Once upon a time in a Canada that no longer exists, Al Purdy was a famous man. You heard him on the radio and you saw him on TV. And even if you didn't read his poetry, you couldn't miss him: He dressed like a used car salesman and had a voice like a grumpy bear, and he spoke his mind, propriety be damned. Time was, he was somebody.
When Brian D. Johnson sat down to scan the voluminous archival footage of Purdy's TV appearances, he was transfixed. Johnson, fresh from his retirement after 28 years of writing about movies for Maclean's, had offered to cut a montage of the mediated Purdy for a benefit show trying to raise funds for a literary project called the Al Purdy A-Frame Campaign. The goal was to raise money to restore Purdy's beloved self-built Ontario home and open it to writing residents. Johnson's wife, the journalist and broadcaster (and Al Purdy Was Here co-writer) Marni Jackson, was a long-standing Purdy fan and one of the event's organizers, and Johnson's offer to cut a clip reel was taken up.
Montage cutting was something of a hobby for Johnson; reading poetry was not.
"I was totally unaware of Purdy, really," Johnson, whose feature documentary Al Purdy Was Here premieres at TIFF on Tuesday, says. "I mean, I knew who he was, but had I read him? Not really. I discovered him through footage."
That was early in 2013. Although unapparent to the writer at the time, a two-year research and production process was about to begin, culminating in a movie that is at once a celebration of a commanding Canadian voice, a reassertion of a neglected body of work, an evocation of a lost Canada and an alarm sounded in the name of something nobody talks much about any more: Canadian cultural sovereignty. But it started with that guy on TV.
"My first real introduction to Purdy was that archival footage," Johnson explains. "I just thought, 'Wow. This guy's really compelling.' You spend a lot of time when you cut a montage like that and I never got sick of him. I just wanted more and more of him."
After volunteering to shoot the A-Frame Campaign benefit show, Johnson got the idea that something should be done that expanded on the inescapable fact Purdy lived as much through the musicians he inspired – Gord Downie, the Skydiggers, Sarah Harmer – as the poets.
Al Purdy Was Here is as much about the poet's function as musical muse as poetic genius. As we watch the A-Frame being rebuilt and Al resurrected on TV, we listen to how his words sift through the creative processes of musicians such as Harmer, Bruce Cockburn and Doug Paisley, who all composed songs for the film inspired by the verse.
"I don't think I would have made the film without that component," Johnson says. "I was excited by getting away from the usual sort of musical adaptations where somebody would play some music and there would be spoken word over the music, which is basically just an extrapolation of what used to happen when there was a guy playing bongos and somebody reciting poetry in a coffeehouse back in the fifties. I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to shoot people recording music live. You don't really see that any more."
But the music also served another function crucial to Johnson's purpose: to make Al Purdy live in the present.
"I didn't want to make an archival documentary," he says. "I wanted to make a contemporary film about artists, especially young artists, who are bound up in this dead, white poet. The A-Frame itself is a great symbol for constructing art, so I thought that the A story would be the A-Frame and the B story would be the story of Al Purdy, but you don't make the documentary that you set out to make. He gradually kind of took over the film. Just because lot of people knew who he was, that didn't mean people really knew him, and they really wanted to know more about him. Give us more Al. So it's kind of amazing that 15 years after the death of this guy he can be rediscovered and it seems fresh and new."
Indeed, it's possible, Johnson suggests, Purdy might speak more powerfully now than ever.
"This is a film about Al Purdy," he says, "but the larger context is a time when Canadian culture was really inventing itself and horizons were unlimited. Whereas now they are being fenced in left, right and centre. Our cultural infrastructure is being cut back and eroded. In the space of 15 years since his death, a lot's happened. Those who remember that era and remember him will feel some nostalgia for that time, but I think young people feel a weird nostalgia for a time that they never knew and they'd like to kind of see it come back."
Al Purdy Was Here screens at TIFF on Sept. 15, 7 p.m., Bell Lightbox; and Sept. 17, 4:45 p.m., Isabel Bader Theatre.
Film's musical counterpart a tougher sell
"There are hurdles," Jason Collett says. "Basic economic hurdles for the arts in this country to get over."
Collett, an indie singer-songwriter and arts convener, is working on The Al Purdy Songbook, a musical companion to Al Purdy Was Here, Bryan D. Johnson's documentary on the towering Canadian poet. The film is showing at TIFF, but the album (set to feature new songs and spoken word performances inspired by Purdy's life and prose) is incomplete and short of scratch, despite participation from such figures as Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, Gord Downie, Sarah Harmer and others. "With such pedigree involved, you'd think it'd be an easy sell," Collett says. "But it isn't."
Some of the songs and performances are part of the film. The album would require roughly $20,000 to make.
It was Collett's hope that The Al Purdy Songbook would be done by now, in time for the current federal election. "I think it would be a great antidote to the narrative our current administration has rammed down our throat for 11 years now," he told The Globe. "It's a reminder of a Canadian voice that Purdy was instrumental in discovering – an old-school Canada that I think is a really important voice to remind everybody about, when considering who to vote for."
According to 1968's At The Quinte Hotel, Purdy thought a poem "oughta be worth some beer." In 2015, how much money for a song?