Riding the Rails


All aboard!

(1997) Documentary (PBS Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, John Fawcett, Clarence Lee, Rene Champion, Richard Thomas (narrator), Peggy De Hart, C.R. “Tiny” Boland, Jim Mitchell, James San Jule, Charley Bull, Arvel “Sunshine” Pearson. Directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys

 

In this era of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it is a good idea to remember the lessons of the Great Depression. While things aren’t quite as bad now as they were then, it is well to remember just how devastating it was. People who were living comfortably found that they lost everything, literally overnight. Many discovered that there was no work of any kind to be found where they lived. Their solution was to get out of town, but most of them couldn’t afford transportation.

Their solution was to hop on freight trains and “ride the rails” to whatever destination the trains were headed in. Not only was this illegal but incredibly dangerous; it wasn’t uncommon for people trying to hop a freight train to lose their footing and fall underneath the wheels of the train. There were also the railway police and local law enforcement who weren’t above administering a beating to those they discovered illegally hitching a ride.

Documentary filmmaker and historian Michael Uys was fascinated by a book written during the depression by Thomas Minehan called The Boy and Girl Tramps of America which depicted the lives of teenage hobos traveling from place to place. He disguised himself as one of them and rode the rails with them for awhile, getting their stories. Uys figured it would make a good film and thus came this documentary.

Originally, it debuted at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival but most who have seen this know it from its appearance on the distinguished PBS documentary series The American Experience back on April 13, 1998. Since then it has been rebroadcast from time to time and appeared on DVD off and on. Now, it is available for streaming for the first time.

Uys and co-director Lexy Lovell interviewed in depth ten former rail riders – nine men and a woman – who were in their 70s and 80s at the time this was filmed (as this was 15 years ago, several of them have since passed on). They share their stories of hardship and exhilaration. There are similarities in their tales; all of them speak of their experiences matter-of-factly as they talk about the dangers of the road, but also they speak of it with nostalgia. They all remark upon the freedom they had riding the rails; unconstrained by possessions, jobs or relationships, they would pack up at a moments notice, searching for the next town, the next horizon.

Many teens left home for just that reason – the allure of adventure, seeing the world when nothing held them at home. Some were informed by their parents that they had to leave as mom and dad could no longer afford to take care of them. Some fled abuse. None of those interviewed seemed to regret their time on the road.

In fact one of them, Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, was still riding the rails in the summers and invited one of the filmmakers along. “I’ll keep doing it until I can’t swing myself on board a boxcar any longer,” he declares. The filmmakers use archival photographs, often lingering on the evocative faces of the depression, and filmed footage to show contemporary accounts of the lifestyle. The soundtrack is rich with the music of the era, like Jimmy Rogers and Woody Guthrie, warbling about the allure of the rails, of the call of the horizon and of the loneliness of the road.

I wouldn’t say it’s a powerful documentary, although there are moments that are stirring. Mostly, it is just evocative – reminding us of a bygone era. As a historical document, it is absolutely invaluable. Most of those who rode the rails in the depression are gone now, their stories silenced. While I would have liked to see a little bit more context (perhaps some commentary from sa sociologist or a historian to better explain the history behind the depression and rail riding), it is good that the filmmakers were able to collect them, for succeeding generations to enjoy and learn from.

REASONS TO SEE: The stories are indeed fascinating. The archival photos and footage make wonderful use of close-ups. The Americana soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a little more background information and context.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but otherwise suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uys wrote to over 40 publications, including Modern Maturity, to find potential subjects for interviews. He ended up receiving over 3,000 letters in response and, realizing he would need help with the project, enlisted Lovell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American Hobo
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Little Things

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band


The name of the band is The Band.

(2019) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Taj Mahal, Dominique Robertson, John Simon, Peter Gabriel, Jann Wenner, Ronnie Hawkins, John Scheele, Jimmy Vivino, Larry Campbell, George Semkiw. Directed by David Roher

 

There is absolutely no disputing that The Band were one of the most talented and influential ensembles to ever grace a rock and roll stage. Guitarist Robbie Robertson, drummer/singer Levon Helm, bassist/singer Rick Danko, pianist/singer Richard Manuel and keyboardist Garth Hudson essentially created the Americana subgenre and made music that was both timeless and timely, both symbolizing an era and transcending it.

