Marie Clements’ The Road Forward bills itself as a “musical documentary” exploring the history of Indigenous activism in Canada. The film’s experimental approach to its subject matter is presented episodically: we get a song set in a particular time and place in Canadian history, followed by interviews with the people involved, repeat. Topics include the founding of The Native Voice newspaper and the Constitution Express campaign.
The film’s novel approach should be its biggest draw, but it ends up being its primary weakness. The film isn’t so much a “musical” as a series of music videos. The songs written for the film don’t tell a story. They’re standalone pop songs that connect thematically with each segment, but so little consideration is given to character or narrative that it feels more like a clumsy jukebox musical than a constructed whole.
There’s also a “biting off more than you can chew” feeling here. Every subject covered could easily support its own feature length musical and a documentary. A well-crafted musical about a groundbreaking newspaper with all-Indigenous staff in the 1940s sounds awesome. Instead, we get the CliffsNotes version.
It’s a shame, because when The Road Forward succeeds, it really works. The interviews with contemporary subjects are informative and moving. The film’s meta aspects, with actors speaking out of character about their experiences, add a nuanced third formal layer to the documentary-musical sandwich, but like the other two, it’s underserved.
Clements is a strong filmmaker with an inventive eye, but she’s pulled in too many directions. Here’s hoping for more focused work from her in the future.