Bound for Glory ★★★

Fortuitously, I just finished reading Bob Dylan's memoir in which he describes the effect Woody Guthrie's music and personality had on him, so I was somewhat affected to see a moment dramatized in Hal Ashby's film of Guthrie's autobiography (which Dylan effusively praises) wherein David Carradine's Guthrie happens upon a mentor who shakes him up in a similar sense, a union-organizing radio personality and singer named Ozark Bule played by Ronny Cox. Only thing is, the entire incident as well as Bule himself are completely fabricated, which illustrates one of the many problems of this artfully shot but all-too-typical musical biopic: it rings false, and does so at great length. As you'd expect of Ashby, the moments when he gets to illustrate Guthrie's rebellion and sense of social injustice, those when we actually see the machine work on killing fascism, are riveting and have a layer of documentary realism that recalls the most strikingly natural moments of Shampoo (the election night party) and The Last Detail (the brothel). But like most of Ashby's films, it's essentially half of a great movie, done in by its inexplicable obligations; when dramatizing someone as lucid a myth-maker as Guthrie, it's kind of bizarre to feel a need to invent extra conflicts and obstacles for him to deal with, and from what I remember of the Ashby biography I read, I suspect there's a bit of projection in his portrayal of a renegade artist kicking against the establishment. (Don't misunderstand me: there's no doubt the real Guthrie did more of this, and more effectively, than Ashby; but Ashby's frequent dilution of this down to arguments with radio station managers and crummy gatekeepers at auditions is, to me, rather telling, though I should add the confession that I haven't cracked open my copy of Guthrie's book yet.) While it's laudable that the film shies away from presenting the folksinger as an unambiguous hero, in these hands he's too much of an underwritten cipher, oscillating between speechifying advocate for the working class and typical self-absorbed proto-rock star asshole whose preference for "the people" over his wife and family is ultimately glamorized (as is the romance of hobo life, frankly); this is disappointing because Carradine's performance is phenomenal, and is the main reason to see the film. That includes Haskell Wexler's Oscar-winning cinematography, which is so heavy on the diffusion that when a dust storm blankets the town in a few scenes it's hard to tell any difference; I know people love that kind of thing, but for me it might be second only to American Graffiti as the most hideously photographed "big" picture of the era.

The music sure is amazing, though.

Nathan liked this review