“Victims of the Rainbow.”
Canadian feature film history goes back to the early part of the 20th century with the release of the country’s first English language film, Back to God’s Country in 1919. But no one could ever claim there had been a real English language feature film industry in the country until the latter part of the century. That would change with the release in 1970 of an initially unheralded film by director Don Shebib entitled Goin’ Down the Road. The success of this film would lead the way for a number of other notable features in the 1970s including Wedding in White, Between Friends, The Rowdyman, Paperback Hero, and The Far Shore.
Goin’ Down the Road traced the fortunes and misfortunes of a couple of hopeful fellows from Cape Breton who try to find a more successful life in the big city, Toronto. Shebib shot the film on a very modest budget, who had gradually been making a name for himself in Canada during the 1960s after graduating from the UCLA Film School and an apprenticeship with Roger Corman. Principal photography (in 16mm) was carried out in Toronto during October to December 1969, and the resulting film was blown up to 35mm for the theatrical release. The film was received very positively by both critics and filmgoers in Canada and elsewhere, appearing on a number of the year’s ten-best lists. It was nominated in several categories of the 1970 Canadian Film Awards, winning Best Feature and Best Actor awards.
In the years following, many people viewed Goin’ Down the Road as Canada’s answer to the movement in American films of the time to themes about anti-heroes, loners, protest, and social discontent — titles such as Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and Medium Cool. Certainly it ushered in a theme of “losers,” which continued to pervade a great deal of Canadian dramatic film and television long after that had given way in American film to the 1980s action heroes. In that sense, its influence on Canadian film has been profound.
Despite the film’s importance, access to it had become difficult, as good quality prints were hard to find. Finally in 1999, the National Archives of Canada prepared a restored print, and Seville Pictures has used this as source material for a new DVD release of the film as part of its Signature Collection.
Pete and Joey are two cocky young men from Cape Breton who leave low-paying jobs in the local canneries and docks to seek their fortune in the big city lure of Toronto. Armed with promises of accommodation and work from friends and relatives already living in Toronto and dreaming of easy desk jobs, the two arrive in their beaten-up old car only to find that the promises are empty. Their first night in Toronto finds them staying at a Salvation Army hostel.
Initially buoyed by the local newspaper’s lengthy list of openings for trainees at PR firms and the like, Pete and Joey soon find that their meager educational backgrounds and limited experience only make them employable in the most menial of tasks. The two manage to settle into jobs moving cases in a bottling factory and life becomes a routine of work, drinking beer, and trying to get dates with women. Joey becomes involved with a hairdresser named Betty and the two decide to marry when Betty becomes pregnant. The future, at least for Joey and Betty, looks rosy as they move into a new apartment with furniture bought on credit, but then Joey loses his job, as does Pete. Soon the three of them are forced to share rented rooms and with winter coming on, prospects are bleak indeed.
I think the most effective aspect of Goin’ Down the Road is its basic honesty, which manifests itself in how completely it makes you forget you’re watching a film. So submerged in the characters are the actors and so unconsciously are they captured in the various locations where the film has been shot that it feels as though you’re a fly on the wall eavesdropping on real-life events as they unfold. Shebib is uncompromising in showing life as it really is both in terms of physical locations and events as well as human interactions so that whether you can identify with the characters or not, you quickly come to care about them and genuinely feel for their misfortunes. There is an inevitability about how it’s all going to play out for Pete and Joey at least in this instance and Shebib never for a moment suggests that he is going to relent from that inevitability. Yet despite that, there is a resilience to the pair that always gives hope that if things don’t work out for them at this time or in this place, then they just might sometime, somewhere.
Pete and Joey are portrayed expertly by Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley respectively. Both were virtual unknowns, and the lack of identification with other film roles added to the realistic feel of their performances. McGrath, at the time of the film’s release, was a young actor of 35 from Vancouver, and Pete was his first role in a feature film. Much of his later work was in smaller featured parts in American films. Working fairly steadily over the next three decades, he appeared in a number of Clint Eastwood’s films of the late 1970s and his most recent appearance was in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001). Paul Bradley was a little younger, but had some uncredited work in the likes of Funny Girl (1968) and Madame X (1966) behind him. His career never really took off after Goin’ Down the Road and he gradually drifted out of films after the 1970s. Also worthy of note is Jane Eastwood’s forthright performance as Betty. Eastwood is a very familiar face from her work with Second City and SCTV, and numerous appearances on film and television. She recently appeared in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).
The film’s gritty look is one of its most memorable characteristics. Part of this is due to the blow-up to 35mm, but cinematographer Richard Leiterman captures Toronto in a way that makes much of it a cold and uninviting place. The modest budget didn’t allow for special lighting, so filming had to be done under natural conditions. An excellent example is the sequence where Pete and Joey make their way down the city’s main drag, Yonge Street, at night. Virtually all background detail is lost in the darkness and we see what’s happening, as the pair proposition women passing on the sidewalk, solely by the lights of the adjacent storefronts and overhead signage. The necessity to film on location as opportunities arose also gives the film a great time capsule quality when viewed now, 30-odd years later. Long time Toronto residents will delight to see some of the stores and theatres on Yonge Street that are no longer there (like Sam’s old nemesis — A&A Records), or a shot of a downtown core uncharacterized by the CN Tower, or images of the likes of Allen Gardens, the Scarborough bluffs, and so on.
Seville Pictures Signature Collection DVD presents the film full frame as originally shot. As noted, the transfer has been digitally mastered from a recently restored print. The deficiencies of the original source material, however, result in a transfer quality that is not on a par with the better DVD transfers. The image is subject to a lot of grain; shadow detail is poor; and colours are washed out. There is occasional evidence of edge enhancement. Despite all that, this is probably as good as the film has ever looked, on video or on the big screen. The visual impact of the DVD is definitely in line with the film’s mood and certainly reflects the film’s original gritty look, so in that respect, it would seem wrong for this film to look any more pristine than it does.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix that amply delivers the dialogue-driven script and does a decent job with Bruce Cockburn’s evocative music. There is occasional hiss, and the sound lacks richness, but that is probably appropriate given the subject matter and how it’s been presented. Regrettably, the disc provides no subtitling and does not appear to offer closed captioning.
Seville has rounded up an impressive array of supplements. Two audio commentaries are included. The first is by director Don Shebib, who enthusiastically provides a great deal of information about production details and shooting decisions. He also reflects on various members of the cast and crew as to how they got involved and how their later lives evolved. Overall, a very worthwhile commentary. A very nice complement to it is the other commentary by Geoff Pevere, a film critic with the Toronto Star newspaper. Pevere provides more of an appreciation of the film in terms of its artistry and its place in Canadian film history. Then there is a 24-minute interview with Don Shebib conducted by Canadian author Pierre Berton in a 1972 edition of “The Pierre Berton Show.” The interview is quite relaxed and we learn a lot about what influenced Shebib’s career including his love of the films of the 1920s and 1930s. There is also a short stills gallery as well as some production notes and an introductory essay, both appearing on the case’s insert pamphlet. The only thing I regret not seeing included is the wonderful SCTV parody of the film. Unfortunately, numerous music and talent licensing issues with SCTV material prevented this possibility.
Goin’ Down the Road is one of the key films in Canadian film history. It provides an honest portrait of how the other side isn’t always greener, shot with realism and perception by director Don Shebib. Seville’s DVD release does the film full justice with a good transfer given the inherent shortcomings of the original material. A very fine collection of supplements gives a nicely rounded portrait of the film and its filmmakers, as well as making clear the film’s place in film history. Highly recommended.