A beautifully made biopic with a few peculiar flaws, Bound for Glory represented yet another artistic high point for editor-turned-director Hal Ashby, whose ’70s output was as eclectic as it was impressive. This time, Ashby tackled the life story of pioneering American folksinger Woody Guthrie, whose enduring anthem “This Land Is Your Land” reflected his humanistic fascination with the downtrodden people he met during his vagabond adventures circa the Great Depression. Perfectly timed to tap into counterculture themes of reappraising priorities and questioning authority, Bound for Glory could easily have become a vanilla celebration of an iconic singer. Instead, it’s a rougher piece, demonstrating the strange conflict between Guthrie’s devotion to “the people” and his inability to fulfill familial obligations.
The story begins in small-town Texas, with Woody (David Carradine) working as a freelance sign painter even though his real passion is playing music (he moonlights as a honky-tonk band’s guitarist). After one day too many without making a living wage, Woody skips out on his wife (Melinda Dillon) and becomes a hobo, stealing rides in the cargo cars of westbound trains as he makes his way toward the promised land of Southern California. Along the way, Woody sees enough deprivation and hardscrabble dignity to inspire a lifetime’s worth of original songs, and he finds himself drawn to the plight of the working men who are oppressed by callous business owners.
Once in California, Woody is radicalized through his friendships with a fruit picker (Randy Quaid) and a union-organizing country singer (Ronny Cox). Picking up a guitar again after a long musical drought, Woody starts writing incendiary rabble-rousers. Then, after he’s hired to perform on the radio, he stumbles into an existential crisis when he’s forced to choose between integrity and a steady paycheck. The willingness on the filmmakers’ part to display Guthrie’s unattractive qualities gives Bound for Glory gravitas, complicating our idea of what Guthrie represents.
This storytelling choice also gives Carradine the most multidimensional role of his career. He seizes the opportunity with a vibrant performance, crooning and philosophizing his way to an earthy incarnation of Guthrie’s troubadour spirit. Ashby surrounds Carradine and the rest of the strong cast with wonderfully evocative physical details, from the antiseptic milieu of recording studios to the heartbreaking ugliness of labor camps. Capturing all of these rich visuals is cinematographer Haskell Wexler, a diehard lefty who actually knew the real Guthrie back in the day; Wexler’s graceful camera movements and naturalistic lighting make Bound for Glory look like classic Depression-era photographs come to life.
That said, Bound for Glory has strange shortcomings. Ashby bizarrely cast Dillon in two roles (she also plays a country singer who performs on the radio with Guthrie), and the ending isn’t particularly satisfying. One gets the impression Ashby couldn’t decide whether Guthrie was a heel or a hero, or both. But if the worst that can be said about a movie is that it embraces ambiguity, is that really much of a criticism?
Bound for Glory: GROOVY