After announcing in May of last year that frontman Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the Tragically Hip did the unexpected by mapping out a summer tour across Canada in support of their 13th studio LP Man Machine Poem, which arrived that June.
Downie's health was a question amongst both the public and his own bandmates, but as drummer Johnny Fay notes in Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier's Long Time Running: "Don't tell Gord he can't do something." As his brother, bandmates and medical team tell it in the film, Downie was already inquiring about hitting the road when he was still in hospital following a temporal lobectomy, barely able to form sentences.
Downie himself says that he "couldn't remember a damn thing" in taking the first steps towards getting back onstage, adding that he was in tears after being unable to name songs or records he had a hand in creating. Emotional rehearsal footage shows the band in a small practice space playing "Escape is at Hand for the Travellin' Man" while a bearded Downie shuffles the floor, poring over his lyric sheet before singing his melodious lead. Guitarist Paul Langlois admits it came as a shock to the band, which hadn't rehearsed for a tour once in their 30-year history.
Though we know now that Downie and the band made it through the tour successfully, Long Time Running provides a valuable look at the time and emotion that went into making it that way. Langlois speaks at length on the challenges of putting together setlists that drew on every album from the band's catalogue, while Downie reveals that six separate teleprompters were on stage to jog his memory in the event of any forgetfulness. Izzy Camilleri, the designer of Downie's dazzling tour suits, notes that he picked metallic fabrics "to take everyone's mind off things," while hat-maker Karyn Ruiz displays her detailed trimming for Downie's headgear made of feathers, wheat and porcupine quills.
In juxtaposing the volume of media attention that Downie received on the tour, Baichwal and de Pencier take time to trace the band's origins to their days in Kingston, Ontario. Guitarist Rob Baker and bassist Gord Sinclair recall first noticing Downie's vocal prowess as the frontman of a different band, soon plotting to pry him away to form the Hip. Downie tells of smashing up some family dinnerware after his mother expressed that some of his lyrics weren't appropriate to sing, while drummer Fay remembers playing a show with the band at Toronto's storied Horseshoe Tavern only hours after finishing his final high school exam.
Those roots were on full display when the band wrapped the "Man Machine Poem Tour" in Kingston on August 20, 2016, a place guitarist Baker concedes is "always a tough one to play" while posing the question: "How do you talk about [the August 20 show] without breaking down?"
The portion of the film dedicated to the final tour stop features footage from both inside the arena and from viewing parties tuned in to the national broadcast across the provinces and territories, not to mention a wealth of fan testimony. Downie's onstage call to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to repair Canada's relationship with its First Nations peoples feels glossed over for what was an important moment on the trek, though Downie recalls in an interview that in all the arena noise, he "needed to remember those two words: First. Nations."
The "Man Machine Poem Tour" was not your average trek, and the Tragically Hip have shown themselves to be more than your average rock band, becoming more of a cultural force within their own nation than many bands ever could. With Long Time Running, Baichwal and de Pencier dig into band's past and present with feeling and honesty, making the film necessary viewing for people at any level of Hip fandom.