Home > Culture, Film, Music, Reviews > Film Review: The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon

Film Review: The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon

The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon (2012; Directed by Andy Keen)

In the summer of 2011, Canadian rock music legends the Tragically Hip headlined a concert for 20,000+ fans in a farmer’s field outside the small town of Bobcaygeon in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes, north of Peterborough. On one level, it was the sort of large-scale rock festival event that the venerable band has been staging for decades, often in remote rural locations (including, recently, the Arctic Circle) that burnish the salt-of-the-earth bona fides that are the foundation for the band’s resilient popularity.

On a deeper level, though, the Bobcaygeon show was representative of the Tragically Hip’s more profound connections with the Canadian public that has consumed, engaged with, and found meaning in their musical output over the past 25 years. This, at least, is what filmmaker Andy Keen’s hybrid documentary/concert film on the event sets out to explore, showing the band in performance, behind the scenes, and by speaking to the fans attending the show, the locals living near the concert site, and those in the band’s orbit.

Bobcaygeon, as any Canadian who has been in the vicinity of a radio for the past 15 years will know, gave its unusual name to one of the Hip’s most sublime and signature compositions. An acoustic-tinged single from 1998’s Phantom Power album, “Bobcaygeon” is accurately described by one fan interviewed by Keen as “a love story, but also a mystery”. Its surface-level narrative concerns a city policeman from Toronto seeing a woman in Bobcaygeon, a location and a relationship that provide him with a sense of peace and fulfillment away from the contentious tight-packed chaos of the metropolis, an isolated sanctuary where he “saw the constellations / reveal themselves one star at a time”. After a particularly charged riotous evening in Toronto (the key reference is to the Christie Pits riot of 1933, though it is mixed with snapshots from early Hip gigs in the city, too), our cop-narrator thinks of “leaving it behind” for his country utopia. This plotline is about as evident as any provided in the notoriously oblique lyrics of Gord Downie, not least because the song’s music video visualizes it in such a literal manner.

But the buried theme in “Bobcaygeon”, as in so much of the Tragically Hip’s work, is concerned with the animating dichotomy of Canadian identity construction, that of the country vs. the city, the rural vs. the urban. In 2011, as the Hip and their team conceived of and executed the Bobcaygeon show in celebration of some ephemeral, romantic notion of rural living, 81% of the Canadian population resided in urban areas. And yet so much of the traditional sovereign culture of the country – country music in Alberta, Group of Seven paintings of the Canadian Shield, beer ads, hockey culture, widely-recognized Canadian symbols like the beaver, the moose, and the Mounted Police – trade on the wilderness as the essential setting of national identity. Canada clings to its rural frontier self-conception even as its people increasing choose the community of the city.

The Tragically Hip’s music has often acknowledged and negotiated this cleavage between consciousness and reality of Canadian social construction, not merely in terms of population density but also in literature (“Courage”, invoking Hugh MacLennan, the coiner of the vaunted concept of “The Two Solitudes” to describe the gap between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians), language (“Born in the Water” is concerned with Quebec’s protectionist French language legislation), and sports (“Fifty Mission Cap”, embraced as a Leafs Nation anthem, probes the commodification of the superstitions that surround discourse over athletic competition). Furthermore, the band so often discussed as purveyors of Canadian identity have a demonstrated ambivalence to the rough jingoism of their flag-waving devotees, and Downie has often branched out into more international subject matter, setting his evocative lyrics in Vienna, the frigid North Atlantic, and the spooky forests of Russia on occasion.

But The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon strips all of that away and presents the Hip as they are and as they have long been: the pre-eminent Canadian musical heroes of the country’s centre-right, rural/suburban white hoser middle class. Keen finds and speaks to a fascinating variety of such fans in the film, and their insights into how the band’s music is received and understood and how the mystical appeal of “Bobcaygeon” is at the centre of the Hip mythos are often revealing and surprising. One couple shares the intimate details of their courtship and how the band’s music underscored their growing fondness; another couple shares a dream vacation to see the Hip in the Caribbean which included repeated encounters with band members; Bobcaygeonian locals tell of how the song has made their hometown instantly recognized across the country; a whole family of fanatical followers show off their collection of Hip-themed tattoos, including a teen girl with an eternal Downie lyrical gem from “Leave” on her ankle: “Change yourself into something you love”.

But the same insightful fan that so succinctly summarized “Bobcaygeon” and keenly diagnoses the Hip as the Canadian Rolling Stones (another group of highly-educated rock musicians who have struck a highly-successful proletarian pose) points to a telling and (for this critically-minded Hip fan) disappointing gap in the Tragically Hip’s artistic discourse. Showing off his shelves of rock n’ roll literature, he bemoans the lack of a definitive compendium on the band, or indeed the absence of much written material on them at all. There is even a literal empty space on his shelf, to be filled by a potential Hip book. The dearth of secondary texts on the Hip’s work has long been a frustrating reality. The best on offer is not a book but a website, the eloquent and intelligent A Museum After Dark maintained in spartan web environs by Stephen Dame (who also makes an appearance in the film). It’s the best source of critical analysis of Hip songs available, and even it throws its hands up at Downie’s inscrutable rock-poetry, choosing to mainly dissect his more specific references.

The Tragically Hip, however else one might choose to (over)think about them, are ultimately a highly professional, directly-focused live rock band. Especially with their ascendancy over Canadian video channels and radio stations faded along with their youth, gigs have become the main delivery method for their product, not that they ever forsook the live setting for other media. Whatever higher pretensions Downie’s lyrics may betray, he and his fellows are a working band above all, and Bobcaygeon settles into a limited concert-film groove in its second half, with full performances of “Grace, Too”, “Ahead By A Century”, “At The Hundredth Meridian” and other classics filmed at the much-discussed show.

Of course, the promised climax comes when the band plays “Bobcaygeon” in Bobcaygeon. But the actual impact is unclear; the constellations never quite reveal themselves, one star at a time. Perhaps it’s because, in this one limited reading of one specific example of the Tragically Hip’s work, Bobcaygeon itself is not essential. It could be any small town anywhere in the country, because it is not more than a symbolic representative of a romantic conception of rural Canadian life that could be filled by any other evocative place name. That the Tragically Hip chose to immortalize Bobcaygeon is neat for the town, but its greater significance is much like that of the band itself: entirely in the hands, brains, and hearts of their fans.

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Categories: Culture, Film, Music, Reviews

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