On May 7th of last year, I was fortunate enough to catch Amy Scott’s splendid documentary, “Hal,” at the Chicago Critics Film Festival. I had already been a fan of its subject, the late trailblazing auteur Hal Ashby, having grown up with his 1971 cult classic, “Harold and Maude,” yet it wasn’t until I saw Scott’s picture that I realized just how much of a golden era the ’70s were for the director. Also in attendance that evening was Alex Thompson, a 28-year-old local filmmaker who had already worked with the likes of Olympia Dukakis and Austin Pendleton (the latter of whom I interviewed about Thompson’s short film, “Calumet”). We struck up a friendship in the months that followed, as I began immersing myself in the oeuvre of Ashby.
Though the seven films he made throughout the ’70s are all masterworks, none of them moved me more profoundly than 1978’s “Coming Home,” an ode to the survivors forever scarred by war. Ashby’s first major gig on a film was his uncredited work as an assistant editor on 1956’s “Friendly Persuasion,” directed by William Wyler a decade after he broke ground by portraying the plight of veterans wracked with PTSD in “The Best Years of Our Lives.” In many ways, Ashby’s antiwar landmark does for Vietnam what Wyler’s film did for WWII, honing in on the struggles faced by soldiers, wounded in both body and spirit, who return home only to find that life has moved on without them.
Watching “Coming Home” was one of those magical experiences where I realized, at first sight, that I had stumbled upon a work of cinematic perfection. I couldn’t resist discussing it with Thompson anytime we hung out, thus motivating him to seek out the picture himself. Thompson was in the midst of preparing to direct his debut feature, “Saint Frances,” and his screening of Ashby’s film ended up inspiring him more than I ever could’ve expected. When “Saint Frances” premiered this year at SXSW, it proved to be a winner with critics and audiences alike, garnering two major prizes, the Audience Award and a Special Jury Prize honoring Thompson as the festival’s Breakthrough Voice.
As an acknowledgement of the influence “Coming Home”—and our conversations about it—had on his own movie, both Ashby and I are among the names listed in the Special Thanks section of the end credit roll, a gesture of gratitude that I consider one of the great honors of my career. In anticipation of “Saint Frances”’s triumphant story arriving full circle, as the film receives a homecoming of sorts when it opens the Chicago Critics Film Festival on Friday, May 17th, I’ve decided to take an in-depth look at one aspect of “Coming Home” that was especially eye-opening for Thompson and myself: its brilliant use of music.
[The following analysis covers the entirety of “Coming Home,” so I encourage you to watch the film before proceeding in order to avoid any plot spoilers.]
Though Ashby’s most famous selection of songs remains in “Harold and Maude,” a film that has now become synonymous with the music of Cat Stevens, I’d argue that the soundtrack for “Coming Home” is one of the greatest and most unheralded in cinema. Music plays as crucial a role here as it does in “American Graffiti,” establishing a sense of the era while often reverberating beneath the surface of a given scene, complementing the action like a Greek chorus. Much like “Saint Frances,” Ashby’s film begins by throwing us right in the middle of a conversation, as a group of veterans shoot pool, debating each other about the moral obligation of going to war. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler shot the actors with long lenses, enabling their interactions to be so uninhibited that we feel as if we are eavesdropping on them. No attempt is made to distinguish who our central protagonist is until the very end of the scene, when the camera pulls in on the silent face of Luke Martin (Jon Voight), a man whose injuries have confined him to a wheelchair.
Gradually, the first of six Rolling Stones standards picked by Ashby materializes on the soundtrack, as we cut to Capt. Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) running along a circular track, racing the inexorable progression of time. The song, “Out of Time,” serves as the film’s anthem, linking the characters of Luke and Bob, both of whom lack a sense of belonging either at home or overseas upon returning to the states. So perfectly timed is the tune with every cut and credit—written in cursive like so much wartime correspondence—that it signals just how important music will be to everything that follows, just as the opening of “Baby Driver” did with its choreographed frolic along a circular path. “Out of Time” also plays over the end credits, where its poignance is illuminated exponentially. “The Music” is credited in the style of a cast list, with the artists lined in alphabetical order on the left and their respective songs on the right.
