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Review: Long Time Running

September 14, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

I watched The Tragically Hip’s final concert in a movie theatre that was showing it live last summer.  I couldn’t be in Kingston that night but, like a third of all Canadians, I was glued to that screen for every single song.  I was thankful for the chance to say farewell to one of our country’s most beloved bands, and weep for frontman Gord Downie, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just months before heading out on the road.

Last night, I was fortunate enough to attend the world premiere at TIFF of Long Time Running, Jennifer Baichwell and Nicholas de Pencier’s phenomenal new documentary about the Hip’s final tour, and the experience of watching it with a packed house of other fans made me emotional all over again.  The audience applauded and held back tears throughout, just like we did on the night of their final concert.

When the news of Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer hit last spring, the nation collectively wept at the thought of losing one of the greatest rockers and poets our country has ever known.  But what he did next was remarkable and instantly became the stuff of legend, deciding to take the band on a month long, cross Canada tour both in support of their last album Man Machine Poem, and to give their fans a last chance to say goodbye.  What Long Time Running offers is a thrilling and deeply moving portrait of the band preparing for this farewell tour.

Near the beginning of Long Time Running, after the film opens with heartbreaking slow motion footage of the crowd responding tearfully to the title song, we see doctors from Sunnybrook talking about Gord Downie’s prognosis.  We see footage from the first rehearsals, with Gord still recovering from invasive brain surgery and intensive radiation, struggling to remember his lyrics but still determined to power through.  This just makes the actual concert footage all the more remarkable to behold.

Through candid interviews with the band members, and intimate moments with Gord Downie himself sharing stories about his family and career, we really get a sense of the importance of this tour.  The film shows us the huge undertaking that was behind it, with all of the managers, sponsors and every single person involved working together in a relatively short amount of time to pull it off.  We see the costume designer who created all of his now-iconic metallic suits, as well as the woman who made his feathered hat.  We see backstage footage of Gord getting dressed for the show, talking about the two stitched together socks that he wore as a neck warmer.

The filmmakers had just five days notice before joining up with the band to make this film, and what they have pulled off is pretty remarkable, gaining unprecedented access to the behind the scenes of the tour, and also capturing some thrilling concert footage.  The film edits together performance footage from the different cities to provide a powerful tapestry of the tour as a whole, as the camera shows us some of the thousands of fans who were there to cheer them on, many of whom are in tears and decked out in band t-shirts.  Their music just means so much to so many people.

The film reminds us just how high the stakes really were for these shows to go on, with his doctors concerned that Gord Downie wouldn’t make it through the tour or that he would suffer a seizure on stage from exhaustion.  They needed six teleprompters to help him remember the lyrics, and a physician had to come on tour with them to monitor his health.  Even though we already know that the final show went on triumphantly, Long Time Running powerfully takes us through this journey all over again, showing the moments when the outcome was in doubt but Gord kept pushing forward anyways.

There are a few images that define Canada.  The image of Terry Fox making his determined run across the country is one, and Gord Downie, wrecked from cancer but still managing to put on one hell of a show decked out in a silver suit and Jaws t-shirt, is another.  There are still some Tragically Hip songs, like “Wheat Kings” and “Fiddler’s Green,” that I can’t listen without getting choked up.  My memories of watching their final concert on that August night still makes me emotional.

What Long Time Running does so beautifully is that it captures all of these feelings, delivering an intimate and emotional time capsule of the Tragically Hip’s farewell tour that is as moving as it is exhilarating.  The film is as much a chance to mourn as it is a cause for celebration of everything Gord Downie was able to achieve, powerfully showing his remarkable courage in the face of unspeakable darkness.  It’s not only a great concert film, but also a phenomenal testament to Gord’s spirit.

After having its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last night, Long Time Running is being released in theatres across Canada today.

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