There’s a moment that is indeed unforgettable in Spirit Unforgettable — the Hot Docs documentary about the final tour of the band Spirit Of The West. It’s near the end of the Celtic-rock legends’ ostensible farewell concert at Massey Hall. Fiftysomething lead singer and force-of-nature John Mann, stricken with early-onset Alzheimer’s, begins singing and then blanks on SOTW’s signature hit Home For A Rest. Virtually without pause, the audience sings the opening bars for him in powerful unison, giving an obviously-moved Mann time to collect himself, concentrate on the lyrics on his iPad and reassert his vocals as the song kicks into high gear. It seems a metaphor for a grateful audience being given a chance to give back at long last. “It’s touching, and I cry every time I see it,” says Pete McCormack, the musician/author/filmmaker behind Spirit Unforgettable. “Singing is his joy. That struggle is ongoing, and very deep in his everyday life.”
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A friend of the band since their heyday in the mid-‘90s, he’d received help from various members musically on a solo album and had drummer Vince Ditrich tour with him, “making up for my lack of rhythm.” But his first connection came out of nowhere. “John was on MuchMusic and he mentioned my first novel (Shelby: A Novel) and called it ‘the Canadian Catcher In The Rye.’ “It wasn’t anything near that kind of level. But it’s a great bonding moment when someone you don’t know — especially someone that cool — comes out and says something nice about you when you’re a young writer. I was so desperate for love,” he says with a laugh. Part of the Spirit Of The West family, he says, “I knew before the diagnosis was made public (in Sept. 2014). And there were signs of it before that.” Indeed, among the impressive archival bits is a relatively recent “home movie” type vid, shot at a living-room rehearsal, where Mann is slipping up on lyrics and cracking people up making fun of himself. But the narrative of Spirit Unforgettable — of the band playing towards a finish — was overturned somewhat by Mann’s perseverance. Spirit Of The West went on to play more dates after Massey Hall last June. Their eventual farewell date came in mid-April, with three shows at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. “I would have made the Commodore the end of the movie, but I honestly didn’t think he’d get that far,” McCormack says. Mann is still cognitive, and is scheduled to appear at the Hot Docs gala Saturday with his wife Jill to promote the movie (which is also scheduled to air on HBO Canada). In the course of the movie, we see him diagnosed on a cognitive scale out of 30 as an 18, dropping to a 17. “He’s probably around a 15 or 14 now,” McCormack says. “His memory of melody remains untouched. I can sing a song from the ‘70s and he’ll jump in. But he can’t play guitar anymore and he struggles with his iPad. And he struggles with reading. It’s a fascinating, insidious, relentless disease.” Mann’s troubles (including an earlier battle with colorectal cancer) are just part of the litany of health ills in the band, which we learn range from Ditrich’s kidney issues to Mann’s co-writer Geoffrey Kelly’s Crohn’s disease to bassist Tobin Frank’s gout. “That’s a lot of health issues for a bunch of guys in their 50s whose worst vice is beer,” McCormack says. “They’re beautiful people they’re worthy of a documentary, their music is pretty great. John and Geoff are brilliant songwriters. They could turn a phrase like nobody else and make it into a song. “And at the time, that Celtic sound was truly alternative. No one would start a band with a bouzouki, a bodhran and drums and try to be Bryan Adams. But they influenced a lot of bands, like Great Big Sea, who’d be the first to admit it.” Spirit Unforgettable screens Saturday, April 30, Monday, May 2 and Sunday, May 8. For tickets and info, visit hotdocs.ca.