Across This Land with Stompin' Tom Connors
1973, Starring Stompin' Tom Connors, Kent Brockwell, Sharon Lowness. Directed by John C.W. Saxton (Cinepix)
If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then Stompin’ Tom Connors was the all-time biggest scamp to ever take to a plywood board. A pillar of the Canadian music scene for more than 50 years, Connors released hundreds of songs across dozens of country music LP infused with a fierce patriotism, connecting with Canadians from east to west in a way that his northern contemporaries like Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Don Messer and even transplanted American Ronnie Hawkins could not. Though it may be tempting for some to dismiss Tom and his boot stompin’, city name droppin’ songbook as a novelty act, Tom was an honest-to-goodness country music shit kicker who saw every corner of this country, and his sole feature-length concert film, Across This Land with Stompin’ Tom Connors will make a true believer out of anybody.
When Connors' star really began to rise in the early 1970s, Canada's country music scene was a force to be reckoned with--a fact that did not escape the attention of our filmmakers at the very dawning of the tax shelter era. In 1971, the NFB produced a performance film, Don Messer: His Land and His Music (1971), which captured songs by the popular TV variety show star and his fellow musicians, while Country Music, Montreal ((1971), by future Montreal Main director Frank Vitale, put the spotlight on the Quebecois scene. These were followed by several NFB shorts including Cavendish Country, a 1973 vignette about hopeful Calgary-based singer-songwriter Cal Cavendish, and Every Saturday Night (1973) about the Alberta-based fiddle band Badlanders, who formed in the 1930s. Not to be left out, Connors made his film debut in 1972's This is Stompin' Tom, another short film that wove interview segments into performance footage.
In the midst of trying to break into the Anglophone market, Montreal shlock studio Cinepix must have noted Connors' short film as well as the NFB's success with Messer and his bunch, and commissioned a film to showcase Connors at perhaps the height of his musical talents. Directed by the reliably sleazy Cinepix screenwriter John C.W. Saxton (and featuring a very young University of Toronto student named David Cronenberg as an assistant production manager!), Across This Land is a production of few frills that stands as a wonderful time capsule of the quintessential Canadian performer, who passed away in early 2013.
Shot at Toronto's historic Horseshoe Tavern before a seated audience of beer-swilling country music fans and stage decor featuring a prominent wagon wheel, the film kicks things off with a rousing version of "Sudbury Saturday Night" before Connors spends the next 90 minutes telling Newfie jokes and belting out some of his biggest hits at the time, including "Bud the Spud," "Big Joe Mufferaw" and "Rubberhead," as well as parodies of Nashville standards "Green Green Grass Of Home" and "Muleskinner Blues" (all later released on the live double-LP on Connors' own Boot Records). Connors' set list is occasionally even broken up by performances by guest country musicians Kent Brockwell, Sharon Lowness, Chris Scott, Bobby Lalonde and Joey Tardif, who each do a song while Tom sits in the audience, having a beer or two with those that came to see the show.
Rather than just capturing the performance, Saxton often gives his film a little more visual interest by inserting song-appropriate cutaways. Expected stock shots of winter sports liven up "The Snowmobile Song" and "The Hockey Song", while footage of Toronto streetcars are peppered throughout Connors' "TTC Skiddadler." For "Canadian Lumberjack" and "Ben in the Pen," Saxton incorporates (probably public domain) silent film comedy footage. However, this technique works best during short films built around Connors' love songs, "Around The Bay And Back Again" and "Movin' In (From Montreal By Train)" that he actually stars in. For the first, he has a boat ferry him around Georgian Bay looking for a lost love and, for the latter, he meets a bevy of jealous Quebecois girls at a Toronto train station and gets stuck hauling their luggage.
Perhaps the most interesting parts of the show, though, are the animated "music videos" created for "The Ketchup Song" and "The Piggyback Race," a technique apparently influenced by the NFB's 1970 "Chansons contemporains" series, which created animated vignettes for songs by French-Canadian pop musicians like Claude Gauthier and Jean-Pierre Ferland. These crude, but effective segments by Toronto animation and effects leaders Trickett Productions are some of the most fun moments of the film, giving a whimsical flavour to some of Connors' most kid-friendly songs.
Connors' likable performance and undeniable talent makes Across This Land an easy film to enjoy. But more than that, Saxton's film is a poignant reminder of the way Connors' music played a central role in developing common narratives that continue to be weaved through movies produced across the country, including a name-dropping nostalgia for hometowns at a time when Canadians were leaving rural areas and heading off to seek their fortune in larger cities--a trend heartwrenchingly rendered in Canadian films released at the time like Goin' Down the Road and The Hard Part Begins.
Although the real power of Connors' music may have been lost in recent years, as he shifted from certified guitar plucker into a role as an unofficial ambassador and national icon, Across This Land will always serve as a fine tribute to that itinerant hitchhiker from Skinners Pond, Prince Edward Island who taught us all a little bit about what patriotism really means.