The Trag­i­cally Hip: fully, com­pletely

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - GLOBE LIFE & ARTS - RE­VIEWED BY BRAD WHEELER Long Time Run­ning is now open across the coun­try.

Early in Long Time Run­ning, the riv­et­ing new rock doc on the Trag­i­cally Hip’s coun­try-gal­va­niz­ing 2016 sum­mer tour, singer Gord Downie re­called what had hap­pened be­fore. The band had an al­bum ready to be re­leased. A tour would be in or­der – it’s just how these things work.

And then the news of his ter­mi­nal con­di­tion. Speak­ing to the cam­era, he dis­played lit­tle emo­tion.

“And, yeah … brain can­cer.” In Gaga: Five Foot Two, a made­for-Net­flix doc­u­men­tary on Lady Gaga’s life be­hind the cur­tains, the singer is shown on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions in dis­tress. She was suf­fer­ing from mus­cle spasms, pos­si­bly caused by anx­i­ety, or per­haps it was a lin­ger­ing hang­over from a se­vere hip in­jury years ear­lier.

Masseuses worked on her at her homes in Mal­ibu or Man­hat­tan. “My face hurts,” she cries. “Do I look pa­thetic? I’m so em­bar­rassed.”

And the cam­eras rolled. A sur­geon, we learn in Long Time Run­ning, per­formed a tem­po­ral lobec­tomy on Downie. At the first tour re­hearsal, a once rugged poet was weak and for­get­ful. He could not re­call a name of a Trag­i­cally Hip al­bum, let alone any lyrics. “I couldn’t re­mem­ber a damn thing,” Downie says. “I think I started to cry.”

By the end of July, he was on stage for the fi­nal re­hearsals in Vic­to­ria. Footage shows the singer in much bet­ter form, although us­ing teleprompters to sing the words from the new al­bum he wrote be­fore his ill­ness:

I write about words, I find trea­sure or worse

I watch the end of man and, and I dream like a bird

I re­main aloft and I for­get a lot I try not to try and I can re­mem­ber or not

The film, by Jen­nifer Baich­wal and Ni­cholas de Pencier, doc­u­ments an ex­pe­ri­ence that many of the Trag­i­cally Hip’s fans will have no prob­lem re­mem­ber­ing. Con­cert footage com­petes for space with back­stage mo­ments and in­ter­views with the band and those in its or­bit. “Is he go­ing to drop?” gui­tarist Paul Lan­glois re­mem­bers won­der­ing at the be­gin­ning of the tour. “That was hang­ing over ev­ery­body.”

That threat was real. A seizure, es­pe­cially when Downie grew tired, was a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity. “The safety net was pretty thin,” band co-man­ager Bernie Breen says, re­call­ing the tense­ness. There are last waltzes and then there are last waltzes.

Long Time Run­ning, named af­ter a lan­guid blues song from the band’s sec­ond al­bum, is both a his­tory les­son and a eu­logy for a group with 16 Juno Awards to its credit. With last year’s tour likely the band’s fi­nal one, time is given to the band’s ear­li­est years, dat­ing back to high school in Kingston. “It’s the fabric of my life,” drum­mer Johnny Fay says. Later, Downie tells a story about his mother look­ing at his book of lyrics and dic­tat­ing which songs were proper for him to sing and which were not. He stood up to her. “My ca­reer,” he says, “started that day.”

We are con­fronted with a shot of Downie in his un­der­wear, pol­ish­ing his shoes be­fore one of the con­certs, just as he has al­ways done – and just as his late fa­ther, a trav­el­ling sales­man, would have done on the road him­self.

Where Gaga: Five Foot Two is too oc­cu­pied with the pop star’s maudlin mo­ments, Long Time Run­ning comes with lit­tle self­pity. It’s too sim­plis­tic to sug­gest that a solo artist would be more self-ab­sorbed than a singer in a band. But the Trag­i­cally Hip shares its song­writ­ing cred­its five ways, even though Downie is the chief song­writer and most charis­matic at­trac­tion.

Keep­ing the democ­racy in the band was at times “tor­tu­ous,” we learn.

Ac­cord­ing to lead gui­tarist Rob Baker, while the band mem­bers “had each other,” when it came to the group’s enig­matic singer “the au­di­ence was his fam­ily” as well.

Downie is shown wink­ing to the crowd here, blow­ing kisses to the fans there. “That’s what I’m here for,” he sings to the au­di­ence in Ot­tawa, in Edmonton, in Toronto, in Van­cou­ver or in Kingston, “born ready for you.”

Given the cir­cum­stances of the tour, it would have been ridicu­lous for Baich­wal and de Pencier not to shine more light on Downie. They found the right bal­ance, though, cel­e­brat­ing a band’s place in the coun­try’s cul­tural fabric.

In the end – and this may well be the end – Long Time Run­ning is about per­se­ver­ance, both the band’s and Downie’s. The Trag­i­cally Hip’s first Juno Award was in 1990, when they were judged the year’s most promis­ing group. They’re still to­gether, with­out a mem­ber­ship change. They keep their prom­ises.


Gord Downie salutes his home­town fans in Kingston. A fea­ture doc­u­men­tary film fol­lows the Trag­i­cally Hip on its 2016 Man Ma­chine Poem cross-Canada tour af­ter Downie was di­ag­nosed with brain can­cer.

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