It's not an exact fit, but Hal Ashby's forgotten Bound for Glory (1976) has an awful lot in common with Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970). Both follow men with obvious musical talent, uncomfortable in their own skin and unwilling to sit still for more than a few years at a time. They're almost doomed to wander the Earth, leaving behind broken families and relationships in pursuit of something they haven't achieved yet. The difference is that Bound for Glory is based on a real figure: celebrated songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose legacy ensures that, on some level, this relentless pursuit actually paid off. Yet this dramatic window into his life during the late 1930s, years before he became a household name, focuses on the self-inflicted turbulence created by abandoning responsibilities in favor of following a dream. As the least-remembered entry in a year of memorable Best Picture nominees, Ashby's film struggles to carry all the weight it promises but still stands as a well-acted, entertaining slice of Dust Bowl drama.
First and foremost, strong performances offer Bound for Glory's most obvious highlights. David Carradine anchors the film well as Guthrie, showcasing an easygoing charm and magnetism while managing to carry a tune in the process. Ronny Cox, hiding behind a mustache as fellow grassroots musician Ozark Bule (a loose composite of several figures in Guthrie's life), is almost as impressive here as his memorable debut in John Boorman's Deliverance. Smaller roles and memorable cameos are filled admirably by the likes of Gail Strickland, M. Emmett Walsh, Randy Quaid, and Brion James. Yet the real secret weapon is Melinda Dillon (A Christmas Story, in one of her first major roles here) pulling double duty as Guthrie's first wife Mary and radio partner "Memphis Sue". Though more limited in screen time, she creates two strong characters that demand the attention she never receives from her on-screen husband.
Trailing a bit farther behind is the film's slow and steady pace, content to let each and every event play out in its own good time. From start to finish, Bound for Glory covers roughly three or four years in Guthrie's life: we first meet him struggling to get by as a sign painter and musician for hire, gradually realizing that his family's small Texas hometown has literally run dry of good opportunities. Against better judgment, Guthrie abandons his wife and children for the hope of success in California, only to be greeted by the realization that it's not exactly the Promised Land: fruit pickers and farmers are paid pennies per bushel for a hard days work, and unions are virtually non-existent. Gradually, he figures out the best way to make a difference is through music, especially after he meets a kindred spirit in Ozark Bule. But again, the bubble bursts: the larger the audience, the less chances he gets to sing honest lyrics and, like before, he thumbs his nose at the prospect of financial gain overtaking his sense of self-respect.
Played confidently by Carradine with a wonderful sense of easy-going charm and passion bubbling just below the surface, Guthrie's intentions would be more honorable if not for the reminder than he completely ignores his family at almost every turn. Even after bringing Mary and his children to California after a few solid paychecks, he prefers the life of a wandering musician than a steadfast family man. It's obvious that another bubble will burst and, once again, Guthrie is alone. It's a cycle of mistakes, successes, random acts of kindness, and an unpredictable moral compass that spans almost 150 minutes and, for better or worse, paints a striking portrait of someone who's tough to root for but impossible to ignore. Though Bound for Glory struggles a bit in the home stretch (and, in some respects, well before the halfway mark), it's a well-acted and entertaining drama that deserves a wider audience.
Twilight Time's new Blu-ray (as usual, limited to 3,000 copies) aims to overtake the well-worn MGM DVD released almost 15 years ago; it's not a tough job, but this is still far from a definitive package. Even so, it's enough of an improvement to draw in new fans and tempt those who have supported Bound for Glory since Gerald Ford was in office.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Seeing as how the only other Region 1 home video release of Bound for Glory was a 2001 non-anamorphic DVD from MGM, it really had nowhere to go but up. Twilight Time's new Blu-ray edition, sporting a new 1.85:1 transfer in 1080p resolution, represents a pretty solid leap forward: there's obviously a lot more image detail and the film's dry, dusty palette is rendered nicely, while textures and film grain look decent enough from start to finish. But this obviously hasn't been extensively remastered: print damage and other related defects---flickering, slight color fluctuations, etc.---can be spotted along the way, which can be a little distracting but also seem to fit the film's lived-in aesthetic at times. Either way, die-hard fans of the film will just be happy to have Bound for Glory in decent condition for the first time since the film's theatrical run, even if there's obviously some room for improvement here.
DISCLAIMER: These compressed and resized screen captures are purely decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
Twilight Time preserves Bound for Glory's one-channel roots, serving up a capable DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio track that sports clear dialogue and well-balanced music cues. Source material issues can affect a few lines along the way, but on the whole this easily outpaces the old MGM disc's lossy audio. The only objective nitpick here is that the volume levels are a little lower than expected---I had to crank the receiver up a few more decibels than normal to hear everything clearly. Thankfully, optional English subtitles have been included during the main feature, which might help clear up a few stray lines of dialogue along the way. As usual, Twilight Time has also included a separate Isolated Music Score track in DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio, and I can't think of a more fitting film for such a feature.
Menus, Presentation, & Packaging
Not much to the menu: it's a static interface that's identical to the cover art with separate options for playback, chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus features (which are limited to the film's Theatrical Trailer
and MGM's 90th Anniversary Trailer
, aside from the previously mentioned Isolated Score
). This one-disc release is packaged in a clear keepcase and includes a Booklet
with specs, production notes, and an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Hal Ashby's Bound for Glory is a decent dramatic examination of Woody Guthrie's pre-fame years, though not without several embellishments and exclusions in the name of entertainment value. Performances are excellent all around, with newcomer Melinda Dillon making the most of her limited screen time; David Carradine and Ronny Cox aren't far behind. As a whole, it's definitely stretched a little thin and doesn't quite carry the weight it promises, but Ashby's film has aged fairly well and its "forgotten" status lends a slight air of mystery to the production when viewed in hindsight. Twilight Time's Blu-ray is a welcome but thin effort that rescues the film from non-anamorphic DVD obscurity, serving up a decent A/V presentation and little in the way of supplements. Newcomers may want to test the waters by renting this one first, but established fans should pick this up while it's still available. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.