Trag­i­cally Hip con­cert doc is sad yet tri­umphant

Trag­i­cally Hip con­cert doc is deeply sad and pos­i­tively tri­umphant

NOW Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - By NOR­MAN WIL­NER normw@now­toronto.com | @normwilner

LONG TIME RUN­NING di­rected by ñ

Jennifer Baich­wal and Ni­cholas de Pencier. An El­e­va­tion Pic­tures re­lease. 97 min­utes. Opens Fri­day (Septem­ber 15). For venues and times, see page 49. Rat­ing: NNNNN

For longer than I’d like to ad­mit, I thought the lyric in Ahead By A Cen­tury was “and that’s when the heartache stabbed me.” As any Trag­i­cally Hip fan knows – well, any­one but me, I guess – Gord Downie’s re­ally singing “and that’s when the hor­net stung me.” I blame a fuzzy speaker.

I’ve been think­ing a lot about that since Gord Downie went pub­lic with his di­ag­no­sis of ter­mi­nal brain can­cer. If you’re a Hip fan, that’s when the heartache stabbed you, too.

Long Time Run­ning, the new doc­u­men­tary by Jennifer Baich­wal and Ni­cholas de Pencier, has that feel­ing – the shock of a loss that hasn’t hap­pened yet, and the weight of grief to come – run­ning through it. It fol­lows the Hip on last year’s cross-Canada tour, which was both to pro­mote their new al­bum, Man Ma­chine Poem, and to say good­bye to the coun­try that’s loved them for three decades.

It is deeply sad and pos­i­tively tri­umphant. It’s ev­ery­thing we need it to be.

Baich­wal and de Pencier are friends of the band, and they’ve worked with them a few times in the past, but their doc work – Act Of God, Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes, Wa­ter­mark – tends to­ward the cere­bral and meta­phys­i­cal. They’ve never made a con­cert movie, let alone one with vir­tu­ally no lead time. Their friends asked them to do it and they said yes, be­cause how could they not?

Long Time Run­ning opens at one of the fi­nal con­certs, de Pencier’s camera sweep­ing across a crowd of peo­ple wear­ing shirts from a dozen dif­fer­ent tours. In ev­ery shot, at least one per­son is cry­ing. This is their last Hip con­cert, and they know it.

The band knows it, too, and de­spite the ter­ri­ble strain on their front­man – a strain shared over the course of the tour by Paul Lan­glois, Johnny Fay, Gord Sin­clair and Rob Baker, who knew bet­ter than any­one how frail Downie re­ally was – they go out and play. And they are mag­nif­i­cent.

I don’t know whether an­other film­mak­ing team might have been able to get some of the footage that Baich­wal and de Pencier have in­cluded. We see the band’s first re­hearsal ses­sion with a still-weak Downie, af­ter two surg­eries and rounds of ra­di­a­tion and chemo left him reach­ing for words and strug­gling with an er­ratic mem­ory. We see Downie’s doc­tors at Sun­ny­brook chok­ing back their own tears as they talk about his prog­no­sis, and how the tour could sim­ply be too much for him.

We see the band dis­cuss con­tin­gency plans with the tour staff: a half-dozen teleprompters in case Downie blanks on lyrics, a spe­cial med­i­cal unit in case of an on­stage col­lapse, and so on. Some of th­ese peo­ple have been with the Hip since the late 80s. This is break­ing them, but they go through it over and over again.

And then we see Downie take the stage in Vic­to­ria, in one of the ridicu­lous me­tal­lic suits he com­mis­sioned for the tour, and the band strikes up and within maybe 30 sec­onds the life is shin­ing out of him so god­damn brightly. At that point I was sob­bing openly in the screen­ing room, and I wasn’t the only one.

Baich­wal, de Pencier and ed­i­tor Roland Sch­limme have con­structed Long Time Run­ning as a cel­e­bra­tion of the Hip, and as a farewell for Gord Downie. He knows it – there’s no way they wouldn’t have dis­cussed it – and in his in­ter­view seg­ments he of­fers up a couple of won­der­ful sto­ries that would not be out of place at a wake.

But a wake isn’t all down­beat, and as we ex­pe­ri­enced af­ter the deaths of David Bowie and Prince last year, it’s im­pos­si­ble to lis­ten to the Hip and stay sad. Their songs can get dark but they have a hell of a beat, and the half-dozen num­bers that Baich­wal and de Pencier in­clude in their en­tirety will raise your spir­its even as you blub­ber through them.

When the Toronto crowd sings back a key verse of Bob­cay­geon, I’m pretty sure my heart broke; when Downie screams “here, now” over and over again in the Kingston per­for­mance of Grace Too, it feels like an in­can­ta­tion as much as a re­frain. It’s been a year since I watched that con­cert, along with a third of the coun­try, and I thought time would give me some dis­tance. Long Time Run­ning brings it all back like a ham­mer.

Some doc­u­men­taries are acts of jour­nal­ism, oth­ers acts of wor­ship. Long Time Run­ning is an act of love, made by peo­ple who are emo­tion­ally in­vested in their sub­ject and are just as bro­ken by this tragic turn of events as the rest of us.

I can­not imag­ine what it was like for Baich­wal and de Pencier to make this movie, but I am so, so grate­ful that they did. It’s a chance to see the band at their best, and a way to say good­bye. The heartache still stabs, but now there’s a place to put the pain.

Long Time Run­ning, which fol­lows the Hip on last year’s cross-Canada tour, is an act of love.

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