As a teenager, I was a huge fan of SCTV, the Canadian-based sketch comedy show that gave us such talents as John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Martin Short. For my money, SCTV blew most of Saturday Night Live away with their original characters, but there was one thing that they truly excelled in, and that was movie parodies. Their demented version of Polanski’s “Chinatown” called “Polynesian Town,” their overly abusive version of “The Godfather,” with their pimpish “network president,” Guy Cabellero, subbing in for “Don Corleone,” and one that I didn’t quite get at the time, “Garth & Gord & Fiona & Alice,” the story of a Moncton doctor and lawyer (who spoke like a more rural Bob and Doug McKenzie) heading to Yonge Street in Toronto to get “all kinds of jobs and girls.” It was an incredibly funny episode of SCTV, but as a young Philadelphian with hardly any exposure to Canadian cinema outside of David Cronenberg, I had no idea that the film that they were having a bit of fun with was one of the most iconic films in Canadian history: Donald Shebib’s documentary-styled 1970 film “Goin’ Down The Road.”
The film tells the story of Joey (Paul Bradley) and Peter (Doug McGrath), who leave their low-paying cannery jobs in Nova Scotia for the chance at a better life in Toronto. Wide-eyed and optimistic through the promises of their friend that they will get higher paying jobs and the promise of a place to stay with family, the boys head west with their car that dons the message “Our Nova Scotia Home” spray-painted on the side. The harsh reality of that move west hits home quickly when their relatives recoil and hide upon seeing how uncouth the boys are, and the promise of a job goes up in flames when they find out that their friend Anton from back home has lost his job some time ago and cannot help them find work. Though somewhat discouraged, Joey still hopes for an office job while Peter will gladly settle for anything that will get them out of their temporary Salvation Army hostel.
The next day, Peter gets a job at a bottling plant, while Joey’s dream of an office job in advertising goes down the tubes when the human resources department breaks the news that he has absolutely no qualifications. Peter then helps Joey get a job at his plant and armed with some spending money, the pair hit Yonge Street looking for girls just like Candy and Joe Flaherty in the now infamous SCTV parody. A key scene for both characters happens here as Peter prowls the street looking for anything in a skirt, while Joey tries to flirt and is rejected by a beautiful young woman who is listening to Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1.” Again, they both want a better life, but Joey realizes for a second time that the life of an urban sophisticate may be too far out of his reach.
These scenes in the streets of Toronto are played out in the same way that John Schlesinger freely rolls out Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck in New York City, in an honest and almost documentary-like style that had come into fashion during the recent British films of the late 1960s. This style is the defining greatness of “Goin Down The Road,” with its natural flow that feels true to the film’s two protagonists. They are lost, good-natured men in a big city and the low budget raw visuals work in line with their plight. This film is the first for actors McGrath and Bradley, and they do a fine job immersing themselves in their roles, and it shows because nothing in their performances seems remotely contrived. Also, in a perfect pairing that was becoming somewhat commonplace in that era, like Earth, Wind, and Fire’s music for Melvin Van Peebles “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” the soundtrack features two original folk songs from the then unknown talents of legendary singer Bruce Cockburn, who would go on to become one of Canada’s most celebrated musicians. Cockburn’s songs for “Goin’ Down The Road” lyrically address the plight of the film’s leads.
The Opening Scene From “Goin’ Down The Road”
“Goin’ Down The Road” reflects the real life issue that occurred in Canada when thousands of young people emigrated from the Maritimes to Ontario looking for work throughout the 1950s and 1960s. A trend that became so prevalent at the time that the Ontario government began building many housing projects in the early 1960s just to handle the rapid influx of internal immigrants from the east. This wave of immigration changed in the late 1960s when a new group of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean began to settle in Toronto in mass, thus leaving folks like our Joey and Peter without any affordable housing in their own country. Though the film never relates any direct conflict between the main characters and the new wave of immigrants, it does offer some insight as to why two Canadian citizens would feel estranged not too far from their own hometown. Toronto was quickly becoming an international, cosmopolitan place that was so far removed from Joey and Peter’s upbringing that they would soon be crushed by it quickly. In the end, despite the bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad luck, Peter and Joey stay true to each other like good Canadian boys, consistently bailing each other out of various jams, and director Donald Shebib does not spare any of the awkwardness and the fear of strangers in a strange land, even if it is their own country.