As Canadians, we are a bit touchy and grieving when it comes to our music – especially bands that are staples of our nation because over the last little bit we’ve lost three bands that signify Canadiana. Last year, rockers were devastated by the announcement of Alex Lifeson and Neal Peart’s rapid arthritis causing Rush to finish touring, documented in Time Stand Still. Earlier this year, The Tragically Hip did a cross Canada farewell tour due to singer Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer, which will have its own documentary releasing soon. Last year was also full of emotional concerts for Vancouver band The Spirit Of The West, a last hurrah celebration for singer and songwriter John Mann, who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers at the young age of 51 – which leads us to our feature film.
Spirit Unforgettable runs two separate stories at the same time. One is about the band itself, formed in 1983 by Mann, Geoffrey Kelly and J. Knutson, then called the Eavesdroppers. Primarily a cover band at first, they would open for local acts like Art Bergmann and Barney Bentall until finally changing their name to The Spirit Of The West. Starting out playing for beer money, they would become a quintessential Canadian act that would sell out shows everywhere across the Great White North. The other story is where the heartbreak comes, the recounting of John’s diagnosis and the continuing loss of all that he has created from his mind. Working in tandem with each other, the story, as a whole, is both inspirational and tragic.
Documentarian Pete McCormack shoots his subjects with such love and respect, giving John Mann many reflective and soul-shattering moments with the camera. Filming his interview in a mostly darkened room with musical instruments in the background and a solitary lamp illuminating one side of his face, it’s a beautiful metaphor to the debilitating illness John is forced to struggle with. It’s visually striking and moves with the story wonderfully and then contrasts with John’s wife showing him his music that he has forgotten in their brightly naturally lit home.
The emotion of the whole film is heavy, at times funny, but always heartfelt and constantly tearful. This isn’t just pertaining to the audience, who will be reaching for the tissues over and over again, but to the interview subjects who, at times, have to walk away from the session for a moment to compose themselves. This is raw and real, the snuffing of a brilliant mind that only wanted to give the world the gift of his music. Although we have a catalog of Spirit of the West records, we are forced to face the question: “what would John Mann have created if it wasn’t for this horrible disease!” The incredible thing, after all of this, is that John Mann and his band continue to play shows. That is truly a gift to his audience, as is this film. 5/5