Before his death in 2000, Al Purdy was the most widely recognized full-time poet in English-speaking Canada. Noted often for his working class roots and hard-living lifestyle (most which was just a front to sell more books), Purdy was a uniquely Canadian literary figure, producing his most notable output from his A-frame cabin, located on the waterfront in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, across 43 years. His influence and memory live on via countless Canadian writers, artists and musicians, with documentary Al Purdy Was Here telling the story of Purdy’s contributions from those who knew him best and his contemporary admirers.
Filmmaker Brian D. Johnson delivers a finely crafted look back on a Canadian literary figure that has sadly slipped a bit in notoriety. Blending talking head-style interviews with performances from those indebted to Purdy’s legacy, Johnson crafts an atypical biopic that looks as much at the artist as those around him. An intimate and sometimes too-close-to-the-bone sitdown with Purdy’s 90-year-old widow, Eurithe, provides the backbone and much of the historical context, but Johnson is more interested in the actual work, anecdotal recollections and the net of influence cast by the writer.
There are a few too many cute anecdotes, and the film could use some trims and tweaks for pacing, but certainly not in the musical performance department. A late film “reading” of one of Purdy’s best works from novelist Joseph Boyden and singer Tanya Tagaq is worth the price of admission alone.