By John H. Foote
Long revered as one of the greatest films made in Canada, Goin’ Down the Road burst onto the Canadian film scene in 1970 and has been among the most discussed and written about films since its debut. Goin’ Down the Road played for over a year in New York City, earning rave reviews wherever it played and smashed down the doors holding back Canadian cinema worldwide. Here was a film made for just $25,000, using 16 mm film stock and short ends, shot in and around Ontario, and is a time capsule of seventies Toronto, and especially the bright lights of Yonge Street. As the car cruises down the off ramp to Richmond St., we journey through the downtown core of Toronto, but Toronto of the past, no sightings of the famous CN Tower because when this film was made it did not yet exist. The burst Yonge street crowds are out in full force, moving through the famous Sam the Record Man store in search of the latest new album, or heading to the busiest bar, drinking beer in stubby bottles.
The film was created by Canadians, for Canadians about Canadians and it clicked with audiences in North America at once. It proved Canadian audiences were hungry, starving in fact for films about themselves, their culture, their lives.
Pete (Doug McGrath) and his best friend Joey (Paul Bradley) are Maritimers who one day load their meagre belongings into Joey’s car and, dreaming of better jobs, money and women, head to Toronto, hoping to alter their lives. Wide eyed they hit Toronto, smelling their success about to happen, but very quickly they find out they are under educated, and humiliated at job interviews, until finally they find honest blue collar work at a bottling factory, no better than they could have got in the Maritimes.
They drink heavily, spending most of the pay over the weekend, leaving little to live on through the week, and repeat the pattern the following weekend. Joey meets a young woman, Betty (Jayne Eastwood) and they begin seeing one another and very quickly she is pregnant, so the two decide to marry, leaving Pete the odd man out. Joey and Betty get a larger place, filling it with furniture, an apartment full, that permits them to pay on time. All seems well until the men are laid off from their jobs and cannot find work, other than day to day. Unable to afford the rent, they are kicked out and forced to live in a small room, the three of them separated by a curtain offering no one any real privacy. Food becomes scarce, and knowing Betty has to be taken care of, the men head to a large grocery store with plans to steal enough food to do them a few weeks. However their escapade goes horribly wrong leaving Pete and Joey with a terrible decision to make, do they stay and face the consequences, likely jail, or do they head further west down the road, leaving Betty, to fend for herself?
Gritty, raw, and exceptionally authentic, Goin’ Down the Road was, in many ways, like Midnight Cowboy (1969) in its depictions of a friendship born of necessity, two down on their luck men who are struggling to find something to eat every day, knowing the next day will see that struggle repeat itself the next and the next. A slice of life film to be sure, very muck like the kitchen sink English dramas of the sixties, breathtaking in its realism, a genuine work of art.
The sights of Toronto remind us with every frame where we are, from Sam the Record Man on Yonge, through to Moss Park, through to the fields in and around the famous Don Valley Parkway beautifully capture the city, at that point ever growing. Bruce Cockburn’s mournful music and title song bring a sadness to the film that is played out through the picture, nicely directed by Don Shebib who was a student with no less than Francis Ford Coppola.
The performances of Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley are each superb, McGrath capturing the essence of a dreamer cursed with knowing exactly his lot in life and where he is, what he is in terms of society. He knows deep in his gut, he will never rise above being a blue-collar worker and though saddened, he is content with what he has. Bradley is a dreamer too but does not dwell on what he cannot have or will never achieve. Though broke, his spirits are always high, he is married, a child on the way and content though in every way an unrealistic man. McGrath went on to a decent career in film as a character actor while Bradley died homeless in Moss Park, never taking advantage of the film career he might have had.
Jayne Eastwood was terrific as Betty and is still an active actress today, and a lovely lady, a true Canadian icon.
Years after the film Shebib made a sequel, Down the Road Again (2013), where we caught up with Pete years later, a mailman on the West Coast about to retire and encounter, sort of, his dead friend Joey. Delivered to Pete are a series of letters and the ashes of his late friend, who has recently passed of cancer. He asks Pete to take his car, that same beat of car that brought them from the East Coast to Toronto years before, and take his ashes back home to bury them. Along the way he encounters Betty, still angry but admittedly curious, and Joey’s grown daughter who accompanies Pete on the trip. Turns out there are surprises awaiting Pete on the Coast too, things Joey knew but kept private from his friend, thinking he was doing the right thing. Not near as profound as the first film, Down the Road Again was a pleasant way to tie up loose ends, offers McGrath a chance to revisit what was the role of his career, and brings to the characters closure.
I had the pleasure to interview the film’s director and writer Don Shebib for the 25th anniversary of the film’s release and was shocked to find him a rather dour man, one who did not believe his film to be the classic I championed it as being. To him it was an OK little film, nothing more, whereas to me it was the beginning of modern Canadian film. He did not see it as that, which made it interesting he revisited the film years after we spoke.
Goin’ Down the Road remains a gem of Canadian cinema and was a stirring reminder that Canadian cinema was on the rise, and badly needed in this country. Every film made in this country owes a debt to this gutsy little film that put the truth onscreen for all to see.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.