February 25, 2019  (Web Review)

The Al Purdy Songbook

(2018) 90 min. Blu-ray/DVD Combo: $21.99 (audio CD included). Borealis Records (avail from www.amazon.com).

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Watching novelist Margaret Atwood playing pool in a bar is just one of the pleasant surprises in the Canadian documentary Al Purdy Was Here by former film critic Brian D. Johnson, which is presented here along with the CD The Al Purdy Songbook. Featuring both the DVD and Blu-ray versions, Al Purdy Was Here serves up a fascinating, complex, and idiosyncratic portrait of a celebrated poet who outwardly seemed to be anything but a writer, yet whose home served as a gathering place for writers during a golden age. With his braying voice and large and awkward yet naturally dominating presence, Purdy (who died in 2000) dismissed questions about how he became a poet—he just did it, without a map. Much of the film involves the restoration of an A-frame lakeside house that Purdy and his widow built but never quite completed. It is now a retreat for writers, extending his legacy, which also includes many volumes of poems and a large archive of TV appearances on talk shows. On TV, Purdy looks unpolished but also unfazed by scrutiny, and doesn’t dispute allegations of being difficult and unreliable in his personal life. Several Canadian artists reflect on and/or perform tributes to Purdy, including longtime friend Atwood, the late Gord Downie (of the Tragically Hip), Tanya Tagaq, Bruce Cockburn, and the voices of Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje. A slightly eccentric profile of a singular artist, this is recommended. Aud: C, P. (T. Keogh)