When Bob learns that he must bid his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda), a temporary farewell in order to serve his country abroad, one of the most wistful of all songs, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bookends,” begins to play. The lyric “innocence and confidences” is heard as we see children playing in street, reflecting the childlike degree to which Bob is innocent of the horrors he is about to face in Vietnam. Sally readies her husband’s luggage while the song cautions, “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” The music fades when the couple make love, an unfulfilling experience for Sally which she accepts dutifully. Another familiar classic, The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” is used in a way both fresh and ingenious, accompanying the final words between Sally and Bob—designed to take a sad situation and make it better—before he must join his fellow soldiers, including Dink (Robert Ginty). The song reaches its early climactic howl when the men exit, leading to the chorus of “Nah Nah Nahs” that continues into the next scene, as if tracking the enlisted recruits marching off in the distance, their presence still deeply felt by the women who love them.
Left in her loneliness, Sally eagerly agrees to hang with Dink’s girlfriend, Vi Munson (Penelope Milford), following a spur-of-the-moment invitation. At her home, Vi has constructed a shrine for her brother, Bill (Robert Carradine), whose injuries that have left him hospitalized may be what nearly leads her to switch off the “Star-Spangled Banner” when its blares from the TV. Yet Sally insists that the song, like so many in the picture, play out in its entirety, a choice that allows the tone and rhythm of the music to become synchronized with each scene in a way that is never intrusive. The hell of being at the mercy of others is potently expressed by Luke during a violent outburst at the veterans’ hospital, as he rails against the doctors who embody the obliviousness of many key authority figures in the film (this moment is echoed throughout “Born on the Fourth of July”). Upon observing his anguish, Sally volunteers to work there as a nurse, while the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” details the loss endured by these men. Lyrics such as “Once I was a rich man, now I am poor,” foreshadow the song wisely saved for the film’s finale.
Like many an Ashby protagonist, Luke yearns to break the rules, urging Sally during their first conversation to free his hands, which she may have done had hospital staff not entered the room seconds later. It’s clear this pair is capable of having a whole conversation just by looking at each other, an ability prophetically described early in the film and displayed in full during Luke and Sally’s final scene together. Jefferson Airplane’s haunting “White Rabbit” may be about the disorientation of drugs, yet in this case, it voices the shift in perspective experienced by Sally, as she ventures down the rabbit hole of the veterans’ troubling narratives. We see her refusing to interrupt a man on a stretcher as he discusses how no clear path is given to people like him regarding how to reenter society. This leads to one of the best moments of Fonda’s Oscar-winning performance, when she stands up to a group of fellow wives uninterested in what the war heroes at the hospital have to say. Impressed by Sally’s newfound outspokenness, Luke begins to openly flirt with her, while Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” signals how both characters have begun softening to one another.
Sally’s decision to ask Luke over for dinner triggers the masculine energy of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which plays out over the film’s most conventional montage, displaying the catharsis felt by quadriplegic athletes when playing a bruising game of murderball. As Fourth of July festivities commence, a soldier is summoned onstage to deliver a dry, patriotic speech, the words of which fall largely on deaf ears (one veteran is glimpsed clearly asleep). Undercutting this hollow noise is an achingly tender moment shared between siblings. Shooting the breeze with Sally and Luke, Vi encourages her brother to perform the duet they had been working on, and the song Bill starts to deliver—uncredited on the soundtrack—is one of the film’s indelible highlights: “What is tomorrow? What is it we need? What will it give us? A new life we can lead. Will the wind crack the limbs of a few dying trees? Will the branches unite and bend into the breeze? Tomorrow is hope, for it is something I’ve not seen. Tomorrow is a sunny day, to live in a sunny dream…”
Bill’s song is cut short as his hands continue to shake. “I can’t play my f—king guitar,” he cries in exasperation, causing a visibly emotional Luke to place a hand on his shoulder. It is guitar music, playing a similar melody, that follows Luke and Sally on their first trip to her house. Once they begin talking, there is silence made all the more conspicuous by the lack of an underscore. To break the tension, Luke offers to put on a record, and the film swiftly cuts to later in the night, as they chat outside. He finally confesses that he’s fantasized about making love to Sally, leading her to firmly address that she has never been unfaithful to her husband, a godly law rendered insubstantial by Richie Havens’ “Follow,” which we hear crooning about the “one-note song” tolled by a church bell. Though they stop short of having sex, there’s no question in either of their minds that their relationship has progressed to the next level.
