Gord Downie remembered in moving Tragically Hip rockumentary
Elevation Pictures / Banger Films / Eagle Vision

Music has lost a lot of legendary figures over the past two or three years.  Many of those greats (including Prince and Tom Petty) were taken without warning, their deaths shocking fans around the world even when the end was looming (as in David Bowie’s case). 

Who knows what plans these artists had for the future?  And who knows how they might’ve spent their final days had they any inkling of their impending curtain calls?

Which begs the question:  What should celebrated rock-and-rollers do when they’re put on notice?  Should they quit both stage and studio in favor of intimate moments at home with friends and family?  Or should they give themselves over entirely to their art, in hopes of creating their life’s best work before saying their goodbyes?

The Tragically Hip demonstrated just how beautiful it can be to go out in style in Summer 2016, when the Canadian quintet staged a farewell tour last year with—and for—terminally ill front man Gord Downie. 

Produced by those cool cats at Banger Films (Global Metal, Iron Maiden: Flight 666, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage), the moving musical documentary Long Time Running chronicles The Hip’s final outings together as a working band…and its last calendar year as a group of caring, close-knit friends who’ve spent the majority of their lives in one another’s company.

While The Tragically Hip never quite crossed over into mainstream American audiences during its thirty-year run, the ensemble was beloved in its native Ontario—whose major cities comprise half of the dozen stops on the Man Machine Poem promotional tour.  The five-piece cultivated a core following across fifteen studio (and several live) releases from 1987 to 2016, gigging until the fan-base swelled to arena-packing proportions a la Bruce Springsteen, U2 and REM.

Diagnosed with incurable brain cancer sometime in 2015 (during the making of Man Machine Poem), Downie determined to spend his penultimate months on Earth making music with his “brothers” for the same devoted fans that had allowed them to make a living doing what they loved. Long Time Running chronicles this dramatic arc, from Downie’s dire diagnosis to The Hip’s grand finale performance in its Kingston, Ontario hometown.

“How many people get to say goodbye on their own terms?” reflects Hip drummer Johnny Fay in the documentary.

“That doesn’t happen often. If you can do it the way you want to do it, there’s something cool about that.”

The fascinating film (directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas De Pencier) draws as much from candid behind-the-scenes interviews with Downie and company as it does cool concert clips and rehearsal footage, carefully balancing the work and business facets of the band with its more intimate, brethren-based personal sides.

Viewers are placed in the confidence of neurologist Dr. James Perry, who describes the “primary, infiltrative” nature of Downie’s aggressive illness, and meet Dr. Douglas “D.J.” Cook—a Hip devotee-turned-surgeon who buys Gord quality time by doing a full temporal lobectomy.

We also hear from band managers Patrick Sambrook and Bernie Breen, who ride the same emotional rollercoasters as Downie’s physicians and caretakers. We check in with fashionista Izzy Camilleri (who designs striking “metallic” leather suits for Downie to wear over his Jaws T-shirt), hat maker Karyn Gingras (who decorates Downie’s brims with feathers and quills), front-of-house soundman Mark Vreeken, and security expert Rick Wellington.

“He had a fire in him,” says Wellness Director Dr. Linday Voight of Downie’s determination.  “He was driven…and he knew what he needed to get done.”

As confident at their sick singer was, however, the guys were nervous wrecks about performing.  Downie (who’d already endured a partial lobectomy) was always exhausted, couldn’t remember his own lyrics, and could’ve dropped onstage at any time.  So a medical team joins The Hip on the road, an ambulance stands by at every show, and crew members plan for worst-case scenarios.

“The safety net was pretty thin,” notes Breen.  “So much was out of our control.  It could’ve ended at any given point in time.”

“I didn’t think there was a chance in hell we’d make it through the tour,” confesses drummer Paul Langlois.

“We didn’t want him having a seizure onstage…and having 10,000 people record it with their iPhones for YouTube,” recalls guitarist Rob Baker of the risks involved.

Still, the benefits of a goodbye tour outweigh the dangers.  More importantly, Downie needed to do it.

“Block it, book it,” orders Tour Manager Tristin Chapman.  “Here’s my credit card.”

“If going on the road meant giving [Downie] a signpost in the distance, and that helped him feel better, then awesome,” surmises bassist Gord Sinclair.

The dudes share memories of how they met and absconded to The Hip from prior bands like Rick & The Rodents and The Slinks.  Concurrently, Pat Downie speaks on his brother’s surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. “He wasn’t in any shape to form sentences…his memory was beat up,” he says.  “He was confused.”

“He couldn’t give you the name of a single song, let alone the lyrics,” adds Langlois.

But technicians provide Downie with tele-prompters to help jostle his thoughts and keep him on track during rehearsals in Toronto in May 2016.  Amazingly, the vocalist nails his verses and refrains with more lung power than ever—and only appears to strengthen as the weeks tick away.

The movie takes us on stops in Vancouver, Victoria, Hamilton, and Ottawa, where we watch Gord and the guys blast through Hip favorites like “Blow at High Dough,” “Morning Moon,” “Throwing Off Glass,” “Opiated,” “Bobcaygeon,” “Springtime in Vienna,” “Flamenco,” and “Grace, Too” before packed houses with enthusiastic fans who alternately smile, sing along…and weep.

In Kingston, Downie and The Hip are joined by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself at the Rogers K-Rock Centre for a hometown hullaballoo whose communal vibe approaches the transcendent.  Thousands flock inside for what everyone knows will be the final bow, while thousands more cram into the square outside for a big-screen simulcast.  Millions more watch on T.V. at home.

Full footage of that show will be released on the DVD / Blu-ray The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration on December 22.

Downie succumbed to his disease in October 2017, a mere two months after that last concert.  Fortunately, he was surrounded by his family and friends—and he leaves behind a terrific catalog of poetic rock albums to enjoy in perpetuity.

“It was just a dream,” Downie muses early on.  “I would’ve loved to say thank you face-to-face to everybody somehow.  It was the best I ever felt onstage, and I wanted the show to go on forever.”

One need not be a dyed-in-the wool Hipster to enjoy the music on Long Time Running or appreciate its touching story.  The heart of this film is its humble, human narrative about uncommonly common people connected by their love of music…and one another.  That kind of passion always has universal appeal.