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Fans gather at the North Park to salute Gord Downie's 'Courage'

The Marquee above the entrance to the North Park Theatre told so much of the story. A Canadian flag hung adjacent, and the lyric excerpt "Courage, My Word" beneath the featured film's title, "The Tragically Hip in 'Long Time Running,' " drove the point home.

On Friday, opening night of the documentary film's weeklong run at the North Park, fans were gathering to pay tribute to the late Gord Downie, a man who had entertained and inspired them for decades.

And, perhaps, to feel that emotional rush of the Tragically Hip in concert one last time.

"We're here to party for Gord," a fan clutching a can of beer in the line running down Hertel Ave. prior to show time told me. "This" – he pointed to his group of friends – "is the same crew that went to a lot of Hip shows together."

Tragically Hip's 'Long Time Running' offers a eulogy in sound and vision

He might have been in for a bit of a surprise. "Long Time Running" is certainly a bittersweet affair, as it tells the story of the Hip's final tour, a jaunt commenced beneath the shadow of singer, lyricist and front-man Downie's terminal brain cancer diagnosis in the summer of 2016. And though the feature does offer some startlingly visceral footage of the band performing throughout its Canadian farewell tour, it also focuses unflinchingly on Downie's struggle. By halfway through the feature, the crowd that had been boisterous and a touch rowdy outside had mellowed considerably.As we walked in and found our seats, "O Canada" played over the house PA, and the first of several Hip music videos – including "Courage," a tune that has become synonymous with Downie's struggle - was met with applause when it appeared on the screen. Fans stood in the aisles, converging for group selfies, and catching up with old friends, which brought to mind the atmosphere at Hip shows in Buffalo over the years.

A slide show made up of fan submissions ran for 20 minutes prior to the start of the film, underscoring the depth of the relationship between this Canadian band and its Buffalo fan base. The submitted photos showed fans posed with band members backstage, gathered in front of the Downie mural recently unveiled a block away from the North Park on Hertel Avenue, or displaying their own Hip-related original artwork. A pumpkin carved in Downie's image was particularly striking.

Bob Silvestri of Buffalo, who had traveled to Canada to see the film prior to Friday's U.S. debut, cited the raw, straightforward nature of the documentary as its strongest point. "I thought it would be more of a highlight reel celebrating their victory lap around Canada, but that's not really what it is at all," he said. "It was about the band members opening up, being completely honest about the situation. That made it incredibly emotional." Silvestri, who said he had been to 54 Hip shows, became friendly with Downie during that time, and showed me his text correspondences with the singer, as they made plans for a get-together that never took place.

"This film should've been called 'Courage,'" said Bruce Moser, the Buffalo promoter who worked spreading the Hip gospel to radio programmers for several decades. "That's really what it's about. To do what Gord did took incredible courage."

Courage and gratitude are the main takeaways from "Long Time Running." Downie's dignified approach to an arduous struggle was a way of showing thanks to his bandmates for a shared life in music. But it also was a gift of thanks to his fans. Those fans, gathered in the North Park in his name, returned that gratitude, and the circle was completed.

North Park programming director Ray Barker, who worked to secure the film's Buffalo debut, said that putting together the slide show of fan-submitted photos and art was a bittersweet undertaking. "I loved doing it, and it made me happy, but it was also sad," Barker said. "All these people in our city with so much love for this man and this band – it's incredibly moving."

It's hard not to feel that Downie himself would be deeply moved.

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