Given Goin’ Down the Road’s legendary status in the Canadian-cinema canon, it’s difficult to imagine that there’s anything new to report on the landmark feature. As a huge fan of the film—I include it whenever I teach the Canadian cinema class at Concordia University—I thought I’d read up on every possible angle one could view it from.
But as the latest entry in the University of Toronto Press and TIFF’s Canadian Cinema book series proves, given the right author, there is always new life to be breathed into even the most well worn of subjects. Series editors Will Straw and Bart Beaty sensibly enlisted one of our best and knowledgeable writers and critics, Geoff Pevere, to dive back into Goin’ Down the Road (1970), and to analyze the film’s remarkable legacy and the fallout for its main players after its celebrated debut.
Pevere employs his clear and concise writing style to put the film and its production into the context of the times. Director and co-writer Don Shebib took his inspiration from the Maritimer community he saw living in Toronto, fish out of water who desperately wanted to live the big-city dream. He collaborated with screenwriter William Fruet to expand on the idea of people who were fighting to make it in an urban environment that would only prove alienating.
Particularly illuminating is Pevere’s research into the thoughtful performances of the actors. Greatly informed by the documentary revolution that was taking place due to lighter 16mm equipment (the film was lensed by Richard Leiterman, who had shot doc landmarks like A Married Couple), the seamless blending of fiction and non-fiction filmmaking techniques evoked a striking naturalism. Trained actors and non-actors intermingled in street and bar scenes, evoking such a powerful sense of watching the Real Thing that, as Pevere notes, some audiences thought they were watching a documentary.
As well, all three of the principals (Doug McGrath, Paul Bradley and Jayne Eastwood) had been steeped in the Method, delving into the psychology of their characters, effectively trailblazing their way out of the stage-based acting technique of so many Canadian screen actors. The technique would work magnificently, making the scenes Pevere argues should have seemed preposterous McGrath’s job interview, for example—somehow feel utterly genuine and not contrived.
Pevere examines the cruel, cold reality that many Canadian filmmakers faced. Like many who met with early success—including Larry Kent (Bitter Ash), David Secter (Winter Kept Us Warm) and Don Owen (Nobody Waved Good-Bye)—Shebib found it extremely difficult to keep the momentum going and maintain a filmmaking career in what was a still-largely-undeveloped wilderness. Pevere diplomatically addresses the issue of the 2011 sequel Down the Road Again, in which “the cold, sloppy splash of reality” of the first film is replaced by “tidiness itself.”
Pevere’s book is good to the last endnote. Not to be overlooked are the details of Bruce Cockburn’s strange ambivalence about the brilliant songs he wrote for the film. (He’s never included them on any of his albums, and for years refused to perform them.) And much of the dialogue in the film is not included in the published screenplay, because so much of what ended up in the final cut was improvised by the actors.
Pevere has crafted a beautiful and fitting ode to this entirely unsentimental film, perfectly assessing Goin’ Down the Road’s spot in the evolution of cinematic Cancon. (He even includes analysis of the hilarious SCTV parody.) This monograph has earned an essential place in the library of anyone serious about our national film culture.