According to the new documentary Long Time Running, Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie had two options when diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year.
“What would you prefer: living without being able to speak, or have [reduced] new memories, but have more time with your family,” neurosurgeon DJ Cook asked Downie. “Or should we limit things and ultimately give you less time on Earth, but have a higher quality [of living]?”
Downie chose the latter — brain surgery and a “best case scenario” of five more years of life.
Long Time Running chronicles the aftermath of Downie’s decision, one last country-wide farewell tour to conclude a career that ran over three decades, 14 studio albums and 16 Juno awards.
Documentary filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier offer a touchingly personal profile of the band’s final months.
In the film, we watch Downie struggle to remember lyrics, relying on teleprompters as he tackles the massive task of remembering a career’s worth of music after his surgery. Even though Downie repeats the line “My Music at Work,” 18 times, he still must ask a crew member, “What’s that line called?” as he wrote down the lyric.
Likewise, we hear the band’s childhood origins and roots in Kingston as they come to terms with the sum of their careers. Drummer Johnny Fay remembers graduating high school and leaving to go play an early Tragically Hip show.
“When it’s over, it’s done. And what then?” Guitarist Rob Baker asks as the band reflected on the band’s nearly life-long presence in their lives.
This sentimentality carries the film, humanizing the musicians in the wake of national attention the tour received. But it can also make scenes drag as the camera lingers at times and the film stretches to meet its feature-length running time.
Long Time Running is at its strongest when the film reveals the human side of an increasingly mythologized band.
The moments where Gord Downie sheepishly admits to loving the Bee-Gees or the camera follows exhausted band mates hugging in a change room hit harder than any statement on the band’s role shaping national cultural identity.
Despite its expectedly heavy featuring of the band members themselves, Long Time Running is also a story about the band’s fans. The film spends a lot of its time profiling the sold-out crowds that accompanied every tour date. It’s an acknowledgement of the music’s reserved place at campfires and the sense of recognition small-town fans feel hearing songs like “Bobcaygeon.”
These smaller stories, including one in which the tour’s costume designer reveals she stitches her favourite lyrics in each of Downie’s hats, help sell the band’s impact to non-fans. It becomes less of a rock documentary, or a comment on Canadian culture and more of a portrait of music’s role in our lives — and how to say goodbye to it.
Thankfully, it’s a good one.
Guitarist Rob Baker shares a letter from a fan in Philadelphia explaining that very few artists can choose how to leave their fans. There’s very rarely any control over a band’s final days.
The film’s closing coverage of the band’s final Kingston show and viewing parties across the country revealed The Hip as the exception. The extra-long finale of the film pays tribute to artists ending their defining work on their own terms like Downie. And it’s extremely powerful.
According to Baker, most of the members of the band “had each other” on stage but Downie’s final performances were unique — “the audience was his family.”
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