In contrast to terrific, idiosyncratic Hal Ashby films like Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo and Being There, the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory feels like an awfully safe, conventional piece of work. Indeed, more often than not, it's the sort of paint-by-numbers tale that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story so memorably skewered in 2007. Still, Ashby made the film when he was in his prime, and manages to find just enough striking images, memorable sequences and heartfelt moments of political fury to turn the film into something pretty compelling.
The most surprising thing about Bound for Glory is that it takes an awfully long time before we get to hear any of Guthrie's music. It's a good hour or so before the man starts noodling around with a guitar, and we're past the ninety-minute mark by the time he finally strolls into a studio to make his first recording. During its long opening stretch, the film feels less like the story of a rising star than like a loose, rambling examination of a man who doesn't seem to know what to do with his life.
When we first meet Woody Guthrie (essayed with relaxed naturalism by David Carradine, Kill Bill), he's struggling to support a wife (Melinda Dillon, Magnolia) and some young children. He specializes in painting signs, but a combination of laziness and stubbornness prevent him from making nearly as much money as he ought to be making. Eventually, he decides that things might be a little easier in California, so he heads west in search of a better life. Alas, he's stuck right in the middle of the Dust Bowl era, and he quickly discovers that times are hard everywhere he goes.
In a lot of ways, the film's version of Guthrie is a pretty unlikable protagonist. He's completely aimless, he abandons his family on more than one occasion without a second thought, he has a tendency to be a rebel without a cause... but once he sees the way the farm workers are struggling, something starts to click. He starts writing songs about their plight, and joins forces with the hard-working activist and singer Ozark Bule (Ronny Cox, Robocop) in an effort to persuade members of the downtrodden working class to unionize. Guthrie's an intriguing figure; a man who has few virtues in his personal life but who demonstrates a heroic level of commitment to doing the right thing when it comes to helping those in need.
When people say that a modern political anthem is “brave,” they're usually referring to something fairly superficial: the artist risks alienating listeners who hold a different position, thus losing a portion of their potential revenue. Guthrie's protest songs are brave in a much more direct sort of way, as the man consistently runs the risk of being physically assaulted by performing his songs in front of angry foremen intent on shutting down any notions of unionization. As Guthrie's star rises, businessmen who recognize his talent keep trying to sand the edges off him. They want him to keep the “hillbilly charm,” but ditch the politics. Guthrie only wants to sing if he has something to sing about.
The film was shot by Haskell Wexler, who won an Academy Award for his gorgeous, gauzy imagery. Wexler is good at capturing both the forbidding grimness of the film's dust-filled landscapes and at accentuating the soulful humanity of the beaten-down figures wandering through the background of each scene. The imagery is particularly remarkable in the film's midsection, as Guthrie and Bule wander the country in search of anyone who will listen to their message.
The music is a good deal more hit-and-miss, unfortunately, as there's often something of a disconnect between the pure, folksy quality of the original Guthrie tunes and the more ornate, classical instrumentation that Leonard Rosenman brings to his score (and the clumsily-edited montage of Guthrie songs that concludes the film is an incredibly ungainly monstrosity that feels hastily-assembled and tacked-on).
Even if the film fails to provide a truly satisfying musical tour of Guthrie's work, the songs nonetheless gain a potency given the context in which they're delivered. This isn't the story of a man who saved the world, but the story of a man who kept pushing back against the unstoppable tide of oppression that he saw everywhere he went. At every stop, he has people who want to beat him up, shut him down or turn his music into an easier pill to swallow. Even as he continues to clumsily stumble his way through the wreckage of his domestic life, he refuses to compromise his message. I'll give the man himself the last word:
This land is your land and this land is my land,
From California to New York Island,
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
Sign was painted, said “private property,”
But on the back side it didn't say nothing,
This land was made for you and me.
Bound for Glory
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 147 minutes
Release Year: 1976