Goin’ down the road, again

After four decades, a sequel to a Canadian classic serves as a resonant requiem

Goin’ down the road, again

Caitlin Cronenberg; Photo Illustration by Lauren Cattermole

Don Shebib never expected much to come of it. He shot Goin’ Down the Road on a shoestring with a crew of three, grabbing scenes on the fly documentary-style with a 16-mm camera. But his 1970 tale of two Cape Breton drifters who drive to Toronto and run their dreams into the ground became a Canadian classic, our own low-rent Midnight Cowboy. “There is scarcely a false touch,” raved The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. “Shebib is so good at blending actors into locations that at times one forgets that it is an acted film.” The original hoser movie, it also left an indelible beer-glass mark on Canadian comedy, from a priceless SCTV parody—with John Candy and Joe Flaherty chasing “lawyerin’ and doctorin’ jobs” in Toronto—to Bob and Doug McKenzie and the FUBAR boys.

But Goin’ Down the Road was drama, not farce, and the movie’s bold promise—like the dreams of its heroes—did not pan out. Shebib never made another film of such stature. Nor did its stars. Meanwhile, English-Canadian cinema, which took an auteur detour into angst, never regained that raw groove of working-class narrative. But the movie’s ending, which had Pete (Doug McGrath) and Joey (Paul Bradley) driving west, ditching Joey’s pregnant wife, left room for a sequel. And after all these years, Shebib has finally made one—without Bradley, who died in 2003.

Down the Road Again picks up the plot four decades later, casting the three surviving stars in a story built around Joey’s death. McGrath, 73, reprises his role as Pete, now a Vancouver postie on the cusp of retirement. Joey has left Pete his ashes, some cash, and a set of letters that send him on a quest to unravel past secrets. Hauling out the rusted 1960 Impala convertible, Pete heads for Toronto to find Joey’s estranged wife, Betty (Jayne Eastwood)—and their restless daughter, Betty-Jo (Kathleen Robertson), who cons Pete into driving her all the way to Cape Breton.

Cayle Chernin, who reappears as Betty’s friend Selina, prodded Shebib into making the sequel. “She was bugging me for years,” he said last week. What Chernin didn’t tell him, or anyone else, was that she knew she had terminal cancer when they were filming the sequel; she died three months after it wrapped. McGrath had his suspicions. “She was so thin. There was a frailty I hadn’t seen before.” The night before they began shooting, after a dinner, “I walked Cayle to her door,” he recalls, his voice choking with emotion. “She looked at me and I knew there was something very powerful. She kissed me goodnight and I never felt closer in my life to her.”

So Down the Road Again now stands as a memorial for Chernin—who played McGrath’s unrequited lover in the original—and a requiem for Bradley, a beloved grifter who embraced the moment and the bottle with the same reckless spirit as Joey. “He was a total wild man,” recalls Eastwood, who met her co-stars at Eli Rill’s acting studio, an improv class above a Yonge Street strip bar in Toronto. “He had a Grade 3 education. But he was gifted. If he had more discipline he could have been big. The drink got him.” McGrath has fond memories of Bradley: “We hung out in the park, we drank a little, we chased girls.”

The sequel was shot largely in Toronto, with Cherry Beach serving as the Atlantic Ocean as Joey’s ashes are scattered. Filmed in 18 days for just $2 million, Down the Road Again could not afford to go down the road. But it was shot in 35 mm with a full crew and a more composed style than the original, which is seen in flashbacks. “Scenes in that film were shot off the cuff because I didn’t have money to do anything else,” says Shebib. “I’m not a vérité filmmaker.” The sequel, he adds, “has a much better script than the original.” McGrath says that when he first read it, “it was like reading my own history. I figured Pete had gone through a lot. Road was such a significant part of my life. Unfortunately, there was not much to follow up that could match it.” The sequel does not recapture the magic. How could it? And McGrath regrets he didn’t have some way of talking to the departed Joey. But the wry, wistful resignation of his performance—intercut with glimpses of the young Pete, dumb and wild with the wind in his hair—speaks volumes.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.