They formed as the back-up band to wild blues singer Ronnie Hawkins, known initially as The Hawks. When Bob Dylan absconded with them to back him up during his “Dylan goes electric” tour, they were roundly booed at every appearance. It was only when they went out on their own under their generic “The Band” moniker that they finally began hearing cheers.

Albums like Music From Big Pink and The Band were classics, yielding such songs as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Cripple Creek,” but the strength of The Band was in their tight arrangements, superior songwriting and raw, emotional vocals particularly from Helm but also from Danko and Manuel. It would all come to an end in 1975 with the release of The Last Waltz¸ the group’s last concert (and the last time all five of them would appear together onstage) and the accompanying documentary by Martin Scorsese.

This new film comes mainly from Robertson’s perspective; he is the only band member interviewed for it (although remarks by Helm and Danko appear from earlier interviews) and it is based on his own memoirs. There is sadly a real lack of contemporary footage of the Band in concert, particularly in their days as backup bands for Hawkins and Dylan so there is a lot of reliance on talking head interviews from fans like Scorsese and Springsteen (whose “Atlantic City” they covered on their post-Robertson album Jericho) as well as with Robertson’s wife Dominique and producer John Simon.

Robertson is an engaging storyteller but we really only get his viewpoint – only he and Hudson remain still alive from the group, and Hudson who was notoriously shy, doesn’t appear other than as a performer in the film. Much is made of the group’s drug abuse, with Manuel, Danko and Helm all flirting with heroin (Robertson and Hudson did not, and Robertson blames the group’s eventual dissolution on drug abuse, citing a harrowing story of Manuel getting into a car wreck with Robertson’s wife aboard). Although the film essentially ends with The Last Waltz, it neglects to mention that the group went on to record several albums and tour sans Robertson afterwards, although Robertson insists that he had always intended that The Last Waltz was meant to signal a temporary hiatus and that they always planned to get back together, shrugging it off with a disarming “but they just forgot, I guess.” By that time, Robertson was continuing to record on his own and was also pursuing an acting career.

He also glosses over the post-breakup feuds and enmity having to do with royalties and songwriting credit, which Helm in particular felt should have belonged to the entire group and not just Robertson since they did most of the arranging. Although there was bad blood, Robertson tells that when Helm was dying in 2012, he flew out to be by his side when Helm was on his deathbed.

That the group was once close and had a rare kind of cohesion can’t be argued; that there was bad blood afterwards – well, even brothers fight; sometimes more bitterly than most. This is a pretty decent tribute to a group that deserves more recognition than they got from the public, having shaped country, rock and roll and folk music with a sound that at the time was revolutionary but toI day is merely influential. I would have preferred that the film be less hagiographic and include more voices than just Robertson’s but that wasn’t to be; Manuel passed away in 1996, Danko in 1998 and Helm as mentioned before in 2012. With three fifths of the group gone, it just makes one wonder how the perspective would have changed had some of them been there to give their point of view.

REASONS TO SEE: Some pretty nifty performance footage. A bittersweet look at one of the most influential groups of all time.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little heavy on the celebrity testimonials.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a fair amount of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robertson penned two songs for the 1959 Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks album Mr. Dynamo when Robertson was only 15 years old.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Last Waltz
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Beanpole

A Christmas Story


A Christmas Story
How could you deny this face a Daisy Red Rider BB Gun?

(1983) Holiday Comedy (MGM) Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Tedde Moore, Zack Ward, Yano Anaya, Jeff Gillen, Jean Shepherd (voice). Directed by Bob Clark

The Christmases of our childhood are special and priceless. Sometimes a single Christmas can be defined by the things we get, but sometimes what we get is more than the presents we’re given.

Ralphie Parker (Billingsley) lives in an Indiana town in 1940; a very Norman Rockwell kind of place with department stores, middle schools and Chinese restaurants. Ralphie is a pretty normal kid who wants just one thing for Christmas; a Daisy Red Rider BB Gun. He knows exactly the one he wants; it has a compass in the stock as well as a sundial; he even knows the serial number.

