Spirit Unforgettable (Canada, 86 min.)
Director: Pete McCormack
Programme: Artscapes (World Premiere)
“You’ll have to excuse me/ I’m not at my best…” sings Spirit of the West frontman John Mann in the band’s most popular song Home for a Rest. When “Home for a Rest” plays as the final number of Pete McCormack’s exceptionally poignant doc Spirit Unforgettable, the song reverberates with collective joys and memories as the crowd at Massey Hall pipes in and joins Mann on vocals. Mann, the lead singer of the Vancouver folk band, is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s and this doc chronicles his experience facing such rapid degeneration while pursuing his passion for music until the words of his wonderful songs tragically elude him. Spirit Unforgettable is Canada’s mellow acoustic response to the surfeit of American rockumentaries last year, and this doc is a bittersweet ditty that will attract a wide audience here and, hopefully, abroad.
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Spirit Unforgettable fearlessly explores the murky waters of memory loss as Mann works with his wife Jill and band mates to extend the notes and words of Spirit of the West’s songs as they prepare for what could be his final performance. The film does for docs what Still Alice did for drama as it bravely gives an immersive account of the symptoms and struggles of a disease that eats away at a person’s memory. Mann, like the linguistics professor played by Julianne Moore, used to be noted for his excellent command of language, so his effort to recall the words of songs he created is heart-breakingly tragic. The film, however, shows how Mann’s grasp for music and innate talent, and a few handy iPads, let him hold onto his gift while other memories escape him.
The soundtrack of Spirit Unforgettable is enthralling and propulsive as the film chronicles Mann’s success with the band even while suffering a swift decline in his energetic stage presence. One doesn’t need to be a fan of Spirit of the West or have closed a night at the pub to “Home for a Rest” to be inspired to sing along or shed some tears, for this intimately accessible film showcases one of Canada’s greatest musical ensembles and offers a swan song for a talent audiences won’t soon forget. Spirit Unforgettable is easily a standout at Hot Docs this year.