'Lowdown Tracks': Hot Docs Review

Courtesy of In Sync Media
A fitfully stirring social-justice doc that doesn't quite know what it wants to be

Shelley Saywell's documentary about homeless and drifting musicians in Canada is narrated by activist Lorraine Segato

Walking down the street or strolling through the park, most of us have encountered pop-up musical performances by those who’ve fallen on hard times, possibly listening for a moment before continuing with our day. In the Toronto-based documentary Lowdown Tracks, director Shelley Saywell refuses to keep walking. Instead, she fixes her camera and listens, giving these musicians a platform to tell their stories and share their songs. 

The music often speaks for itself. Melodies about loss, addiction and abuse are haunting reminders that homelessness is a complex situation with multiple roots and causes. That these performances take place in various urban spaces makes them even more resonant. Still, instead of taking a verité approach to the material and letting these notes drift into the air unfiltered, Saywell allows musician and social activist Lorraine Segato to act as both narrator and interviewer, a decision that ultimately compromises the film’s emotional veracity.

Whether it’s listening to Wendell “Woody” Cormier speak about experiencing electroshock therapy or Maryanne Epp weep in front of a memorial for deceased homeless people, Saywell seems genuinely interested in the stories themselves. She films five very different subjects ranging in age and life experience, weaving together their confessions and musical talents in order to demystify the perceived helplessness of their situation.

During these segments Segato consistently calls attention to her own important role as an archivist of street music, more specifically a project that she is spearheading to record songs by street musicians. One would think the two interests are inextricably linked, but in Lowdown Tracks the push-pull between these objectives creates a shaggy and inconsistent pace, not to mention a muddled narrative arc. Is this film about homelessness or curation? It never really makes up its mind.

“It was music that brought us together,” says Segato during the film’s opening scene where she locates a banjo-wielding drifter named Bruce Bathgate. Immediately, her relationship with the subject becomes manipulated by a sense of fate that rings false. It’s this type of heightened, flowery voice-over that distracts the film from genuinely embracing the obvious humanitarian issues being described onscreen.

Whenever performers like the curly-haired guitar player Anthony Van Zant and angel-voiced Katt Budd are allowed the freedom to express themselves both musically and verbally, Lowdown Tracks flourishes as a social-justice film. The life experience each has gained over the years poignantly destroys stereotypes perpetually associated with homelessness. “It doesn’t take much for you to lose yourself out there on the streets,” says Woody. Music has enabled him and the other subjects to combat this natural erosion of self.

Lowdown Tracks embraces Segato’s faux-humanitarianism in the final moments by documenting her musical recording sessions with each subject, brought in one by one like lost puppies finally being given a home. Again, this feels like more of a spotlight on Segato’s efforts than anything. Many tears are wept, smiles momentarily beam, but once their voices are captured digitally Woody, Katt, Maryanne, Bruce and Anthony are ushered out the door. What’s next for them is anyone’s guess. 

Production companies: Bishari Films

Starring: Bruce Bathgate, Lorraine Segato, Maryanne Epp, Anthony Van Zant, Katt Budd, Wendell “Woody” Cormier

Director: Shelley Saywell

Screenwriter: Shelley Saywell

Producers: Shelley Saywell, Deborah Parks

Cinematographers: Michael Grippo, John Tran, and Deborah Parks

Editors: Deborah Palloway 


Rating NR, 86 minutes