Produced for $27,000, Goin’ Down the Road (1970) was among the last great flowerings of what might be called NFB downer naturalism, the Canadian documentary tradition founded late in the Depression by John Grierson, a dour humanist from – where else? – Scotland.
Next year came Mon oncle Antoine, another beautifully observed story of Ordinary Life. But our film landscape was changing. Tax shelters encouraged genre filmmaking (bourgeois entertainment! Grierson would have complained). David Cronenberg made Stereo in 1969, Ivan Reitman, Cannibal Girls, in 1972.
At the time, Don Shebib’s feature-film debut hardly felt like the end of an era. The story of Maritime boyos who crack their skulls on the pot at the end of the rainbow was hailed a breakthrough – our Canadian Graffiti. Shebib, a UCLA film alum of Jim Morrison and a guy tough enough to play football into his 40s, seemed to have it made.
He didn’t. No one in film ever does. The Toronto director made more interesting movies – Between Friends (1973), Heartaches (1981); in 1994 Shebib displayed versatility riding herd on the TV series Lonesome Dove. But he never repeated the success of Goin’ Down the Road. “I probably should have gone to Los Angeles in 1970,” he sometimes said.
And now, out of nowhere, it seems, Shebib has made another road movie with Joey and Pete – Down the Road Again. Doug McGrath reprises his role as Pete, the prickly dreamer. Joey’s ex (Jayne Eastwood) returns, too. We first see her drinking white wine, reading Toronto Life and talking real estate. Roll over John Grierson!
The boys’ 1960 hoser-mobile is also back on the road – a heavy Chevy with dingle balls and flame decals. While the car may be the same, the road we’re goin’ down is different. It’s tempting to say this is the movie Shebib would’ve made in Hollywood. The 1970 film was partially improvised and shot in vérité style. Watching Joey (Paul Bradley) and Pete promenade down Yonge Street, then later horsing around in a park, was like catching sight of friends through a bus window. The boys’ spiralling troubles happened all around us.
If Shebib’s original seemed a draining neighbourhood experience, the 2011 follow-up comes off as canny entertainment. We meet Pete on his last day as a Vancouver postman. Next he’s visited by a stranger with a tin can and letters. Joey’s ashes are in the can. The papers are bucket list requests. Joey wants Pete to get the Impala out and visit his wife and daughter in cold Toronto, then scatter his remains in the colder Atlantic.
The daughter, Betty Jo (Kathleen Robertson) strings along for the ride. There is an It Happened One Night motel scene where Pete divides their room with a blanket. In Sydney, Betty Jo has a “meet-cute” introduction to a handsome lawyer. His car splashes her. She simmers. Anyone who gets Turner Classic Movies knows what happens next.
Bourgeois entertainments do have their compensations. Robertson and McGrath enjoy a feisty comic rapport. And the film showcases Shebib’s greatest storytelling talent – a tender honesty that brings characters alive.
There are lovely scenes here, especially a sequence where Betty Jo remembers the one day she had with her father. Tearing, she recalls how the ice cream cone Joey bought fell on the ground. Other scenes, including the feel-good ending, aren’t as convincing, although it would be nice to think that Pete and Joey’s daughter, not to mention Don Shebib, have found a slice of heaven at the end of the rainbow.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Down the Road Again
- Written and directed by Don Shebib
- Starring Doug McGrath, Kathleen Robertson, Jayne Eastwood, Cayle Chernin and Anthony Lemke
- Classification: NA