A documentary by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. Rated PG
Has any band ever been more Canadian than the Tragically Hip? Its three-decade life cycle, with virtually no changes in personnel or basic approach, already makes the Hip unique in rock history. The fact that their hard-earned success as a live act never really broke their records outside the country has somehow contributed to what you might call outsized hometown pride. The reality that they pulled off their biggest tour ever in mid-2016—after leader Gord Downie was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer—says something deep about them, and about the Canadian character.
In this 95-minute souvenir, veteran docmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier follow the cross-country tour from Victoria to hometown Kingston, with stops in the other towns that live-streamed the widely seen final show. They also talk to doctors, tech specialists, and band members—especially hirsute guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker—about the trepidations and satisfactions of the final journey.
There are no archival nods to the band’s history, and no family members conveying personal anecdotes, so everything stays pretty much in the present and very recent tense. The structure, alternating well-recorded concert footage with talking heads, can’t help but resemble the reality-TV approach. Still, they are engaging guys, and the fashion-forward Downie is, as ever, a candid interview subject. In a rare moment recalling the band’s beginnings, he says, “It was terrifying to get on-stage. It always was, and it never stopped.”
Of course, facing fear is what drives this event, and the movie, forward. And for viewers, this provides both inspiration and a certain predictability. Given the similarity of setups and locations (stadiums, dressing rooms, stages), there’s not much tonal variety. A little tighter editing would help. On the other hand, superfans will naturally want as much of Gord and the boys as they can get. “I wanted the show to go on forever,” says Rob Baker of that last concert. In a way, it will.