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 of 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.

Filmmaker Brian D. Johnson (semi-retired film critic for Macleans) delivers a finely crafted look back on a Canadian literary figure that has sadly slipped a bit in notoriety. Al Purdy Was Here blends talking head-style interviews with performances from those indebted to Purdy’s legacy. It’s a creative approach that attempts to break down the mythology of Purdy as a human being while simultaneously breathing new life into his work. Those who knew Purdy best and his contemporary admirers are represented equally here, and the results are a nice blend of artistic, analytical and anecdotal.

Johnson crafts an atypical biopic that looks as much at the artist as those around him. Purdy was a complex and “sensitive” man, someone who coveted a creation of his own image as much as he tried to act like an everyman. Johnson gets to the heart of that false modesty wonderfully, despite having a lot of different directions the story needs to go in. Purdy famously wrote an autobiography, but Johnson is quick to point out that a great deal of what Purdy wrote about himself wasn’t the truth.

An intimate and sometimes too-close-to-the-bone sit-down with Purdy’s 90-year-old widow, Eurithe, provides the backbone and much of the historical context. She isn’t the easiest and most open of subjects in the film, but she’s the person tasked with keeping Al’s legacy for as long as she can hold out. She won’t tell the whole truth about Al, so Johnson uses his time with her to branch off to talk about different stories, particularly ones regarding his beloved home.

The A-frame was a meeting place for various writers of his day (including Margaret Atwood, who contributes a great story about how cheeky Purdy could be), and today it lives on as a retreat for budding writers. The film lucks into a nice sense of contrast when the first person selected to use the A-frame for writing purposes since a large scale renovation turns out to be a feminist author who has very little in common with the previous owner of the property.

At times there’s a bit too much going on, but it’s admirably in service of Johnson not strictly wanting to create a hagiography. It could use some tweaks, but certainly not in the musical performance department. These reimaginings of Purdy’s works could sustain a concert film on their own, but provide some nuanced social and cultural context with their inclusion here. 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.