Nobody knew Woodstock was going to be Woodstock until, you know, Woodstock. Director Andy Keen, on the other hand, had advance warning of what was to go down in a farmer’s field in Bobcaygeon, Ont., on June 25, 2011. His documentary on the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip chronicles what the movie’s press blurb describes as “one of the most anticipated events in the history of Canadian music.” Anticipated because a lauded song of place of was coming home for the very first time – back to the garden, as it were.
Bobcaygeon is a Juno-winning story-song from the Hip’s 1998 album Phantom Power. By far the breeziest tune in the band’s repertoire, it references both Toronto and the titular, bucolic community about 160 kilometres away. One year ago a local promoter had the idea to bring the band to Bobcaygeon for a festival; Bobcaygeon, the feature doc, tells the story.
Much like the Woodstock saga, there was tension involved with the notion of holding a festival for 25,000 people in a village with a population of 3,000. Keen films a meeting attended by officials and worried citizens. Later, the director (who won a Juno for the 2006 concert film Escarpment Blues) resorts to the king cliché of music-fest docs – the time-lapse photography thing, chronicling the stage’s erection. (Post-concert, we see the garbage-strewn field, naturally).
The film’s charm is its dealing with Hip fans and townsfolk, with the former testifying to their devotion of the band and the latter expressing their enthusiasm for the festival and the geographically specific song. (Oddly, more often than not, the people who are interviewed on camera spoken to with sport tattoos.)
In short, the band’s fans will need to watch Bobcaygeon, while others can miss it.
One of the film’s problems is that Gord Downie, who wrote the lyrics to Bobcaygeon, doesn’t talk about it except to say that singing the “classy song” would be a “formal occasion.” There’s some good backstage footage for Hip fans to watch, but Keen neglects to ask the band about the collective Canadian experience, involving the place where constellations revealed themselves “one star at a time.” Instead we hear about the drummer’s preference for alcohol wipes over deodorant, and we learn that the water pressure for showers at the local inn is inadequate (in the estimation of two band members).
Perhaps Downie did not wish to mythologize the song. Perhaps the village’s claim to Canadian rock fame rests only in its rhyme-ability with “constellation.”
After the concert, one of the band members asks “where are we playing next?” So much for the sense of epic occasion. Perhaps in a number of years, if the festival’s attendance grows as non-attenders tell everybody they were there the night a crowd sang “it was in Bobycageon” while actually in Bobcaygeon, maybe the event’s significance will grow as well.