neglected family. I followed passion and fell into a dark isolation, and i wonder if this is what happened to Woody, especially since he ended up in a hospital for his final years. It is how Woody spent his last days, weeks, months that bother me. His suffering seems so great both internally and externally and even though his songs on his guitar captured human suffering in America like a photograph, I cannot help but wonder if he could not attain even an ounce of happiness in his lifetime. This movie is about socialism and communism. It is opposing capitalism. Here capitalism is not shown in a good light. It is exposed to show the suffering and slave labour of the marginalized versus the elite. In this movie, the idea of the criminal is blurred, as is it not criminal to treat individuals like slaves to make a financial profit? Who benefits? The rich or the marginalized? Who voices the concerns of the marginalized, if not for Woody Guthrie? Who voices the concerns in 2014? Are not the voices of the underdog marked as delusional, and silenced by the powerful 1 %? Or are the voices silenced because they are considered criminal in a capitalist society? How did we get to this point in revisionism? How did we get to this point in time?
This biopic starts in 1936. Woody Guthrie (David Carradine) is
struggling in the dusty small town of Pampa, Texas with his wife Mary
(Melinda Dillon). Jobs are hard to find and everybody is looking to
leave for California. He runs off to ride the rails and becomes one of
the most influential folk singers.
This is limited in excitement and tension. It's a quiet easy movie. It's quietness takes away some of the emotions in the movie. David Carradine is putting in a simple nice guy performance. There are some inventive camera work using the new steadycam. The look of the movie is one of faded dusty postcard. It's a pretty and interesting movie to look but it's not much more than that. It's a long winding road.
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.
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.
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