Interview: Pete McCormack on Spirit Unforgettable
The Spirit of the West frontman was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2014, spurring his good friend, fellow musician and film director Pete McCormack to follow him with a camera in a bid to document the one-way trip
Airs on HBO Canada, July 1
7:30 pm PT, 8:30 pm ET
By Katherine Monk
John Mann was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2014. By 2024, doctors say he will be staring silently at the ceiling. It’s a cruel fate for the Spirit of the West frontman known for his kinetic stage presence and soaring, soulful vocals, but as a new documentary proves, there is life after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Spirit Unforgettable shows us Mann as he is right now, negotiating the daily challenges of a brain disorder, but it also examines how the disease sends a ripple through every one of the patient’s human relationships — only to make them stronger.
“It was an inspiring film to make,” says director Pete McCormack of his latest doc that airs tonight (Canada Day) on HBO Canada.
“You realize that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not the end of your life because you see John carry on, as best he can, with what he has before him. And that’s the challenge before every one of us. We may all have our own frustrations and self-esteem issues, but you have to carry on with what’s before you. Watching John do that, and to see the band rally behind him, brings a sense of redemption to it – but played out against the backdrop of an incurable disease.”
McCormack says he wasn’t surprised when he heard about Mann’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis over a year ago. He’d been friends with Mann for more than two decades, and he’d watched the actor-singer-artist’s memory and brain function slowly deteriorate.
You realize that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not the end of your life because you see John carry on, as best he can, with what he has before him. And that’s the challenge before every one of us…
“Of course I was devastated when I found out, but there were little signs along the way that something was up. It was distressing for him quite far back. But you can see him running around East Van all the time. He’s in great shape. But it’s almost like he’s got an older constitution than his age, because he had colorectal cancer five years earlier.”
McCormack’s father is a doctor and his brother is in the medical profession, but he’s the ‘creative one’ – having directed the Academy-Award shortlisted documentary Facing Ali, as well as the wee Canadian indie See Grace Fly.
Speaking from the family cottage on Keats Island where he’s spending Canada Day with his wife and two children, Juno and Booker (who he says were named after “prizes I will never win”), McCormack says he first met Mann after the publication of his novel, Shelby.
“John was on a MuchMusic panel and he said he read a book by Pete McCormack called Shelby that was the Canadian Catcher in the Rye… It certainly wasn’t. It’s about a boy who chronically masturbates, a complete fiction, by the way… But after that, I had to love John.”
McCormack, also a musician, would often play with Spirit members, so when they approached him to make a movie about what’s happening, he felt morally compelled to begin as soon as possible.
“With a disease like John’s we didn’t have time to wait for funding. I just dove in, and I’m glad I did because the most important thing for me to capture was John’s voice, which is what we’re really beginning to lose.”
Shot over the course of a year and culminating in the farewell show at Toronto’s Massey Hall, Unforgettable Spirit illustrates the descent in executive function, where patients suddenly can’t process simple things, such as drawing the face of a clock.
“We shot the Massey Hall show with nine cameras, and I was sitting in the booth. I know I cried a few times –like the moment John hits the high note in Canadian Skye. You could see him concentrate so hard on trying to make this a great show. And at the end, he’s just exhausted – staring into the iPad, and holding on to the mike,” he says.
“It’s hard to watch because he was such a charismatic performer.”
Ask McCormack about the tragic parallels with another iconic Canadian frontman, and the recent diagnosis of Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer, and he’s just as befuddled as anyone.
Then he reminds us how lucky we are to have had them in our lives at all.
“The wonderful thing about Spirit is they are iconically Canadian in the way that I want to think Canada is: They are super-talented, and at the same time full of humility. They are generous of spirit and approachable. They are good people and at the same time, they are making beautiful art. And to me, that is the essence of being Canadian,” he says.
“Put that together with the Gord Downie diagnosis and it’s pretty heavy. It doesn’t make sense.”
McCormack talks about a chunk of dialogue he cut out of the film. It featured talent manager Bruce Allen (Bryan Adams, Michael Buble, Loverboy) talking about ‘80s alternative bands.
“He said those bands called themselves alternative because they couldn’t make it in the mainstream. But if you think Spirit of the West was trying to be Loverboy, you missed the boat. They did what they wanted to do. They went THEIR way, and no one else’s.”
Like The Tragically Hip, and like 54-40, and like so many other big Canadian bands that just fail to break south of the border, Spirit of the West never charted a single on Billboard. But they still hit three gold records and two platinum here at home.
“But they didn’t give some moody rock and roll response. It was more like who gives a fuck?”
Also featuring interviews with manager Janet Forsyth, Sam Feldman and producer and former Payola Paul Hyde, Spirit Unforgettable does a beautiful job broadening the world of entertainment to make it more about people than numbers of units sold.
“When John talks about the white walls that feel like nothingness, you get some insight into what it’s like in the head of someone with Alzheimer’s,” says McCormack.
“It tells you just how fleeting identity is. And how fragile the brain is. It’s all very temporal. And you want to do something beautiful all the time, or at least I do. This movie really made me think about that, and the ticking of time. How do you live in a way that is fulfilling when the inevitable is looming?”
Instead of telling us, McCormack actually shows us by filming his central subject approach every challenge with a smile. The result is an experience that isn’t just moving, it’s undeniably grounding.
“So much of it isn’t in our hands. You know, so many of Spirit’s songs are gorgeous but the fact is the whole world probably will never hear them. So you do your thing as best you can,” he says.
“This is not a flashy movie. It’s not meant to be anything but itself, which makes it pretty Canadian.”
THE EX-PRESS, July 1, 2016