Sign painter Woody Guthrie (David Carradine) was having difficulties in the Texas of 1936 with the Dust Bowl ruining families, forcing people to go hungry and leaving many without jobs. Still, he always had his music and he would enjoy playing in a local band for the folk of his town, although when one day an oil man looking for fortune tellers passed by, he offered Woody the reputation of having otherworldly powers, which led him to be coaxed into performing healing on an unfortunate woman (it worked, oddly enough). But while he may have been down to earth, Woody also had a dream of a better life...
An American Dream, you might say. Bound for Glory was drawn from country legend Guthrie's own memoirs and was blessed with a perfectly understated and intelligent performance from Carradine as its lead. He sang and played the songs himself with genuine skill, but for the first half of the film he is not given much opportunity to do so as Robert Getchell's script concentrated heavily on the singer's slow climb up the ladder of fame which included leaving his family behind in their Texas hovel while he went off to, well, you could say he was looking to provide for them, but on the other hand it might appear he was getting shot of them.
Incidents such as that indicate this was no rosy biopic that looked back on the Depression with nostalgic eyes, but there's a weight of evidence against that view in Hal Ashby's soft-focus reflection on times past. While admitting those times were hard for most people, the film seems to be saying, it was these hardships that brought a talent like Guthrie to the fore so if it wasn't exactly a good thing, then riding on top of a boxcar with you harmonica for company like a man liberated of all constraints was nevertheless a fine way to live. Yes, Woody has trouble finding something to eat, and at one point nearly kills himself avoiding violent railway guards, but he's in the land of the free!
If you buy that then perhaps you won't mind that a supposedly socialist message about better working conditions for struggling workers is almost entirely eclipsed by a conventional showbiz tale of rags to riches, yes, that American Dream is returned to with a vengeance. And yet it's not an utter dead loss when turning to leftist concerns, mainly because Ashby is keen to sketch in the lives of the little guy and the small scenes of characters who pass by Woody are among the film's strongest aspects. Brion James as a father turning back at the borders of California, but getting the money in Woody's pocket as compensation is an example of the generosity that the protagonist is capable of.
Other nice scenes see Woody insulting a rich caravaning couple in his own kidding manner and considering the worth of artichokes, but in the broader strokes, where we see him promoting the unions, smack unmistakably of the over-earnest. Guthrie has the clichéd record executives and radio producers to rebel against when they don't like those fruit-pickers songs he wants to sing, which of course he does anyway, and the strongarm tactics used by the bosses of the farms are not something he is going to back down against, so he still has his hero credentials. But Haskell Wexler's photography, among other things, simply makes everything too "glossy prestige production" rather than down and dirty with the miserable conditions that Guthrie began to rise above before finding a way of life he was more comfortable with. The excellent Carradine suggests a better film could have been made here, and he's the main reason to see this.
Cult American director who started out as an editor, notably on such works as The Loved One, In the Heat of the Night (for which he won an Oscar) and The Thomas Crown Affair. Thanks to his friendship with Norman Jewison he was able to direct his first film, The Landlord, and the seventies represented the golden years of his career with his sympathetic but slightly empty dramas striking a chord with audiences. His films from this period were Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There. But come the eighties, Ashby's eccentricities and drug dependency sabotaged his career, and he ended it directing a forgotten TV movie before his untimely death from cancer.