October 22, 2018

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Hip documentary a bittersweet love song

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/9/2017 (403 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Yeah, so, you're probably going to want to bring Kleenex to this one.

Long Time Running, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier's affecting documentary on the Tragically Hip's 2016 tour, begins with cameras trained on the fans. As Gord Downie sings the titular song, the camera follows faces in the audience, illuminated by the lights onstage. Many are singing along. But many more are weeping, tears streaming down their cheeks.

What was supposed to be a regular album cycle tour for the band's 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem, became something bigger than even the biggest band in Canada. In spring 2016, the country was hit hard by the news that Downie had an aggressive form of brain cancer, and that it was terminal. In the weeks that followed, a lot was written about the man and the band — about its legacy, about its importance, its place in the cultural fabric of Canada — but much of it felt as though it was eulogizing a man who was still very much alive. A man who, despite undergoing an invasive temporal lobectomy decided to hit the road, one more time.

But Long Time Running isn't maudlin, and it's not exactly a eulogy either. Interspersed with beautifully shot concert footage, the filmmakers offer an intimate, revealing backstage look at a high-pressure tour packing improbable weight. Because as much as this story is about a newsworthy tour — which culminated in a hometown show in Kingston, Ont., that was broadcast coast-to-coast and watched by millions — it's also about a band, its crew and its fans holding on to hope.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/9/2017 (403 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Yeah, so, you're probably going to want to bring Kleenex to this one.

Long Time Running, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier's affecting documentary on the Tragically Hip's 2016 tour, begins with cameras trained on the fans. As Gord Downie sings the titular song, the camera follows faces in the audience, illuminated by the lights onstage. Many are singing along. But many more are weeping, tears streaming down their cheeks.

What was supposed to be a regular album cycle tour for the band's 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem, became something bigger than even the biggest band in Canada. In spring 2016, the country was hit hard by the news that Downie had an aggressive form of brain cancer, and that it was terminal. In the weeks that followed, a lot was written about the man and the band — about its legacy, about its importance, its place in the cultural fabric of Canada — but much of it felt as though it was eulogizing a man who was still very much alive. A man who, despite undergoing an invasive temporal lobectomy decided to hit the road, one more time.

But Long Time Running isn't maudlin, and it's not exactly a eulogy either. Interspersed with beautifully shot concert footage, the filmmakers offer an intimate, revealing backstage look at a high-pressure tour packing improbable weight. Because as much as this story is about a newsworthy tour — which culminated in a hometown show in Kingston, Ont., that was broadcast coast-to-coast and watched by millions — it's also about a band, its crew and its fans holding on to hope.

ELEVATION PICTURES</p><p>Gord Downie salutes the crowd during the film Long Time Running.</p>

ELEVATION PICTURES

Gord Downie salutes the crowd during the film Long Time Running.

Some parts are hard to watch. At the first rehearsal for the tour, Downie struggles to remember lyrics. Song and album titles elude him. "I think I started to cry," he recalls. Seeing those first few shaky rehearsals makes the actual tour even more remarkable. The band prepared some 90 songs for the Man Machine Poem tour — roughly double that of a regular tour — so that it could perform something from every album. Downie worked rigorously to pull it all off, but those closest to him had concerns. Guitarist Rob Baker, in particular, was hesitant about even going on the road. Touring is gruelling for a healthy person, let alone someone battling cancer and recovering from brain surgery. What if Gord had a seizure onstage, with everyone documenting it on their iPhones? Baker didn't want that for his friend.

We know how it turned out, of course. Man Machine Poem tour was a victory lap.

What makes Long Time Running shine is that it doesn't focus all of its attention on Downie. This isn't a doc about a rock god facing down his mortality. It's about a workhorse band coming together when times are tough. Despite having a brilliant, charismatic man out in front, the Tragically Hip was never all about Gord Downie. The Hip is unusually democratic for a band — songwriting credits split five ways and a lineup that has remained unchanged. It's become cliché to say bands are like families, but these guys are brothers. It only makes sense that this film is just as much about Baker, guitarist Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay.

Long Time Running also serves as a poignant reminder that behind every great rock band is a massive team (and, yes, family) that gets it onstage every night. This film is about those people, too. Everyone from the band managers and tour managers to the security staff and roadies — many of whom have been on the road with the Hip since the '90s — who have to shelve their feelings to do their jobs. You see the care and concern in their faces as they shuttle a weak Downie to the dressing room, exhausted after leaving everything onstage. In one incredibly touching scene, Karyn Ruiz, the Toronto milliner who made Downie's iconic hats for the tour, reveals that she sewed her favourite Hip lyrics into the liners. As her way to say thanks.

The gratitude is mutual. Downie's sincere love and affection for his team comes through in a pre-show ritual: everyone in his band and crew gets a kiss on the lips, then he pulls each person in close to tell them how much he loves them. And he looks everyone in the eye. It's as if he's trying to memorize their faces, to bottle the moment.

Those who were fortunate enough to be at the shows or public screenings that summer will recognize that look. It's the same one he gave the audience at the end of each and every show. "I love you, I love you, I love you."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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