TORONTO – A frank discussion about the “best case scenario” for Gord Downie after his brain cancer diagnosis and the singer’s struggle to live up to expectations as the Tragically Hip mounted last summer’s farewell tour are among the most powerful moments in the new documentary “Long Time Running.”
The contemplative film by directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier premiered Wednesday night at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of a nationwide limited theatrical release, with screenings scheduled for Thursday and Monday. It will also air on CTV on Nov. 12 and begin streaming on CraveTV the following day.
“Long Time Running” confirms the Kingston, Ont., band always considered the string of 2016 concerts to be their last, even though the group was reticent to acknowledge that reality.
“It’s kind of over for everybody, and that’s kind of a lot to bear, I think,” says Patrick Downie in the film, as he recalls learning of his brother’s diagnosis.
But there are sprinkles of levity amidst all the darkness, including a scene in which Downie polishes his boots while stripped down to his underpants.
“It’s a nightly thing. I’ve done this my whole career,” he reassures the camera.
Here are some other highlights gleaned from “Long Time Running”:
THE DIAGNOSIS: The film tackles the 53-year-old frontman’s health early on, with Downie reflecting on how he felt when told he had glioblastoma — the most common and aggressive type of tumour to start in the brain. Neurosurgeon DJ Cook says he excised the bulk of the tumour after extensive talks with Downie about his wishes. “What would you prefer: living without being able to speak, or have new memories, but have more time with your family,” Cook asked the singer, “or should we limit things and ultimately give you less time on Earth, but have higher quality?” He says Downie chose a full temporal lobectomy, which gave him a “best case scenario” of five years of survival.
MEMORY PROBLEMS: Preparing to perform live presented Downie with huge challenges. “I actually couldn’t remember a damn thing. I think I started to cry,” the singer says of the first tour rehearsal. Dave (Billy Ray) Koster, the Hip’s technical director, recalls Downie’s struggles with “My Music at Work,” a song which repeats its title in the lyrics 18 times. “He would look at me and say, ‘Billy, what’s that line called?’ and then he would write it down,” Koster says. Downie ultimately used six teleprompters to help him get through the concerts.
MUSIC THAT WORKED: Surprisingly, Downie says he’d clear his mind by listening to hits from pop brothers the Bee Gees, who he credited as one of his guilty pleasures. “It would be like, the Bee Gees, who are my secret. Ya know — it’s not a band that you’re supposed to (like) — but god, I love them,” Downie bashfully says before launching into a rendition of one of their songs.
DOWNIE’S KISSES: Some fans seemed befuddled by Downie’s penchant for kissing his bandmates on the lips at each concert. The singer unabashedly addresses the unusual show of affection in the doc. “It went from hugs a bunch of years ago and it’s just grown and grown and grown,” he says. “These last ones were just me not letting go. I’ve got my arms around Robbie (Baker) and I’m just kissing the ear.”
DEEP CUTS: One of the highlights of the tour was hearing the Hip dig into their catalogue to perform rarities and lesser-known songs. Many fans knew those tracks by heart but the band admits they needed a refresher. “I said, ‘There’s some records where it’s going to be a challenge to get two songs we know well,'” guitarist Paul Langlois remembers. “I think the concept really arose because of the fairly good possibility that this would be the last one.”
THE FINAL SHOW: Standing in a packed stadium, with millions of Canadians watching on television, Downie says he inexplicably lost his past inhibitions and the nervousness he usually experienced in front of cameras. “I was having none of those sensations,” he says. “But then I realized, I haven’t said anything.” Downie says that thought was what inspired his impassioned address about the plight of Indigenous people in Canada.
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