The Canadian film industry has never experienced a time in their history where their regional cinema ignited an influential movement like the Nouvelle Vague films of France in the late 50s or Australian’s New Wave films of the 70s. Instead they tend to be viewed more as a functioning subsidiary of the U.S. film industry, occasionally providing locations, cast and crew and other services to American productions. Yet, movie lovers often forget that the country’s national treasure, The Film Board of Canada, continues to be one of the most prolific creators of internationally renowned animation and documentary films, which have garnered 12 Oscars and 74 Oscar nominations to date. Canada has also produced a number of artistic and critically acclaimed feature films which have enriched world cinema such as Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine (1971), David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988), Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions (2004) and Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007). And one film that continues to make Canadian critics’ all-time top ten movie lists is Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road (1970), although it is not as well known among American viewers as the aforementioned titles.
A tragicomedy in the best sense of the word, Goin’ Down the Road is both a road movie and a character study that recalls the raw cinema verité-like intimacy and directness of John Cassavetes’s early work like Shadows (1958) and Faces (1968). It has also some of the comic desperation and so-pathetic-it’s-funny humor of Cassavetes’s later Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974).
A melancholy tone is struck in the opening credits as musician Bruce Cockburn croons the title song over a montage of an economically depressed Nova Scotia in the late sixties – scenes of run-down houses, abandoned fishing boats, kids playing in the street and desolate rural roads. Job options are limited, which is the main reason why Peter (Doug McGrath) and his pal Joey (Paul Bradley) are leaving to make their fortunes in Ontario. Of course, it would help if they had desirable job skills to offer or even a plan on how to succeed at their end destination. The journey starts on an optimistic note, accompanied by upbeat acoustic music, as Peter and Joey take to the road in a conspicuous Chevy Impala convertible emblazoned with the slogan “My Nova Scotia Home.” Almost immediately things start to go bad when a tire goes flat and then, upon arriving in Ontario, discover they can’t stay with Peter’s relatives (we see the couple hiding inside the house, refusing to answer the front door). Instead, the duo end up staying at the Salvation Army hostel with other homeless residents.
In terms of the relationship dynamic, Peter is clearly the instigator and Joey is the follower, which doesn’t stop the latter from bitter complaining. Peter responds, “A couple of things go wrong and you start running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off,” while Joey retorts, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, we’re 1500 miles from home and we only have $30 bucks between us. How long you think that’s gonna last?”
The boys hit the street the next day, looking for work. Joey gets hired as a manual laborer at a bottling plant while Peter pursues a want ad for a position in an advertising agency. In one of the more cringe-inducing episodes, Peter manages to wrangle an interview despite the fact that he never finished high school and has a work history of mostly odd jobs like carpenter’s assistant and house painter. The interviewer, clearly baffled by Peter’s resume, asks, “Whatever possessed you to come here looking for a job? There’s nothing in your background that suggests even an interest in advertising?” Peter blithely says, “Oh well, I’ve watched a lot of commercials down home on the TV. I mean, I really enjoyed them like some of those car commercials.”
Almost everyone has experienced a disastrous interview, regardless of whether you were the interviewer or the interviewee. For the former, it presents the challenge of having to tactfully rebuff the candidate with a reality check. For the interviewee, it becomes a matter of trying to save face while realizing you are completely out of your league. This is just one of several scenes in Goin’ Down the Road where the hard facts of life are delivered bluntly but also with a sense of the ridiculous.
There is a brief upturn in Peter’s luck when Joey gets him a job at the bottling plant. For a while the two friends maintain a daytime schedule of factory work followed by nights of drinking and carousing with co-workers, spending their meager pay. Still, Peter rebels against his lowly status and teaches himself how to drive a fork lift while entertaining fantasies about seducing Nicole (Nicole Morin), a sexy French Canadian woman who works in the company office.
By the film’s mid-point, Joey seems the more practical one while Peter appears to be a deluded fool. Then fate intervenes and Joey discovers his new girlfriend/co-worker Betty (Jayne Eastwood) is pregnant. They plan a hasty marriage and quickly accumulate a lot of debt from leasing a spacious apartment and buying items on the installment plan. Life goes from bad to worse as Peter and Joey are laid off at the bottling plan and are forced to move, with Betty in tow, to a cramped apartment for three.
[Spoiler alert] Goin’ Down the Road concludes with Joey abandoning Betty and assisting Peter in an inept grocery store scam that winds up with a grocery bagger knocked unconscious with a tire iron. When we last see our protagonists, they are headed in Peter’s Chevy for California to make a fresh start. Considering their experiences in Ontario, we have to wonder if they will soon end up in jail or worse. One of the major strengths of Goin’ Down the Road are the excellent ensemble performances headed by Doug McGrath as Peter and Paul Bradley as Joey, both of them making their film debuts. One has to wonder if the Peter and Joey characters inspired Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas to create their comedy skit duo, The McKenzie Brothers, featured on SCTV as part of the show’s “Great White North” segments in 1980. Beer-swilling, donut-eating morons, The McKenzie Brothers were a compilation of laughable Canadian stereotypes although Peter and Joey are not much smarter in comparison.
