Long Time Running looks behind the scenes of the Tragically Hip’s final tour
For many Canadians in these last few generations (X, Y, even “post-millennial”), Gord Downie and his band, The Tragically Hip (with that lightly ironic ’60s name), were a sturdy piece of rock ’n’ roll, magnetizing attention at regular patriotic intervals. That first hit “Blow at High Dough,” rippling out from the radio in the cottage by the lake; “Fifty Mission Cap,” about the Maple Leafs’ Bill Barilko, streaming out of the CD player around the campfire; “Bobcaygeon,” blaring from the car at a July picnic in the park.
They seemed to recede from view in the ’00s but then, recently, blazed back into our consciousness, largely because of Downie’s incurable glioblastoma diagnosis. The singer-songwriter, prolific to the end, released the 2016 album Secret Path (along with a graphic novel), about the too-short life of Charlie Wenjack. His 23-track solo album was released 10 days after his death and was quickly lauded to the point of hagiography by the CBC and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seemingly set on carving his image into granite pronto.
The last Hip tour documentary Long Time Running (culminating with the band’s hometown show in Kingston) starts off as a self-aware love-in.
We’re amid devotees at one of the concerts, surveying joyful and tearful faces in slo-mo (one man’s saying, over and over, “Thank you”); we hear bandmates’ reflections as we’re on the road, a bright sun low in the trees; there, along with the live version of “Long Time Running” playing, comes the film title in handwritten script. Unfortunately, all this maudlin fan-service rarely fades away after that.
After a short interview with Downie’s brain surgeon, the frontman’s brother offers a sobering overview of post-surgery: 30 radiotherapy sessions, every weekday, along with chemotherapy. Downie endearingly credits the Beegees with helping him through: “[they’re] my secret—it’s not a band you’re supposed to … but, God, I love them” (he starts humming one of their songs). By the time we see footage of Downie, long-bearded and shuffling about before a teleprompter in the band’s first rehearsal, it seems incredible he could even practice, let alone hit the road weeks later. Then, as if the directors (longtime friends of the band) don’t want to dwell on this arduous pre-tour period and just get to the inspiring music already, they vault us two months ahead to one of the band’s final rehearsals, where Downie now seems, miraculously, on top of his game again.
This mix of the indulgent triumphalist-tribute and quirky, personal insights continues. So, the first concert’s treated like a big-game event (the press-coverage montages here turn the hype-dial past 11), only for Downie’s wardrobe-designer to discuss her particular thinking behind his hat. Or a health-concern interlude makes way for Downie’s (nearly-in-the-buff) shoe-shining ritual. Mostly, though, the movie wants to get through the struggles behind the music to the concert-moments. But the music comes out of that hard work.
It’s impossible to capture on digital-video the live-lightning-in-a-bottle of what was, one interviewee says, “the energy in that room … [I’ve] never felt [it] before.” Or, as Downie says, “It’s a night that disappears—and that’s okay, too.”
A montage of deep cuts from the catalogue here certainly comes off more like a jukebox medley, though there is a searing rendition of “Grace, Too.” And the film does end with Downie’s grace-notes of gratitude and togetherness.
Given the passing-of-an-icon circumstances, one can’t expect much critical distance from Long Time Running, and it’s little surprise this doc seems tailored for fans. But it’s the unsteady, un-Hip-like lurching—from hallowed career-retrospective, to cross-country concert-doc, to one-last-success story, to farewell love-letter—that makes this no show-stopper.
Long Time Running
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier
Tue., Nov. 7 (7 pm)