Long Time Running
(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas De Pencier
Programme: Galas (World Premiere)
Long Time Running has major expectations to fulfill given that the final performance of the Tragically Hip in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario in August 2016 provided a defining moment in contemporary Canadian culture. The CBC’s nation-wide live broadcast of this farewell concert endures as a rare moment in which Canadians in all corners of the land gathered to watch something other than hockey. Even Hip fans without TVs could sit out in the backyards with their cat and a beer and listen to the Hip echoing from houses and parks in the warm summer night. The film more than fills the big shoes left by the concert and the legacy the Hip leaves behind.
Directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier impeccably cover the swan song to the Hip on its cross-Canada tour during the summer of 2016 after news broke that lead vocalist Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. The directors capture the passion and tribulations of the band that put an unabashedly Canadian voice on the airwaves as the members ready for this grand finale. As the Hip takes stock of its successes and virtues, the film invites a larger commentary on the value of Canadian artists who reflect experiences of this nation to the people who live here. Long Time Running is an emotional roller coaster and a bittersweet tribute to the Hip.
The film offers intimate access to the Hip as the band rehearses for this farewell tour. Band members Paul Langlois, Gord Sinclair, Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, and Downie offer candid interviews as they decide to go out on their own terms with the Man Machine Poem tour, which proves to be their most daunting undertaking yet. In a fashion similar to director Pete McCormack’s equally poignant Spirit Unforgettable about Spirit of the West frontman Jon Mann’s preparations for a farewell concert following a diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, Long Time Running sees Downey wrestle with the music and lyrics he’s created. The extensive surgery on Downie’s brain left major gaps in memory for the singer and the film shows his bandmates re-teaching him the songs individually as he sings along to playback. It’s hard not to become emotional as Downie grabs a microphone and does karaoke with his own music.
Baichwal and de Pencier find the right spirit for the film by focusing on the positive aspects of Downie overcoming adversity and finding his voice again. The celebratory spirit is appropriate given that the band went out on a high note after 30 years of making music together. This sentiment might best be expressed by guitarist Rob Baker towards the end of the film when he likens the Hip’s run to a hot air balloon ride and says that most rock bands, like balloons, experience crash landings, so it’s a rare treat to touch the ground perfectly after sailing high for 30 years. While it’s difficult to watch Downie fail to recognize his own songs, it’s far more touching and inspiring to see him pick up a microphone and reclaim the electrifying showmanship with which one’s seen him perform in the past. Long Time Running is a fine Hip concert by a group that was noted everywhere for their professionalism.
Long Time Running extends the interviews and behind the scenes footage to include the perspectives of doctors, managers, wranglers, security guards and other players who rallied to let the band reach its audience one last time. In one notable sequence designer Izzi Camilleri who fashioned Downie’s flashy metallic suits for the Man Machine Poem tour, is interviewed. As she displays the conception of shiny threads in which Downie would take to the stage in blinding silvers, blues, and purples, she situates the band within the greater legacy of rock and roll, but also adds to the sentiment of creating a positive and comforting appearance through Downie’s peculiar costuming.
Similarly, one of the most poignant moments of Long Time Running comes from Karyn Ruiz, the Toronto designer who made Downie’s hats for the tour. She shows the camera the unique combinations of feathers and colours used to symbolize Downie’s support for the rights of Indigenous Canadians, and she adds a personal note about selecting two Hip lyrics to silkscreen onto the interior of the hat. Ruiz tears up while noting that the inclusion of the lyrics is just a personal way to thank Downie and the Hip for giving so much meaning to her life through their music. This sentiment bridges Long Time Running to its touching finale as the band performs their last concerts as the film shows many Canadians whose lives the Tragically Hip has touched. There’s just a power and spirit to the Hip that speaks to one’s experience as a Canadian with all the specificities to the band’s lyrics that one can’t find in imported music.
Baichwal and de Pencier don’t opt for a conventional stage show with the grand finale, which is smart since many Canadians have seen it before. Instead, Long Time Running culminates with the Kingston concert but weaves footage from venues around the nation during the live broadcast. The editing by Ronald Schlimme stiches a collective portrait of Canadians united through song as the audience in Halifax sings along to one lyric while the Hip fans in Whitehorse chime in with the next. All music lovers in Canada owe it to themselves to see Long Time Running. This patriotic music doc gives Canada’s band its due and the Tragically Hip’s final tour offers a stirring snapshot of collective Canadian pride.
Long Time Running screens nationwide Sept. 14 and at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Sept. 29
TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more information.