'Bachman': Film Review | Hot Docs 2018

Courtesy of Hot Docs
Strictly for fans.

John Barnard's documentary profiles Canadian rock god Randy Bachman, veteran of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

The most emotionally revealing segment in John Barnard's documentary about Randy Bachman doesn't involve any of the Canadian rock god's friends, family or musical collaborators. Rather, it involves what everyone seems to agree is Bachman's closest relationship, that with his guitars. Leading us on a guided tour of a warehouse containing his collection of a seemingly endless number of the musical instruments, Bachman beams at them with pride and joy, lovingly handling them as if they were newborn babes. It's a charming sequence. Too bad, then, that Bachman, which received its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, otherwise fails to provide much insight into its subject.

A large majority of baby boomers grew up listening to Bachman's music thanks to his 1960s and '70s work in The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. He's one of the rare musicians to have No. 1 singles representing two different bands, and his many hits include "American Woman," "These Eyes," "No Time," "Undun," "Laughing," "Takin' Care of Business," "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," "Let It Ride" and "Roll On Down the Highway." The list inevitably conjures up fond memories of AM radio heard over tinny car speakers during a summer drive.

The documentary delivers a loving portrait of its subject, who is still going strong in his 70s as a solo artist (a large section of the film is devoted to the creation of his latest project, a recently released album featuring the songs of George Harrison) and currently hosts a popular music-oriented radio show on the CBC, Vinyl Tap.

The film dutifully chronicles Bachman's life in chronological fashion, beginning with his modest upbringing in Winnipeg. Discovering his love of the guitar at an early age, he hooked up with popular local singer-songwriter Chad Allan, joining his band Chad Allan and the Expressions. The group eventually morphed into The Guess Who, with Allan out and Burton Cummings, with whom Bachman formed a hugely successful songwriting partnership, in.

From the beginning, Bachman was an anomaly as a rock star, rejecting the common lifestyle of booze, drugs and sex and converting to Mormonism after he met the woman who would become his first wife. His stern sense of morality led to tensions with his fellow players, who eventually kicked him out of the band. Neil Young, interviewed in the film, expresses the indignation he still feels over the decision. "The whole thing was Randy," Young says of The Guess Who. Young also says that Bachman "was the biggest influence on me."

Bachman reunited with Allan to form Brave Belt, but the country-folk project, heavily influenced by such bands as Poco and Buffalo Springfield, proved unsuccessful and short-lived. Not long after, Bachman was persuaded to listen to a singer named Fred Turner at a local bar. Not wanting to venture inside an establishment that sold alcohol, Bachman listened to Turner's powerful rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" from an open door. Their resulting collaboration, BTO, became a global phenomenon that brought Bachman enough riches to build a mega-mansion in rural Washington. But that band, too, eventually fell apart due to faltering record sales and interpersonal tensions.

There's certainly enough juicy material in Bachman's life to fuel a documentary, but this disappointing effort never succeeds in getting below the surface. We hear from such musicians as Young, Peter Frampton and Paul Shaffer, who offer mostly bromides. Turner delivers more personal commentary, but Cummings, so important in Bachman's career, is conspicuous by his absence.

Two of Bachman's children weigh in, but very little about their father's personal life is revealed. And while Bachman himself is interviewed extensively, he doesn't open up about his marriages, his conflicts with other bandmembers, the way he dealt with massive success and then financial ruin, his health problems, the inspirations behind his songs or pretty much anything else of substance. Bachman's love of music comes through again and again; he seems physically incomplete without a guitar in his hands. But lacking the depth that would have made the film interesting to anyone other than its subject's ardent fans, Bachman mainly comes across like an unrevealing Behind the Music episode.  

Production company: Farpoint Films
Director-screenwriter: John Barnard
Producers: Gilles Paquin, Kyle Bornais, Chris Charney, Scott Leary
Director of photography: Markus Henkel
Editors: Markus Henkel, John Barnard
Venue: Hot Docs

80 minutes