Unfortunately, no adult in their right mind is willing to get that kind of gift for him. He could shoot his eye out with that thing. So he does what he can to convince those in charge that he deserves the gift of his dreams and will use it safely. Unfortunately, he has to contend with a whole lot of things, like the school bully Scut Farkas (Ward) and his minion Grover Dill (Anaya). On his side is his little brother Randy (Petrella) and his friend Flick (Schwartz) who is foolish enough to affix his tongue to a frozen metal post with predictable results.

He has a mom (Dillon) with the patience of a saint but a firm and steadfast refusal to let him get the BB gun. His old man (McGavin) is far too busy dealing with the neighbor’s mutts who drive him crazy, as well as the anticipation of the arrival of a major award, which turns out to be a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg with a fishnet stocking on it. He sticks it in the front window, mortifying Ralphie’s mom.

When Ralphie gives one final try to see if the big man – Santa (Gillen) will come through but when he goes to the local department store to ask the Man in the Suit for his beloved BB gun, the response is “You’ll shoot your eye out with one of those things, kid. Ho ho ho” followed by a shove by his jolly boot. With Christmas days away and nowhere left to turn, how could this be anything but the worst Christmas ever?

This has become a modern classic of the holiday movie genre and the most bizarre part is that it was directed by the man best known for directing Porky’s. If two movies on the same filmography could be more diametrically opposed, I can’t think of any. While A Christmas Story has a feeling of Americana (courtesy of Jean Shepherd, who wrote the collection of short stories the movie is based on and also narrates), the other is raunchy and outrageous at times, a precursor to things like American Pie.

McGavin and Dillon are perfectly cast in this. Dillon, who was cast based on her work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is much more of an idealized American mom here. She is patient (for the most part – don’t think of cursing in front of her though) and nurturing although there are times her patience grows thin. McGavin, who was mostly known as Carl Kolchak on the “Night Stalker”  television series, was cast when Jack Nicholson turned down the role and the movie benefitted I think. McGavin is equal parts loving dad, bumbling husband and antagonized neighbor. He mutters vague expletives that the movie serves to keep from being specific, which makes it actually funnier.

Billingsley is not the most talented child actor that ever came down the pike, but he does a decent job here. Most of the child actors here are by modern standards somewhat wooden, but they were more or less equal to the standards of the time. It helps that Shepherd moves much of the plot along with his narration, leaving the kids less to do.

Shepherd was the kind of writer who inspired people like Garrison Keillor and Spalding Gray; he was quite a raconteur and left behind a body of work that is as impressive as any 20th century author, but it will be this movie he will most be remembered for. Like Charles Dickens, his insights into human nature and the power of Christmas to make things better are timeless and needed. Sometimes things just come into confluence as if guided by fate, unseen hands or whatever – this is one of those things. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, y’know?

WHY RENT THIS: One of those timeless movies of Americana that have to do with family, love and Daisy Red Rider BB Guns.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor may be a bit too dry for some..

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence and swearing, although there are allusions to much worse language than is actually used onscreen.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house that was featured in the exterior shots was actually in Cleveland, not in Indiana where the movie is set. A fan of the film bought the home in 2005, refurbishing the interior to match the movie. It opened in 2006, along with a gift shop and museum dedicated to the movie in the house next door which the fan also purchased. You can learn more about the house and the movie at their website here.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Because the movie is a classic and has gone through several DVD releases, there are a plethora of features out there in the various iterations. While the original DVD just contains the film and the trailer, the Blu-Ray and Special Edition include a couple of games, a fascinating featurette on the Daisy Red Rider BB Gun, Jean Shepherd reading two of his stories for a radio show, an 18-minute “Another Christmas Story” which features the now-adult members of the cast reminiscing about their time filming the movie and its impact on their lives and a funny featurette known as “The Leg Lamp: Shining Light of Freedom.” The Ultimate edition contains all of these and the scripted “Flash Gordon” scene that was eventually cut from the film, as well as a recipe book, cookie cutters and an apron (it comes in a cookie tin).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $20.6M on an unreported production budget; although it’s likely that the movie broke even at best during its theatrical run, it has more than earned its keep on cable and home video.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.