In a seeming act of telepathy, Bob and Dink choose this precise time to have their partners fly out to see them in Hong Kong. Vi refuses to budge, but Sally agrees to go, forcing her to break the news to Luke. A chain link fence is placed between them, accentuating the barrier preventing their future together, as the Rolling Stones’ rendition of “My Girl” provides a striking counterpoint. Just as Ashby juxtaposed the profane irreverence of his characters with militaristic marches in his 1973 comedy, “The Last Detail,” here he chooses an unabashedly romantic gem to ironically contrast with the fact that Sally is neither Luke’s girl nor Bob’s. Faced with Dink’s agitation at Vi’s decision not to make the journey, Sally pokes fun at his patriarchal ego by observing, “Women are like dogs. You must have a license to prove that you’re the owner.” “Ruby Tuesday,” the second of three Stones selections featured in a row, mirrors the bittersweetness of Luke’s free-spirited nature, which he exudes on a trip to the supermarket. Only a group of kids acknowledge his presence, asking to ride in his chair, while the adults prefer to look elsewhere, unwilling to face the sad truth of his war-related injury.
Back in Hong Kong, Bob begins opening up to Sally about the unspeakable acts he had witnessed on the ground. He paces about their bedroom, whipping his dog tags around his finger like a propeller. By having the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” start with Bob—recounting how his comrades chopped off the heads of their victims—and continue on through the scenes, all the way up until Bill commits suicide, Ashby is illustrating how the violence during war can follow one home. From the opening titles onward, the word “time” recurs throughout the film in relation to Bob, who is headed for a similarly self-destructive fate. “I’ve got too many days and not enough time,” sings Bill in one of his last improvised riffs on the guitar. The music rises to earsplitting levels as the shattered man injects air into his veins, before the soundtrack fades along with his life, ending in silence when he is pronounced dead.
A trio of songs quickly follow, starting with Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” amplifying the rebellious spirit that prompts Luke to chain himself to the entrance of a military base. Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” suggests the mental chemistry that motivates Vi to invite two bozos from the bar over to her house, with Sally reluctantly in tow. In an amusing nod to Ashby’s own peerless ear for curation, Vi puts on Aretha Franklin’s “Save Me,” upon returning home, chuckling with inebriated glee, “Appropriate music!” She then begins to perform a striptease, much to the enjoyment of the horny men, until her shirt is off. Suddenly, Vi is paralyzed with self-consciousness, covering her breasts with both arms, and is promptly saved by Sally, who comforts the distraught woman as she wails about her brother. Meanwhile, one of the guys mutters, “We should’ve turned on the TV,” a device all-too-often brandished as a shield to drown out reality, which is, of course, why it was favored by Ashby’s next protagonist, Chauncey Gardiner.
Turned on by Luke’s bold antiwar statement, Sally bails him out of prison and agrees to sleep with him. What follows is a lovemaking scene of such beauty and unguarded intimacy that it could only be accompanied by the ethereal glow of Buffalo Springfield’s “Expecting to Fly.” Even though Luke is paralyzed from the waist down, he knows how to satisfy Sally, a skill evidenced by the shot that remains fixed on her face in close-up, as she experiences her first orgasm, thereby obliterating the stigma so often associated with female pleasure. The Beatles return as a bookend of sorts with “Strawberry Fields,” illuminating the unreal nature of Luke and Sally’s fleeting status as a couple, prior to Bob’s inevitable return (“Living is easy with your eyes closed”). The need that they have developed for one another is stressed by Janis Joplin in her track of “Call on Me,” performed with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Now the motif of the chain link fence separates Sally from Bob, hobbling back to her side with a fresh gunshot wound. Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” does a considerable amount of foreshadowing here, with lyrics such as “paranoia strikes deep” and, of course, “there’s a man with a gun over there.”
And then we arrive at what is, for my money, the single most brilliant use of music in the entire film. The Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” begins playing casually, as if on the radio, when Bob reenters his house to find Vi waiting for him. It’s only until Vi cross-examines Bob about his wound, which appears to have been purposely self-inflicted, that the song’s beat—mimicking a clock as it tics toward one’s own end—slows down and becomes pronounced. Bob’s temper suddenly proves to be frighteningly volatile, and it’s not long before he finds an excuse to escape the house. Later that night, he brings back a carload of drunken vets, one of whom quotes a prose poem written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, containing Bob’s defining word, “Keep interested in your own career, it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.”
