"I would've loved to say thank you face to face to face with everybody. I wanted the shows to go on forever."
You weren't alone in that desire, Gord Downie. All of Tragically Hip Nation shared that feeling.
"Long Time Running," the emotional tour de force documentary on the Tragically Hip's 2016 summer tour from directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, is a celebration of one-man's personal heroism. It also reveals the depth of the love that surrounded and bolstered Downie as he pulled off the seemingly impossible – a full run of shows across Canada in the wake of a terminal brain cancer diagnosis and invasive brain surgery.
Through a blend of concert and rehearsal footage and interviews with band members, management, friends and family, the documentary follows Downie's path, from the first, painfully tentative rehearsals to the poignant and triumphant tour finale in Kingston, Ont. Along the way, we learn that it was nigh on a miracle that Downie was able to do make it through one show, let alone a whole tour.
At the beginning, post-surgery Downie was having trouble remembering song titles and lyrics. His physical appearance – captured on film by his brother, Patrick – is that of a frail, thin, shuffling visage who seemed to be clinging to the microphone for dear life.
The threat of a seizure, brought on by fatigue and over-exertion, was very real. "Is he going to drop?" guitarist Paul Langlois asks early on in the film. "That was hanging over everybody."
"I couldn't remember a damn thing," Downie says of the early rehearsal process. But he pushed for the tour, in the midst of radiation treatments that were taxing his fortitude immensely. "We're gonna tour, right?" Langlois recalls Downie asking him during a visit when he could do little else but communicate with his eyes.
Cut to a much healthier-looking, post-tour Downie, who reveals the motivation behind his superhuman feat: "If I don’t do this, I'll just be crushed. I don’t wanna go out like that."
Downie pushed himself, and made great personal sacrifice to commune with the audience that had given the Hip life-blood for three decades. That he wanted to do so on his own terms should surprise no one who knew the man. The same drive, passion for living, intense curiosity and willingness to embrace life's absurdities that Downie fed on to make it through the farewell tour is what fueled his poetry with the Hip.
There is an intense and palpable joy in the band's interactions as the tour progresses and Downie, defying the odds, gets stronger and more assured on stage. Viewers are given a camera-eye view of the deep bond that gave birth to the music in the beginning and sustained Downie as he made his final round. It's deeply moving , as celebratory as it is unbearably sad, particularly for devout fans still mourning Downie's passing.
It is to the filmmakers' credit that they focused almost exclusively on the band and its first-tier confidantes, rather than interviewing fans and allowing their recollections to control the discourse. "Long Time Running" is about a tribe losing its shaman, and allowing themselves to, as Langlois says in the film, "notice it and accept it." The tour was for the band, as much as it was for the fans, then.
Downie emerges as a heroic figure above and beyond this, however. He was man who had come to terms with his own end, and decided to spend what time was left him engaging in an act of pure love. Hip fans will be heartened by this, but make no mistake – "Long Time Running" is trying to break your heart, and as the film progresses toward its inevitable end, it's succeeding in doing so.
Early on, guitarist Rob Baker nails the core of the existential crisis at the film's heart.
"When it's done, it's done. And what then?"
It might be worthwhile for us to ask ourselves: What would Gord do?
"Long Time Running"
4 stars (out of 4)
A documentary on the final tour of The Tragically Hip. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. 97 minutes. Unrated, but PG equivalent for mature themes.