Impeccably crafted by filmmaking duo Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier (Watermark, Act of God), Long Time Running has the feel of sitting around a campfire by the lake with Hip music playing softly.
Long Time Running zooms in on the band’s emotional journey across the country in 2016, for what ended up being its last tour. (For those unaware, Hip frontman Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in early 2016.) The Man Machine Poem tour stretched from coast-to-coast over the course of a month, and despite Downie’s prognosis and diagnosis, he managed to front the band in the same crazy, out-there manner as he has for the last 30+ years.
Featuring a bounty of primo concert footage and intimate interviews with Downie, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay, among many others (even our own PM Justin Trudeau!), Long Time Running is like a visit backstage. For those who’ve never been backstage at a concert, it’s a place where you see your musical heroes without their onstage personas, without their instruments, instead just simple human beings, slouching, pasty, sipping ginger ale.
While undoubtedly that feeling can be disconcerting — seeing the Hip stripped down, minus the ostentatious suits Downie would wear onstage during the MMP tour — there’s something very personal to it. It’s actually in those scenes after the shows, or just before going onstage, that Long Time Running is its most impacting. After the lights go down and the crowd goes home, it’s just these five guys who’ve known each other since (in some cases) early childhood, putting out the same music they’ve been playing for decades.
One scene, featuring a shirtless Downie after a show, is particularly stark. It’s not his visual physicality that catches the eye, it’s the apparent weakness that belies Downie’s endless energy. How is this the man who was, minutes before, parading around onstage in a glittery pink suit and feathered hat? How can one reconcile the difference between onstage Downie and backstage Downie? Long Time Running does a good job exploring that.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t succumb to morbidity and barely any time is spent on Downie’s medical condition, though it hangs over the proceedings like a circling storm. His doctor, Dr. James Perry of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Research Institute, says that Downie’s entire temporal lobe has been removed, along with the majority of the tumour, and Downie has a prognosis of approximately three to five years. Despite his attempts to hide it, Perry’s awe at Downie’s recuperation and function is apparent.
There’s no denying that Downie is the Tragically Hip. Without his distinct voice and persona, it’s tough to envision the band. Even his bandmates are aware, and you can literally feel the fear each of them has embarking on the MMP tour. What’s made clear in Long Time Running is essentially its theme: The Tragically Hip is a unit, its symbiosis dependent on all members. And a macrocosm of that symbiosis is Canada, a country whose places, mannerisms, and very being run through the notes of each Hip song.
Downie makes it clear whenever he speaks to the camera; Langlois, Baker, Sinclair and Fay are imperative to his performance, and vice-versa. In one particularly emotional scene, Downie talks about how what started off as before-concert hugs with all his bandmates turned into kisses on the cheek, then kisses on the mouth, then to kisses on the mouth and “I love you,” accompanied by a full embrace. All members of the band, before every show on the MMP tour.
“I love you,” laughs Downie to the camera. “I… love… you,” he says slowly with an exhale, almost as if to mock the weakness of the words in the face of their meaning. There is no questioning Downie’s love for his music, his bandmates, his fans, his country. Despite a failing memory — Downie can’t remember the words to any of the band’s songs — this man ventured as far as he could across Canada to say goodbye one last time, and put his all into every concert.
For Hip fans especially, Long Time Running is a heartfelt encapsulation of last summer’s camaraderie, of the Canadian coming together that this country had never seen before. Watching the doc, you can feel that sensation again, of the sweaty compatriots arm-in-arm, swaying to Ahead By a Century or Courage. Try swallowing your Canadian pride when you see grown men weeping in the crowd, or young children screaming Hip lyrics, or people on a reserve watching the Hip’s final Kingston show via satellite in a makeshift tent.
Downie says, in his beautiful gravelly voice, that he did his best to look every single concertgoer in the eye and smile, and wanted more than anything to say thank you to every person who attended the final shows.
Canadians want to thank you, Gord. So thanks for everything.
‘Long Time Running’ opens at select theatres across Canada on Sept. 14.