Release Date(s)1975 (January 19, 2016)
Studio(s)United Artists (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: N/A
Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory is more a film to be admired than enjoyed, but what keeps it at an emotional distance from the viewer is also the very thing that makes it great – namely, its brutally honest depiction of its lead character. An unconventional biopic in nearly every way, the film is less a biography of folk singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie (played to perfection by David Carradine in the performance of his career) than a collection of moments from his life – there’s no real momentum to the piece or narrative thrust. The 2½-hour film picks Guthrie up during the Depression as he’s struggling to find work as a sign painter and, with little insight into who he is or where he’s come from, follows him as he seemingly stumbles into history as one of the most influential artists of his era. There’s little of the cause-and-effect one finds in most “great man” approaches to biographical films; in the hands of Ashby and screenwriter Robert Getchell (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), Guthrie’s behavior often seems arbitrary and unclearly motivated, as do other’s reactions to and against him. It’s an approach that’s occasionally frustrating in that it’s virtually impossible to connect emotionally with Guthrie – especially given his tendency to treat those closest to him like garbage – yet it’s also more realistic than one usually finds in films of this sort.
Where Bound for Glory really excels is less as drama than sociology and anthropology – it’s a beautiful, comprehensively researched portrait of its era. The lives of the struggling workers who form both Guthrie’s inspiration and audience are rendered with incredible attention to detail, lovingly captured by the late, great cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s camera. Wexler came from a documentary background but was also an ace Hollywood cameraman, and all of his strengths come together brilliantly here. Bound for Glory contains a documentarian’s eye for the truth with a creative artist’s flair for visual reinterpretation, as Wexler makes the Depression and its people both brutal and lovely – his hazy, faded, golden images are wondrous, and won him a well deserved Academy Award. Wexler pushes his film stocks to their limit in terms of the darkness and contrast of his images, something that has made for hideous video releases of Bound for Glory in the past. Luckily, Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray treats the film with the respect and care it deserves, preserving the grain and detail of Wexler’s photography in a top-notch transfer. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack is solid – if a bit soft to my ears – and the soundtrack of essential Guthrie compositions is included as an isolated audio track. There are no extra features aside from a theatrical trailer, but in keeping with Twilight Time tradition the package contains fantastic liner notes by the ever-reliable film historian Julie Kirgo, who offers a great crash course in Ashby, Guthrie, and the importance of the film.
- Jim Hemphill