Long Time Running: 6 things we learned about Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip
From Downie's pre-show rituals to his guilty pleasure, highlights from the band's new doc.
By Jesse Kinos-Goodin
The Tragically Hip documentary, Long Time Running, which follows the band on its final tour across Canada, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this week. The Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier-directed doc is both a touching and entertaining look at the band's monumental road trip, dealing with details about Gord Downie's cancer diagnosis, the band members coming to terms with what may be their last concerts and, above all, the deep brotherhood they've formed over 30-plus years. It's also very funny, with Downie providing much of the (self-deprecating) humour.
Below are six things we learned about both Downie and the band.
1. Downie has a guilty pleasure
When Downie was going through treatment for his cancer, every single weekday for six weeks, he found comfort in the music his brother Pat would play for him: tunes by Irish/Scottish folk-rockers the Waterboys and, we find out, one of Gord's guilty pleasures.
"The Bee Gees, my secret," he says before trailing off. "You know, it's not a band that you're supposed to [like], but God, I love them."
2. He had to re-learn songs for the tour
At the first rehearsal for the Man Machine Poem tour, Downie couldn't remember a single song. We see footage of Downie, uncharacteristically bearded but wearing his now trademark Jaws shirt, struggling through "Escape is at Hand for the Travelling Man." The lapse in memory, he says, brought him to tears, and as hard as it was to re-learn those songs, it was something he felt he had to do.
Downie recalls thinking, "If I don't do it, I'll be crushed." It makes that tour an even more incredible feat, especially when you consider the next point.
3. The depth of the band's setlists was unprecedented
It's well known that the Hip played songs from all of their 13 albums on the tour, which meant Downie had to actually re-learn 90 songs — twice as many as the band would normally prepare for a typical tour. In the film, band member Paul Langlois breaks down the complex system they used to arrive at the setlists for each city, which were as much as playing hits songs as they were about math.
"I said, 'There's some records where it's going to be a challenge to get two songs we know well,'" Langlois says. "I think the concept really arose because of the fairly good possibility that this would be the last one."
Obviously this added a tremendous amount of work for the entire band — Rob Baker says it's the first tour the Hip ever had to rehearse for — but particularly for Downie, who was assisted by six teleprompters.
4. Downie's outfits were like suits of armour
During the Man Machine Poem tour, Downie's wardrobe became a focal point, and for good reason. The bright, shimmery leather suits in gold, silver, purple and green were far from what audiences had become accustomed to seeing Downie wear. In fact, you could say it was the first time his wardrobe matched his stage presence. For Downie, it was as much for show as it was for strength.
As he says while we see him get suited up for the Hip's first show in Victoria — he refers to the suit, and himself, as "Elvis '74" — they acted like armour. "I felt cool up there 'cause I was usually afraid."
5. He has pre-show rituals
Downie has a performance mantra he learned early in his career and has used ever since: "Look everybody in the eye. All show," he says.
He also vigorously polishes his boots before every single show, a pre-show ritual that helps him prepare.
"It's a nightly thing. I've done this my whole career," Downie tells the camera while polishing his black boots in nothing but his underwear, one of the funnier moments with Downie in the doc.
6. Downie really loves Bobby Orr
In one of the funniest moments in the film, Downie recalls getting a phone call from one of his heroes, Bobby Orr. Downie told the hockey legend, quite simply, that he loved him. At this, Downie can't stop himself from laughing at the thought, and while he says there was a silence on the line, he can't fully recall Orr's reply. He does, however, share how he chooses to remember it: "In my mind he said, 'I love you too, Gord.'"
For what it's worth, the pair were spotted this year taking in a Boston Bruins playoff game.