Lowdown Tracks, the latest documentary from Shelley Saywell, examines the lives of Toronto’s homeless musicians. This film takes a compassionate look at those enduring hard times and are using music to earn a living. It shows a different side of the great Canadian city. Beyond the shimmering glass skyscrapers and picturesque residential neighbourhoods, is a group of people that live and perform their songs in the ravines and railway tracks.
Instead of focusing on the systemic inequalities that exist within the country, Saywell is most concerned with breaking down the stereotypes of the homeless. She approaches the subjects in her film with care and seeks to give them a voice.
“Instead of building up-up-up to the sky, we’ve got to look down. We’ve go to help the people on the curb. We’ve got to do more than we’re doing,” says Saywell. “I really think it’s de-stigmatizing first. You know this person might make me feel uncomfortable and [you] don’t know what to say to them and they might make [you] feel guilty and all of that, but there’s a reason they’re there and they deserve help. What you find when you dig deeper [is that] there’s talent, there’s potential, even brilliance in some cases.”
Saywell’s tender approach to filmmaking allows her to access the lives of a half-dozen of Toronto’s transient musicians. In an interview last week, she noted that she spent a ton of time off camera with the characters of the film in order to get to know them and earn their trust. This technique pays off during the course of Lowdown Tracks’ runtime, as many of her subjects open up in deeply personal ways.
A number of vibrant personalities are chronicled throughout the film. Each one of them helps depict life on the street. First, there’s Katt Budd, the hobo-punk singer-songwriter known for putting on concerts under a bridge. Then, there’s the poetic and reflective Anthony Van Zandt. Next, the traveling band of boxcar musicians – The Railyard Ghosts. And finally, Bruce, Marryanne, and Woody – an early victim of electroshock therapy.
What’s clear in the film is that each and every person featured within it has been hurt in some way or another, and that the people closest to them failed them when they needed them the most. Saywell spends a sizeable chunk of the film exploring these pains.
“I remember Maryanne saying to me that everyone who’s homeless has been hurt so badly that they can’t live in a house with other people,” says Saywell. “I remember that night just thinking about that, thinking about the PTSD on the street and just the layers and layers of trauma… It’s everything from child abuse to foster homes to domestic violence to you name it.”
Lowdown Tracks unites its characters and audience through music. The characters exhibit a calm and ease when they are filmed performing. Lorraine Segato of the former Canadian band, Parachute Club, narrates the film. She even invites the musicians into the recording studio to produce original music with her and a professional band.
Since the film first screened at Hot Docs in the Spring of 2015, Saywell has found herself personally involved in the fight to end homelessness. Earlier in the month, she spent two days at The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) conference in Montreal. There, she screened the film at Docs and TIFF ’15, where several of the performers took the stage during the audience Q&As. Bruce, Woody, and Anthony even accompanied Saywell to the conference.
To tackle an issue as rampant as homelessness, Lowdown Tracks builds bridges rather than burn them. One of the words that Saywell repeats in the interview for this article is, ‘sustainability.’ She isn’t fighting for a quick solution for the homeless, she wants long term answers. One night at a homeless shelter and delivered food doesn’t cut it.
After spending so much time working hard to build long lasting connections across Toronto and Canada to win the fight against homelessness, she is ready to tell the story to make this happen in reality.
Lowdown Tracks aired on TVO in Canada on Saturday, November 14 at 9 pm. It can also be streamed live via tvo.org now.
The film will also be rebroadcast on TVO during these dates and times:
Wednesday November 18 at 1 am
Thursday November 19 at 9 pm
Sunday November 22 at 12 am.
Check out the trailer: