Bound For Glory | Blu-ray Review
Biopics are best when focused on segmented portions of emotional turmoil, professional escalation or some perfect combination of the two, rather than trying to collapse entire lives into just a couple hours time. Hal Ashby’s 1976 retelling of Woody Guthrie’s popular ascent from dust bowl deadbeat to socially conscious folk music figurehead in Bound For Glory coolly pursues the latter with genuinely endearing, authentic feeling results. With David Carradine aptly filling the role of the humbly charismatic, musically driven drifter and a fully stocked catalog of Guthrie songs adapted for the screen by Leonard Rosenman, Ashby’s oddly conventional mid-period picture was in competition for the Palme d’Or, but ultimately lost to Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Padre Padrone.
The film was shot by the late, great Haskell Wexler the very same year he took over principal photography from Néstor Almendros on Malick’s golden glazed Days of Heaven and was released a whole two years earlier, nabbing an Oscar for best cinematography along the way, making keen use of camera operator Garrett Brown’s brand new, revelatory invention, the Steadicam. Much like Malick’s film, Bound For Glory makes full use of its mid-western setting, taking in the sun and living down in the dust, but narratively resembles John Steinbeck’s American classic The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford’s subsequent screen adaptation starring Henry Fonda. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Steinbeck and Guthrie were acquaintances around this time.
Driven into poverty by his shrinking small town, Carradine’s Guthrie decides to abandon his life in Texas along with his first wife, Mary Jennings (Melinda Dillon), and kids in hopes of finding work out west, but after risking his life hopping trains, hitching rides and walking miles without anything but the clothes on his back and a harmonica in his pocket, he, like thousands of others, find that there is little work for little money and more people showing up every day. Luckily, his talents as a sign painter and as a musician give him a niche, and he eventually finds himself a gig performing on the local radio station KFVD, alongside a wholly fictionalized songman named Ozark Bule (Ronny Cox), whose activities as an activist inspire Guthrie to write controversial songs promoting the welfare of the working class.
Loosely adapted from Guthrie’s 1943 autobiography by Robert Getchell, whom also wrote Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Michael Caton-Jones’ This Boy’s Life, Bound For Glory carries Guthrie’s tune of self destructive social righteousness, while never really critiquing his rather bad boy behavior. Even when he abandons his wife for a second time after he moves them out to California in the wake of his success and she finally leaves him for good, his punishment seems more a happy-go-lucky relief than emotionally traumatic breaking point. That said, the heart and soul of the Ashby’s portrait is the music and its expressively passionate ability to convey the feelings of those great many people enduring their own traumas of the Great Depression. If nothing else, Carradine’s earthy performance projects such an authenticity of musical passion and social justice that Bound For Glory gets swept up by it, as if in a dust storm of song and fury caught brilliantly by the sun and immortalized on film.
Twilight Time’s new HD transfer of Bound For Glory lends the image a crisper picture and truer colors than we’ve seen previously on home video, though there are plenty of scenes throughout the film that remain a bit soft. Whether that is due to the transfer or merely inherent to the original images is hard to tell. Utilizing the original mono track, the HD remastering has given the wall-to-wall music a great sense of depth, clarity and verve that gives life to Carradine and Cox’s live performances. Additionally, there is an isolated score only track that you listen to as an alternative to the entire soundscape of the film. All said and done, its a solid, if bare bones, release.
Appropriately stacked with musical performance, but oddly cut and less cleaned up than the feature, this is a keen little look into the marketing of the picture. 3 min
As is usual for Twilight Time releases, the included booklet features another superbly written, always enlightening essay by Julie Kirgo, as well as some promotional images from the film’s original theatrical run.
While certainly not as boldly original as his prior work on Harold and Maude or The Last Detail, with his big budget Hollywood biopic, Ashby crafted a period perfect film that really rides on Carradine’s salt of the earth performance, Wexler’s often astonishingly beautiful images and the timeless simplicity of Guthrie’s early masterpieces. One might have a hard time deciding which Ashby film has the best soundtrack – Harold and Maude or Bound For Glory?