The role of the street performer within an urban landscape is often undervalued. Performing in subway stations and on street corners, these unknown musicians are frequently viewed as vagabonds too lazy to “get a real job.” Sleeping under park benches and bridges, with only the clothes on their back and their instruments to their name, they are often forgotten individuals in society. Shelley Saywell’s documentary, Lowdown Tracks, aims to change this. Saywell strives to put a face and soul to these oral storytellers whose melodic tunes often provide the soundtrack to daily life.
The film focuses on the efforts made by The Parachute Club’s Lorraine Segato to highlight the talents of the transient, or “home free” as one woman declares, providers of urban folk music. Instead of holding a fundraising benefit to aid the homeless in the city, Segato came up with the idea to provide an opportunity for these artists to get into a studio and record their own music. Following Segato’s encounters with five of Toronto’s transient buskers, Saywell uncovers harrowing tales of struggle, abuse and survival.
Katt Budd, a mother of two, shares the pain of both having to send her kids to live with their father – who has a job and a better family support system – and rampant sexual assaults that come with life on the streets. One man, Wendell “Woody” Cormier, divulges his long battle with depression, addiction and mental illness. Another individual, Bruce Bathgate, shares a shocking tale of abuse in the foster care system which makes his life on the streets seem like a walk in the park in comparison. In one of the film’s subtly heart-wrenching moments, Maryanne happens to stumble upon the Toronto Homeless Memorial outside Trinity Church. It takes a few moments to register what she is observing, but slowly it sinks in that the lengthy list of names are of those who have died due to homelessness. Brought to tears, Maryanne’s words “we are better than this”, in reference to Toronto not being a third world country, applies to all the lives highlighted in Saywell’s film.
If there is one area where the film could have provided even more insight it is the communal nature that music fosters. The recording sessions with Segato’s band of professional musicians, and one wonderful scene where Katt has a jam session with other transient individuals under a bridge, are saved until the end of the film. While it is understandable that Saywell keeps the focus on the individual plights of the musicians, a few more musical segments interspersed throughout would have offered a nice balance. Regardless, similar to the modern day folk singer in the film, Lowdown Tracks finds plenty of strength and hope through the universal power of music.
Saturday, April 25, 8:30 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Monday, April 27, 6:30 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Saturday, May 2, 6:30 PM, Scotiabank Theatre
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.