Woody Guthrie: AIn't Got No Home (2006) in the "Great Masters" series has the same safe Public Television veneer of their more ordinary narrated-by-Peter-Coyote pablum.
But thanks to a perfect subject matter it transcends the veneer. The project is clearly not hastily done, not patched together from whatever was in the public domain & easy to splice into the umpteenth documentary on a subject.
Allowing for a degree of superficiality imposed by the brevity of the television format (damned little about Cisco Houston who was Woody's constant companion for several years; nothing about his association with Judaism; lots of other slights or oversights), there's nevertheless authentic research imbedded in this film. And the pictorial material unearthed is by no means only the overly familiar.
With images of Depression Era America & the horrors of the dustbowl & of hobos & weary workers, it's visually stunning. And with some of Woody's music on the soundtrack, & even his speaking voice from recorded interviews, it adds up to a stunning portrait that makes Woody seem a personification of a nation.
Woody is to this day a part of the life of ordinary Americans. When my dog & I are heading for the car singing, "Take you for a ride in the car car" or I listen to Billy Bragg singing Woody's charming little ode to Ingrid Bergman, & in a thousand other tiny little ways every year of my life, Woody is alongside me.
What an achievement & legacy for one folk singer, to be the soundtrack not only of one's protests & outrage, but of the sweetest smallest pleasures of being alive.
I felt this little documentary did him justice. I enjoyed the opinions of singers like Springsteen, of his daughter, of surviving friends who knew him best.
However, if Springsteen who didn't know Woody but carries some of his inspiration was worthy of seeking out for a couple fine impressions, then why not Billy Bragg who is much more of a modern Guthrie than is rockin' Bruce.
As point of fact Woody's sustained, modern legacy is short-shrifted in the film, & Springsteen's presence wasn't sufficient to convey the reality that Woody's in so many ways still with us.
Without ever getting sentimental Ain't Got No Home is deeply respectful of its subject. It has an awestruck attitude without mistaking him for God.
I did wonder where was Arlo? Arlo as part of the family input is a hard piece to have missing.
I can understand Dylan might've refused to put his two-cents in because he refuses everything to everyone, but why no Arlo? Ticked about something the documentary's screenwriter included in a previouis biography published a few years back? Whatever the reason, Arlo's absence is a pity.
The climax or ending of this documentary is conveyed with all the sadness that Woody's more-than-unfortunate illness can inspire. I think I'd've had a little montage as post-script of modern singers doing Woody's songs, or something to let the film close on the same kind of optimism that informed Woody's life. As it stands, one leaves the film feeling terrible, & not particularly reminded that a lot of him remains.
To large extent, one has to already know Woody to get the most out of this film. It's good work especially for PBS, as PBS has a strong tendency toward the nambypampy, & this documentary evades the norm.
Yet it seemed to me that if someone came cold turkey to this documentary without already knowing quite a lot about who he was & what is his legacy & why he remains iconic, this film wouldn't convey the hows & reasons of any of that. He'll seem rather odd & mysterious & finally tragic, which I don't believe is the correct impression.
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