All the while through these scenes, the song persists, heightening in intensity when Sally discovers that her husband has been keeping a pistol under his pillow. When Bob finally learns about the infidelity he has long suspected, thanks to an FBI investigation of Luke in response to his televised demonstration, “TIME!” is repeatedly exclaimed by the Chambers Brothers, as if warning Sally of the retribution about to come knocking on her door. The song’s final climactic swells perfectly punctuate Bob’s cocking of his rifle and slamming of his garage door before he moves to confront his wife and her lover at gunpoint.
Speaking in a measured voice, Luke talks Bob out of pulling the trigger, arguing that the real villain in their lives is the war itself. “You don’t want to kill anyone,” he replies, “You’ve got enough ghosts to carry around,” one of many sublime lines that earned screenwriters Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones the Oscar. The humility within Bob is reawakened, and he crumples to the floor, crying to Sally that he “just wanted to be a hero,” but as the film’s main theme implies, is out of time. With his three leads once again alone, Ashby and first-time editor Don Zimmerman conclude the film with a montage that ranks among the most breathtaking I’ve seen. In the scene that undoubtedly earned Voight both the Oscar and the Best Actor prize at Cannes, Luke speaks of his disillusionment with the war at an assembly for high school students, his voice quaking with urgency. He is channeling the voices of his fellow servicemen, like Bob, who have in one way or another been silenced.
As Luke delivers this speech, we see Bob, clad in his military uniform, at the beach, where he removes his clothes—and his wedding ring—before submerging himself in the waves, following in the footsteps of Norman Maine. “Life is a state of mind,” the final words uttered in 1979’s “Being There,” could easily serve as the tagline for any Ashby picture. Whereas Chauncey is able to stroll on the surface of a pond, oblivious to his own limitations, Bob is weighed down by the despairing awareness of his mortality. Ashby turns up in a subtle cameo, flashing the peace sign to Sally as she heads to purchase steaks for a dinner she and Bob are destined never to have. Intercut between the two men whom she gave so much, Sally vanishes from their lives in the very final shot, disappearing into a store as another door swings open, reading, “OUT.”
In a moving interview for the Blu-ray’s making-of documentary, Dern recalls how Ashby took him aside after the first take of his beach scene, and played for him the song, “Once I Was” by Tim Buckley, which ended up accompanying the film’s final, astonishing sequence. “I owe this guy big time,” Ashby admitted. It was 16 months prior that Buckley had auditioned for the director’s previous feature, 1976’s musical biopic, “Bound for Glory,” and fully captured the spirit of its subject, Woody Guthrie. Only 16 days later, Buckley had a fatal overdose at age 28. By having this song featured in these last moments of the picture, Dern noted that it was Ashby’s poetic way of asking a nation, “will you remember” those who served, those who perished, those who are still in need and those who were left behind?
No experience of watching one of his own movies was as emotional for Dern as the Cannes premiere of “Coming Home.” As the end credits began to roll, and “Out of Time” had its heartrending reprise, the actor and his co-stars were surprised to find that they couldn’t move. They had been rendered immobile by the sheer power of Ashby’s artistry, and there’s no question the music played a large part in that. Of all the songs featured in this extraordinary soundtrack, “Once I Was” is by far the most meaningful. When the filmmaker died at age 59, Dern recited the complete lyrics of Buckley’s song at his funeral. Listen to them and you will find, as Dern noted, the very essence of Ashby…
Once I was a soldier
And I fought on foreign sands for you
Once I was a hunter
And I brought home fresh meat for you
Once I was a lover
And I searched behind your eyes for you
And soon there’ll be another
To tell you I was just a lie
And sometimes I wonder
Just for a while
Will you ever remember me
And though you have forgotten
All of our rubbish dreams
I find myself searching
Through the ashes of our ruins
For the days when we smiled
And the hours that ran wild
With the magic of our eyes
And the silence of our words
And sometimes I wonder
Just for a while
Will you ever remember me
Ever remember me
“Coming Home” is available on Blu-ray and DVD via Amazon. “Saint Frances” screens at 7pm on Friday, May 17th, on opening night of the Chicago Critics Film Festival at the Music Box Theatre. For tickets, click here.