The following article written by Patricia Lockie is part of a series profiling filmmakers coming to the Salt Spring Film Festival, March 3-5, 2017.
Director, Pete McCormack, will be leading a discussion following the screening of “Spirit Unforgettable” on Gala Night (March 3). Sponsorship for attending filmmakers is provided by Stonehouse Bed & Breakfast.
Filmmaker, novelist, and musician, Pete McCormack didn’t have a choice when it came to making “Spirit Unforgettable”. The story cried out to be told. So dedicated was McCormack’s commitment to telling what he calls “such a worthy story” that he bankrolled the project, spending almost $100,000 until funding could be secured. The film tells what happens when the iconic Canadian band, Spirit of the West, learns their charismatic front man, John Mann, has early onset Alzheimers disease, diagnosed at the age of 51. “I had to go and dive in right away, funding or no funding, because of the disease. Time was of the essence”. The film premiered at Hot Docs in Toronto in 2016.
McCormack is probably best known in the world of documentary filmmaking for “Facing Ali” which was short-listed in the 2010 Academy Awards category for best full length-documentary. Then in 2011, he directed “I Am Bruce Lee”, a biographical documentary about actor and martial arts legend, Bruce Lee which drew 1.4 million viewers on Spike TV, the highest rated documentary in the station’s history. More recently, McCormack created, directed and executive produced the HBO Canada documentary television series, “Sports on Fire”.
His association with Spirit of the West dates back to the publication of his first novel, “Shelby” in 1994. McCormack heard John Mann in an interview on Much Music. In it Mann said how much he liked McCormack’s novel, calling it a Canadian “Catcher in the Rye”. “It’s not,” laughs McCormack,” but it was a nice thing to say.” McCormack called to say thanks and a friendship began. He is also connected through working with Spirit of the West drummer and manager,Vince Ditrich ,who played on one of McCormack’s albums. “Everything I love about Canada is reflected in this band. It is epically Canadian in the most positive way. The guys have great originality , exuberance and self deprecation. I love them”, McCormack says, underscoring how special the musicians and their music are to him. His film is a salute to their values as much as their artistry.
” ‘Spirit Unforgettable’ is about brotherhood.,” he says. ” There’s nothing good about Alzheimers, but John’s fight is redemptive. His diagnosis is not, as the film clearly shows, the end of life. One of the things I wanted to do was ask the question: What is it like to experience Alzheimers? I wrote out questions for John. His answers weren’t always what I expected. One of the main objectives was to capture John’s voice – not just musically – his conversation, his thoughts about his disease. He was not maudlin. His strength shines through.” McCormack suggests that Mann’s journey is a reminder that even with an Alzheimers diagnosis, there’s lots of life still to be lived. He hopes the film also shows the value of not feeling shame, of not being “too private or insular” out of embarrassment. “This is not a shameful disease but one which deserves love, support and empathy.”
The bonds between Mann and fellow band members and with his wife of more than thirty years, Jill Daum, an actor and playwright, are what drive the emotional punch of the film.
McCormack deftly, and with great sensitivity, traces the band’s journey towards what is expected to be their final gig at Massey Hall in Toronto in June, 2015. The dramatic tension builds in the uncertainty over Mann’s ability to perform. “There was a real concern that maybe he wouldn’t make it because of declining cognitive function. Then there was just a relentless drive to make it happen. There was some real doubt because there had been too many struggles in the gigs leading up to the Massey Hall concert. The band worked cohesively when John forgot his lines. The introduction of an iPad on stage with John’s lyrics and operated with a foot pedal made a big difference. Everyone wanted to find solutions.”
John’s struggle to retain a sense of self through the music which has defined him as an artist for more than three decades allows us to see a man making the most of every moment, fighting with dignity against a crippling disease. McCormack was acutely aware of the need to film without being intrusive, without making demands that would stress Mann. “Both John and Jill are expressive, brave artists, not afraid to talk about their journey, and showing extraordinary grace under pressure . John has been very gentle with his disease. He has declined since the film was finished and doesn’t communicate. There is a quietness about him now, always very gracious and he still loves the crowds.”
” I consider this film a gift to me and it’s been an honour to make it. Just to be able to spend vulnerable time with John and Jill. I wouldn’t have done anything differently. It feels right to me. It expresses the beauty of the band and of John’s gifts.
“I hate this disease, this relentless taking away of cognitive function, the stripping away of identity. Then one day, John wrote on a card “I’ll always be John, by the way.” It’s true.”