Former Metro Morning host Andy Barrie finds new voice in documentary on battle with Parkinson's

For 45 years, Andy Barrie made his living on the radio. But after the former CBC Metro Morning host was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, it was only a matter of time before he had to step down from the coveted post.

Film documenting radio host's struggle with Parkinson's makes big-screen premiere at Hot Docs

'I started taking two pills a day, now I take 20 pills a day.' Former Metro Morning Host Andy Barrie talks about living with Parkinson's disease in the film Andy Barrie: The Voice, playing at this year's Hot Docs festival. (Hot Docs/YouTube)

For 45 years, Andy Barrie made his living on the radio. But after the long-time CBC Metro Morning host was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, it was only a matter of time before he had to step down from the coveted post.

"One of the reasons I had to give up this job was because I couldn't communicate to guests what my feelings were about what they were saying," Barrie says. He made the comments to his successor, current Metro Morning host Matt Galloway on Tuesday.

But now the man who made a name for himself asking the tough questions is on the opposite side of the microphone; the subject of a film making its big-screen world premiere at Hot Docs called The Voice, created by filmmaker Lana Slezic.

The film is a glimpse into Barrie's life with Parkinson's, both before and after a procedure he underwent two-and-half years ago called "deep brain stimulation" — something that works on less than 20 per cent of people with the disease, according to Slezic.

Turning the focus on himself didn't come easily, Barrie says.

"[It's] the most intimate thing I've ever done with my clothes on," he joked. "I thought there was a value to it, there's a purpose in witnessing this. I thought if I did [the surgery] and told them it was OK, they might feel better about it."

So, what is deep brain stimulation? 

The symptoms of Parkinson's are caused by a shortage of a chemical in the brain called dopamine. During the procedure, which is done without anaesthetic and takes about three or four hours, two thin electrodes are implanted into the part of the brain where dopamine is normally produced. 

Always a host

The electrodes send a tiny electrical current through the brain that stimulates the release of dopamine and suppresses the symptoms of the disease. 

"It's like a pacemaker for your brain," Barrie says.

There were times when I did break down crying watching him as I was filming him- Andy Barrie's friend and filmmaker Lana Slezic about shooting The Voice, a documentary about Barrie's struggles living with Parkinson's disease

Slezic, who played the double role of both friend and filmmaker for the movie says "the difference was amazing." Barrie's symptoms including weakness, swaying, facial paralysis, all improved.

He says he felt a change immediately following the surgery but is often preoccupied by his lingering symptoms.

"As time goes by, like any change in your life [it] recedes and you don't think of what you've got, you think of what you don't have," he says. "The disease goes on behind the scenes."

And some days some symptoms are worse than others.

"Everybody I talk to is an audience and if I don't think think I'm getting through to them for one reason or another then I can feel the effect of it," he says.

"You don't remember what you were before the surgery," his friends tell him again and again.

For Slezic, the experience of making The Voice was both professional and personal. "I wore two hats, I wore the friend ... and the filmmaker."

And in some ways, that made the filming process even harder.

"There were times when I did break down crying watching him as I was filming him. That was difficult but I had to keep rolling."

But for Barrie, who retired from the microphone in 2010, the film is a chance to connect once again with the audience he so loved as a radio host.

"I can't separate my performance from my audience. But if I'm getting through to them at all it's wonderful."

Beloved former Metro Morning host Andy Barrie, who long asked the questions in his radio interviews, is on the opposite side of the mic; the subject of a film making its big-screen world premiere at Hot Docs called The Voice.' Barrie sat down with his successor, Matt Galloway, to talk about the film.

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