Bound for Glory (1976)
Written by Robert Getchell
Directed by Hal Ashby
The details are all a lie, but the experience is authentic. The time and place look just like it would have during the Great Depression. The trials and travails of the Okies are just as it would have been. The film is engaging in myth-making, building episodes, and lore to capture the essence of someone who exists as an icon. There’s nothing wrong with myths, they served a fundamental purpose in the ancient times, informing humans about their world and how to be in it. I would think most music biopics weave stories about their protagonists to get across some sense of the themes in their music. To do that some times you have to make those stories up.
Woody Guthrie (David Carridine) is failing to support his family in Pampa, Texas, as the Dust Bowl and the Depression ravage the land. He paints some signs and plays some tunes, but it’s just not bringing in enough money to the household. Eventually, Woody sets off for California after hearing stories about how plentiful the work is there. He ambles across the Southwest, riding the rails and meeting a host of people in the same situation. They always have a good word to share, and if they can spare some food, they will. Woody finds California quite hostile to all the new arrivals and is eventually discovered due to his singing and songwriting talents. But as Woody becomes more famous and opportunities open up, the people with money want to silence his beliefs.
Bound for Glory is a stunningly gorgeous movie. Ashby had initially wanted to work with cinematographer Haskell Wexler on Shampoo, but Warren Beatty as star/producer had overruled him. The two men finally got to collaborate here, and the results are breathtaking. The film also includes the first Steadicam shot in an American movie. The recreation of the Great Depression, especially the work camps the Okies gathered in, feels like they’ve been plucked out of time. Wexler has lots of b-roll of the extras in these camps, and every single person looks pitch-perfect.
Wexler uses the dust and dirt of the landscape as a significant part of his palette. Sunlight is played with to paint the screen in golden sepia, creating a sense of nostalgia, longing. There’s a sense of scope during the traveling section, the camera trying to soak in the train coming down the rails and the rolling hills in the distance. Wexler won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for Bound for Glory, and it was definitely earned. You can see how he has shaped the way pastoral films about the American West are filmed. Ashby, in turn, was sorting building the skeleton of the modern music biopic, with lots of room for later filmmakers to fill in.
Where the film loses a lot of points for me is the lack of life in the story. I was very shocked that Ashby, whose movies up to this point felt like they were brimming with energy, decided to pull back so hard, especially with a figure like Guthrie. Woody Guthrie had a bite to him, but he always seems to be meandering along without a care in the world. There’s a scene where he finally has it with the radio station trying to censor him and tears apart a supply closet. I don’t know how Carridine was told to perform the scene, but it is not good, way too low key. I needed more irreverence from the man to really get across his rebellious nature.
There’s way too much here with the film clocking in at almost three hours. The narrative never really settles on a direction, but it started to get much better when Guthrie becomes politically active with the unions. The relationship between Guthrie and his wife feels woefully underdeveloped. He’s definitely not a saint when it comes to being a husband, cheating on his wife without any sense of guilt. The only time he breaks things off is when he starts to get feelings for another woman. The film doesn’t hold back in presenting Guthrie as a complicated man; I just wish it had spent time exploring this complexity.