Review – Spirit Unforgettable

spirit unforgettablePete McCormack
Spirit Unforgettable
(Bell Media)
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Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut July 5, 2016

Part medical study, part band documentary, part character profile, this latest film from Pete McCormack (Facing Ali, Uganda Rising) is the powerful story of John Mann’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s, which he went public with at age 51 in 2014.

In June of 2015, Mann’s beloved Vancouver band, celtic folk rockers Spirit of the West, was set to play Toronto’s Massey Hall for a farewell gig. With the assistance of a bandmate operated iPad teleprompter, his lyrics are delivered to him, as the Alzheimer’s has taken hold of Mann and is quickly progressing. This is the story of the build up to that moment.

Interviews with bandmates, friends, family, doctors and fellow musicians (including Odds’ Craig Northey and Payolas’ Paul Hyde) are intercut with performance footage and a year-by-year account of the band’s history, going back to its roots as a trio in 1983. Along the way we learn the stories behind the songs, including the band’s signature tune, “Home For A Rest.” It’s a pretty unique story – that of a theatrical celtic act breaking through to the mainstream – and it holds its own weight alongside Mann’s struggle. What isn’t unique is that the band never made a dime from royalties – a struggle many CanRock bands have endured without a massive hit single.

The real standout moments include Mann’s wife playing a recording of a new song he just wrote – watching him recognize it and begin to play along – as well as guitar tech turned Spirit of the West guitarist Matthew Harder telling the side stage tale of how John Mann would ask him for lyrics, only to eventually throw the guitar at him, resulting in him joining the band on stage. What might be the most interesting though, is the question of what exactly Alzheimer’s feels like – and when John Mann tries to answer, it’s pretty unforgettable.

It’s a solid and emotional flick (in the first half hour at least three interview subjects break into tears) and a crucial document of one of Canada’s hardest working bands.