Goin’ Down the Road has been called one of the most important Canadian movies ever made. A classic. A cultural touchstone. A legend. A landmark in Canadian filmmaking.
When he was filming it, director Don Shebib couldn’t have imagined that the story of a couple Cape Breton down-and-outers named Pete and Joey — played by Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley — would be hailed as the progenitor of English Canadian cinema. But this unpretentious, heartfelt, unapologetically Canadian movie struck a chord: it wasn’t just good by Canadian standards; it was plain good by anyone’s standards. On top of that, the 1970 film still endures today, sparking questions about identity and the Canadian psyche through the tale of two hardscrabble proto-hosers who head for the bright lights and promise of Toronto.
The film starts optimistically enough with the boys barreling gleefully down the Trans-Canada in a rusted out Chevy convertible — complete with a flame job and “My Nova Scotia Home” painted on the side. They look forward to a halcyon land of cushy jobs, fancy digs and “broads everywhere, eh?,” but things quickly go south when they hit Toronto. Relatives living in the suburbs won’t even answer the door, as they hide from view behind closed curtains fearful of the rubes who have descended. Not to be deterred, Pete and Joey proceed to call an old Cape Breton buddy from a pay phone, but he informs them the jobs are few and far between, and no, they can’t stay with him. Instead, they end up at a Salvation Army flop house where they scan the classifieds with their optimism intact. They pound the pavement and enjoy some fleeting good times on Yonge Street, but the cushy jobs don’t materialize, and they both end up at a bottling plant doing grunt work. Pete’s efforts to woo out-of-his-league ladies fall flat, while Joey sets his sights lower and is a bit too successful — getting his newfound girlfriend Betty (Jayne Eastwood) pregnant right away. This brings about a whole new set of problems, and let’s just say things don’t end well.
It’s a serious movie, but part of its quintessentially Canadian-ness stems from Pete and Joey’s embodiment of the original hoser archetype, later epitomized by the McKenzie brothers. Referring to Pete and Joey as “knuckleheads,” Shebib certainly saw it this way, telling author Geoff Pevere: “…there’s a direct line between Laurel and Hardy and Pete and Joey and Bob and Doug. Definitely between Bob and Doug McKenzie.”
Pete with the bottle opener strung to his belt loop, on the ready. Chucking stubbies of Molson — or was it Labatt, (does it matter?) — out of the car on the drive from Nova Scotia. Boozing and carousing in the taverns of Yonge Street. Lighting up smokes in the chilly Ontario air.
Shebib and writer William Fruet hung out at Toronto bars frequented by displaced Maritimers to hone the script. They shot the film with a $87,000 budget and a four-man crew on weekends and nights without permits. Look carefully, and you’ll catch passersby on the street checking out the cast and crew. Shebib, a documentary filmmaker and editor for the CBC, initially envisioned the project as a non-fiction piece about members of the Maritimer diaspora who were forced to leave home in search of work — a theme that would be just as timely today.
While the story morphed into a feature drama, Shebib kept his documentary-style realism. Today, the film serves as a time capsule of Toronto and the record stores and bars along Yonge Street, in particular. The cast of inexperienced unknowns ensured authenticity, and the actors loved it because they didn’t have to put on the faux-British inflections that marked Canadian cinema and TV at the time.
The film’s music also came care of an unknown — a young and especially earnest Bruce Cockburn, who refused to perform or release the songs outside of the film. “I’m sorry,” he told an audience in 1971, “I don’t sing those songs. When I wrote them, I wrote them to express the point of view of the people in the movie. It isn’t my point of view. It isn’t me. So, you know, I can’t sing them here.”
Goin’ Down the Road was instantly hailed as a masterpiece, no doubt in part because of a pent up domestic demand for a first-rate, distinctly Canadian movie. But the accolades came from outside the country as well. Famed American film critic Judith Crist, a big booster of the film, labelled it “one of the year’s 10 best.” Roger Ebert commended Shebib’s depiction of “joy, silliness, love and despair,” and called his film “the best movie to hit town in a long time.”
Arguably, the ultimate accolade, however, came in the form of an SCTV parody: “Garth and Gord and Fiona and Alice.” In it, John Candy and Joe Flaherty play Joey- and Pete-types with a twist: Garth (Candy) is a lawyer and Gord (Flaherty) is a surgeon. Garth interrupts Gord in the middle of a surgery, imploring him to drop his scalpel and jump in the car because “They got lots a jobs in Toronto. Doctorin’ jobs and lawyerin’ jobs… Jobs for you and me!”
On the way to the Big Smoke, they pick up Fiona (Andrea Martin), a Quebecoise nuclear physicist also on the hunt for employment. In case the CanCon wasn’t sufficiently ramped up at that point, the trio then come upon a CBC film crew led by Eugene Levy and run over a woodchuck being filmed for Hinterland Who’s Who. Once in Toronto, they meet Alice — a role brilliantly reprised by Jayne Eastwood, Flaherty’s real-life sister-in-law — and Garth and Gord never tire of the excitement of “Yonge Street!!!!” Repeated through it all is Stompin Tom’s “To it and At it” refrain, depicting the plight of Maritimers who’d been enticed by the “rainbow in Toronto, where the Maritimers are bold. They always get a potfull, but they never get a pot of gold.”
When Eastwood showed the parody to Shebib, she remembers him “laughing so hard I thought he was going to die.”
An SCTV parody and critical acclaim form a potent legacy, but if this quintessentially Canadian movie is about two “knuckleheads” who fall on their faces, what does that say about Canada in general? Are we just a bunch of sad cases? For his part, Shebib rejects the idea that Canada on the whole can be ascribed with a particular brand or that the film is about losers: “Failures, losers, I hate words like that. I see the film as being about some average but interesting people who happen to fail, which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s about failure.”
Shebib went on to a relatively successful career directing Canadian films and television, but nothing approached the level of Goin’ Down the Road. Eastwood, likewise, continued to act in Canadian TV and commercials — and her mastery of the hoser-esque “oh Jeez” would’ve made her a shoo-in to be a female version of Bob and Doug. McGrath has made a quiet but lengthy career as a character actor in Hollywood. Lamentably, Bradley’s real-life hard living caught up to him, as he dropped off everyone’s radar and died in 2003 on Vancouver Island.
In 2011, 40 years after the original, Shebib released a sequel featuring the surviving cast members called Down the Road Again. In it, Pete drives back across the country in the same Chevy convertible to honour his long-estranged and now deceased friend’s final wish that his ashes be spread in Cape Breton. Part of me wants to know what Shebib does with the storyline, but ultimately I can’t bring myself to watch it. There’s just no way it’s anywhere near as good as the original.
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Nicholas Klassen is a Vancouver-based writer, digital strategist and former senior editor at Adbusters magazine.