"Bound for Glory" (1976) follows Woody Guthrie (an uncanny and beautifully understated David Carradine) as he rides the rails, from his home in Texas, to California in 1936. He has left his wife and children behind in search of better fortunes out west, but, while he manages to escape the Dust Bowl, he cannot elude the Great Depression.
Rewinding just a bit, our story starts out in northern Texas, in a very small, dust ravaged town. Woody spends his days picking at his guitar, writing songs, and occasionally making a few dollars here and there painting signs. This first section of the film floats by quietly, and serves to show a small town boy who will soon transform into the voice of the working man. He is friendly and helpful to everyone he meets, simply by his nature. This, and the music that just drips out of him like a leaky fosset, are the first two ingredients that help turn Woody Guthrie the man into Woody Guthrie the folk hero.
The film, directed by Hal Ashby, feels like a documentary, what with the handheld, under lit camerawork and no evident makeup upon the actors' faces. It is in fact quite a tome for Steadicam enthusiasts, as it contains some brilliant examples of the technology when it was still in it's fetal stages. There are sustained tracking shots following Woody thro
ugh shanty towns, that lend themselves to the documentarian aesthetic of the picture. Some of the most exhilarating single shots depict our hero jumping onto and off of moving trains, where it is also clear that Carradine did his own stunt work.
Shot on location in San Fernando Valley, California, "Bound for Glory" is perhaps one of the most realistic and authentic films about the Great Depression, or any era. It is certainly about this period in American history just as much as, if not more than, the formation of a famous musician. Indeed, we are taken on a tour of the era, with Woody Guthrie as our surrogate. Yes, some of the standard music biopic drama does crop up, but the film merely glides over these scenes, acknowledging them, while making clear that this man's life is not the focus, it is instead what he saw.
This film would make a good double bill with "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004), as both tell the story of how a 20th century icon was shaped by bearing witn
ess to the suffering of his people.