There are two documentary films available about American Folk legend Woody Guthrie. The first released in 2005 is called Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists. The other is a PBS documentary from the American Masters series that was released in 2007 called American Masters: Woody Guthrie.
Both films are pretty similar, obviously sharing the same subject matter and the chronological method by which they tell Woody’s story. Each film features a introduction then eventually switches to a chronological narration of his story (w/ periodic meanderings off topic). The 2005 doc separates Woody’s story into chapters which unfortunately doesn’t do much for the film. For the most part they also feature the same interview subjects (Pete Seeger, various experts/biographers, and living relatives including his daughter Nora Guthrie), although the longer of the two films has quite a few more interviews. The 2005 version is the longer of the two coming out at 2 hours and 40 minutes and the PBS doc is 90 minutes long. The two films feature high profile narrators, the 2005 release features British Singer/Songwriter Billy Bragg, and the PBS film boasts the narration by actor Peter Coyote. In the 2005 version Billy Bragg appears in the film in a handful of segments which honestly come off a little stiff. The two films expertly make use of Guthrie’s large catalog of recorded material, including audio clips from interviews and radio shows.
One of the joys of watching these documentaries is you are visually given the context in which the music was created and you get a history lesson for those songs that were about actual events. Much of the music Woody wrote was about the American experience or specific events. It is great to have these films to walk us through those pieces of history we may not remember or be aware of. Great examples of this are his songs “The Sinking of the Reuben James” and “Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh)” which are about about a US Navy warship that sank in WWII and the American Dust Bowl of the early to mid 1930s, both of which are discussed in the these films.
It was a great surprise to me to find out how much I didn’t know about Guthrie and these films did a great job at filling in those gaps. This surprise was magnified by the fact that I have read Woody Guthrie’s Autobiography Bound For Glory. Granted the book was written and published (1943) before a big chunk of Guthrie’s formative years, it did not do the job. Let me be clear, I never found it to be boring… I just didn’t find it to be particularly informative and since watching these films I find out large chunks of it were embellished or untrue. Woody had a way of portraying himself as a uneducated country boy, it was a part of his charm and I think that the autobiography follows that line.
Out of the two films I felt that the American Masters version was by far the most enjoyable. This Machine Kills Fascists has its merits and among them is it’s extremely thorough and detailed. Unfortunately with that it is just way too long and honestly when looking back came off a little flabby and a bit repetitive. I would say that the American Masters film is just the right amount of detail and the information portrayed is also better organized.
Stay tuned to my site as I will be posting more about my studies of Guthrie including a post that will get into his life and music in a little more detail. If you are interested in the watching the films you can find them both as part of the Netflix library or click the pics above as they are linked to the Amazon product pages. Other suggested material would be the feature film based on Guthrie’s autobiography Bound for Glory. Although I have not read them, you also have the pick of two print biographies that have been released in the last 10 years, Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie by Studs Terkel and Ed Cray as well as This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie by Elizabeth Partridge.