The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
There’s a throwaway lyric in “Long Time Running,” the song from the album Road Apples that gave the new documentary about The Tragically Hip its name, in which singer Gord Downie threatens to “drop a caribou/tell on you.”
At first blush, it might sound like just another bit of northern surrealism from the eccentric genius frontman, but there’s actually a simple logic behind it: it’s a play on “dropping a dime,” a term for informing on someone that developed when the pay phone call required to secretly do so cost 10 cents. In 1991, though, when the song came out, pay phone calls cost 25 cents. And there’s a caribou on the front of the Canadian quarter.
Part of what makes The Tragically Hip so unique as artists is that their work appeals on many different levels simultaneously, much like the song “Long Time Running.” It’s a beautiful, gut-wrenching ballad even if you don’t listen to the lyrics. If you pay any passing attention to them, you add a hint of whimsicality to the proceedings. But if you dig deeper, and if you have a background that’s at all rooted in the same influences or spaces that permeate the band’s storytelling, then you’re granted a song that encompasses regret, longing, heartache, and a clever undercurrent of Canadiana and esoteric references.
Any documentary that truly hopes to capture the essence of this band would have to function on just as many levels. And that’s just what Long Time Running, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier’s chronicle of what will most likely be the Tragically Hip’s final tour last summer, does.
For the uninitiated, there’s enough background information on the band and their 30+ year history to keep you engaged and involved in the story. The filmmakers touch on the band’s origins (which Downie, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, Bobby Baker and Johnny Fay – the original and only five members of the band throughout their history – discuss with endearing fondness) and provide all of the relevant details to explain why last year’s tour was so monumental. There’s footage of the May 2016 press conference where Dr. James Perry from Toronto’s Sunnybrook hospital announced that Downie had terminal brain cancer, and interviews from the band and Downie’s brother Patrick about the diagnosis, the treatment, and the band’s decision to do one last cross-country tour.
For the slightly more involved, Long Time Running is both an incredibly detailed look at the logistics of mounting a show with such high stakes and so many potential downfalls, as well as a thoughtful meditation on what rock and roll can look like in its middle and late stages. Baichwal and de Pencier capture an incredible number of elements of the backstage experience. From costume design, to what it’s like for someone with a brain tumor to relearn lyrics he’s sung his whole adult life, to the medical and security support required to keep a terminally ill singer as healthy as possible offstage – and protected if anything goes wrong onstage – the doc offers an incredibly thorough and unique look into what it takes to propel and sustain an undertaking of this nature.
It also digs into the emotional resources and labor required to do so, which leads to a kind of reflection that you rarely see in rock documentaries. Downie’s future is obviously daunting, but his bandmates, his brothers, are also facing an abyss of sorts as they move toward a future without him or without what they’ve built together. A luminary from the previous generation of Canadian rock once sang “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” but what happens when the choice is taken away from you? In a musical culture that has, at best, a fraught relationship with concepts like the future and aging, how do you contemplate what comes next?
Little to no background on The Hip is required to appreciate any of the above. Long Time Running is a thoroughly researched film with a wealth of interviews from the band, their team, their fans, their medical staff, and themselves that works both as both a source of pure information and a gaze into the nature of rock and roll. But for fans, there’s a whole other layer to enjoy, likely through tears. I have been listening to the Tragically Hip for as long as I can remember. Their melodies and their lyrics are imprinted on my very being. I learned more about Canadian history and culture from their lyrics than I did from school. I’ve interviewed them. I’ve seen them more times than I can count – including one of the Toronto shows on last summer’s tour. In one of the most stereotypically Canadian moments of my life, I watched the live broadcast of their final show from their hometown of Kingston in a backyard with my husband’s hockey team while we talked about Tom Thompson. For me, personally, watching the film both captured the strange, cathartic magic that happened as Hip fans watched this strange, special band make their cross-country pilgrimage one final time and further contributed to it.
A number of the most resonant details from the tour are all there, like Downie raging against the dying of the light during the final, frantic notes of “Grace, Too” that night in Toronto, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arriving at the final show in a Canadian tuxedo, and Downie taking a moment during that show to speak directly to Trudeau about the government’s treatment of indigenous people. So, too, is concert footage, as well as dispatches from some of the hundred public screenings of the last show from across Canada, and interviews with some of the fans about what the band means to them.
Best of all, though, are the interviews with the band themselves, the little asides from this humble group of oddballs that we will miss almost as much as the music in the years to come. Their discussions of childhood friendship and how their affection has evolved over the years to the point where they can kiss each other before every show. Bobby Baker talking about the fact that there are no good endings in rock music as he reflects on his own. And then there’s Downie being Downie. Giggling about how much he loves the Bee Gees, even though they’re supposed to be a guilty pleasure, and then singing a few bars for good measure. Discussing a recent phone call with Bobby Orr in which he plainly and unabashedly told the hockey legend that he loved him. Discussing the philosophy behind the metallic suits that he wore on the tour, and taking the filmmakers through his shoe-shining technique. It’s both a reminder of why these artists have been so special and a further testament to their off-kilter genius and appeal.
On every level, Long Time Running offers something new to the rock doc genre and to Tragically Hip enthusiasts. It’s a story about a fantastic tour pulled off under fantastically difficult circumstances. It’s a look into the ethos and mystique of rock and roll through the eyes of rock stars who were always a little different, and now have a whole new perspective to add to the discussion. It’s a portrait of genuine male friendship and affection. And it’s a time capsule for the most magical (but saddest) summer in CanRock history. All of these stories have been, you could say, a long time coming for the rock doc and rock and roll itself, which are both struggling with a certain amount of stagnation these days. Seeing them together in Long Time Running is well worth the wait.