Nevertheless, McGrath and Bradley grounded their characters in a believable blue collar reality, one which reflected their hard scrabble backgrounds. McGrath perfectly nails Peter’s uneasy mix of reckless bravado and childishness. One of his most memorable scenes shows him trying to chat up a sophisticated-looking woman (Sheila White) in the classical section of a record store while they listen to a recording of Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1.” The woman is immune to his charms, of course, but Peter buys the Satie recording on impulse. Later in the film, when he is at his lowest ebb (reduced to working as a bowling alley pin-setter), we see him alone in his room, listening to the pensive “Gymnopedie No. 1.”
McGrath would eventually relocate to Los Angeles where he carved out an impressive career for himself as a character actor in TV series and numerous high-profile films for Clint Eastwood (The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy, Pale Rider). He also landed bit parts in box office hits like Porky’s (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989) and appeared in cult favorites like Black Christmas (1974) and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001).
As for Paul Bradley, he also has his share of stand-out scenes in Goin’ Down the Road, especially the chaotic wedding celebration where he alternates between drunken bewilderment and resignation. After this movie, however, he had a much more spotty career than McGrath and remained in Canada where he appeared in a handful of films such as the critically acclaimed Wedding in White (1972) and various thrillers like Stone Cold Dead (1970) and Blindside (1987) starring Harvey Keitel as the manager of a sleazy hotel caught in a murder conspiracy. Unfortunately, Bradley died in 2003 at the relatively young age of 62.
Goin’ Down the Road proved to be a successful launching pad for director Donald Shebib’s career. The film won Best Feature Film at the 1970 Canadian Film Awards and earned him the Best Director award at the 1971 Taormina International Film Festival. In addition, he was awarded a lifetime achievement award in 2017 by the Directors Guild of Canada. Shebib would later comment on the inspiration for the film: “It was really based on an experience of my cousin on my father’s side of the family… who came up to Toronto when I was still in college and stayed with us for a month or so. He ran into the same story as those guys right down the line. The film was based upon that experience of observing him.”
Forty-one years later, Shebib would pick up the story of Peter again in Down the Road Again (2011). In the follow up film, Peter travels from Vancouver, where he has retired, back to his old stomping grounds in Nova Scotia. The reason for his visit is to toss the ashes of his recently departed friend Joey into the waters of the Atlantic. Accompanied by Joey’s ex-wife (played by Jayne Eastwood again) and her daughter Betty-Jo (Kathleen Robertson), the trio embark on a tense pilgrimage in Peter’s familiar Impala. The film is a much more meditative and elegiac sequel to the original movie and, despite mostly positive reviews, sank almost immediately into obscurity.
Surprisingly enough, Shebib is somewhat critical of his original debut feature, despite the now legendary status of Goin’ Down the Road. In an interview with Hidden Films, he said, “I think Down the Road Again has a better script, more emotional. It will never have the effect the original one had, that was kind of a unique film in its own way, but it was also filled with flaws, a lot of montages, musical sequences–there were far too many. What it had going for it was Paul Bradley, which this film didn’t have because he passed away several years ago. Down the Road Again makes Goin’ Down the Road a better film, because it explains a lot of the unanswered questions in that film. It’s a complementary film more than a sequel. It’s quite an experience to see the two of them back to back.”
It should also be noted that back in the day Goin’ Down the Road had its share of detractors from the growing feminist movement of the early 70s. The complaints were focused on the shallow, sexist depiction of women in the film although the reality is that Goin’ Down the Road is merely a mirror of that place and time in the working class milieu of Ontario. Shebib responded, saying, “I got a lot of shit for being a male chauvinist pig for Goin’ Down the Road, which is horseshit. So the girls weren’t so bright, so what? When you’re working in a pop bottle factory, you’re not gonna find the brightest chicks chasing after you.” Shebib never quite matched the success of Goin’ Down the Road, although he is currently working on a new film for 2020 tentatively titled Nightalk. Prior to his feature debut, Shebib had been a documentary filmmaker and his award-winning 1969 short Good Times Bad Times about former military veterans helped him secure financing for Goin’ Down the Road. In the years since 1970 he has worked on numerous TV series and several feature films which are notable for strong performances and offbeat genre variations. Among them are Rip-Off (1971), a coming-of-age high school drama starring Don Scardino, the heist thriller Between Friends (1973) with Michael Parks and Bonnie Bedelia, Fish Hawk (1979), in which Native American Will Sampson struggles with a drinking problem, Heartaches (1981) featuring Margot Kidder and Annie Potts as unlikely hitch-hiking buddies, and Running Brave (1983), a biopic about long distance runner Billy Mills (played by Robby Benson). Fans of Goin’ Down the Road and Down the Road Again will be happy to know that both films are available as a double feature Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray, which includes the famous SCTV parody of the film featuring John Candy and Joe Flaherty as the Peter and Joey characters. Other websites of interest: