Brian D. Johnson is a Canadian writer, filmmaker and cultural commentator. His is best known from his three decades as the longtime film critic and senior arts writer at Maclean’s magazine, where he remains a Contributing Editor. He is also past president of the Toronto Film Critics Association (2006-2017), and created the annual TFCA Awards Gala, with its $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award. He has worked professionally over the years as a journalist, author, musician—and, most recently, a filmmaker. In 2015 he produced and directed Al Purdy Was Here, a documentary feature about the legendary Canadian poet, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where was runner-up for the TIFF Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award. The film played theatrically in some 70 towns and cities, aired on the CBC Documentary channel, and is now available on iTunes Canada.
Born in England in 1949, and raised in Toronto, Brian D. Johnson majored in English at the University of Toronto, where he received a B.A., then took a year off to serve as Editor of The Varsity, the campus newspaper. In 1971 he spent a summer writing for the Toronto Telegram, just before the newspaper’s demise, then was hired as a staff reporter at The Gazette in Montreal (l971-74). He later became a freelance broadcaster and producer with CBC Radio (1975-76).
Returning to Toronto in 1976, Johnson wrote a weekly column for The Globe and Mail called “Hanging Out” (under the byline B. Derek Johnson, to avoid confusion with a namesake at the Globe). He then left journalism for several years to devote his career to music. As a percussionist with various rock and reggae bands, notably Limbo Springs and the Nukes, he spent several years recording and touring in Canada and the United States. In 1980 he composed and recorded soundtracks for two feature-length documentary films, Strip Tease and The Dream Never Dies. Highlights of his performing career included a Toronto concert at the Horseshoe Tavern, in which he served as percussionist in a reggae band backing the I-Threes, Bob Marley’s female harmony trio. (He continues to rehearse and perform with a Toronto rock band, Baltic Avenue.)
Since resuming his journalism career in 1982, Johnson wrote features for magazines including Saturday Night, Toronto Life, Chatelaine and Rolling Stone. He has won three National Magazine Awards—for politics, travel and arts & entertainment. Employed as a Senior Writer with Maclean’s from 1985-2005, he served as the magazine’s film critic did wide-ranging arts reportage, writing major profiles of celebrities including Leonard Cohen, Mick Jagger, Madonnna, Michael J. Fox, Donald Sutherland, Jack Nicholson, Jodie Foster and Justin Bieber, to name a few . He is also a frequent guest on radio and television. He co-hosted CBC Newsworld’s On the Arts for three seasons.
Johnson’s book of poetry, Marzipan Lies (1974), was the first work published by the Porcupine’s Quill. He is also the author of three non-fiction books: Railway Country: Across Canada by Train (1985), The XV Olympic Winter Games:The Official Commemorative Book (1988) and an independent history of the Toronto International Film Festival titled Brave Films, Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever (2000). In 1994, he published a novel, Volcano Days.
Johnson has been shooting and editing amateur video since 2003. In 2006 the Toronto International Film Festival premiered his first professional film, a seven-minute short titled Tell Me Everything, which was made with the assistance of Bravo!FACT. It’s a poetic montage of hands at work, featuring a dance sequences by Andrea Nann and a score by John Gzowski, with original music contributed by Leonard Cohen and Anjani Thomas. In 2007, Johnson also made his screen acting debut, opposite Bruce McDonald, in a Bravo!FACT short titled Debut, directed by Mark Adam. In 2010, Johnson produced and directed his second Bravo!FACT short, Yesno, which stars conjurer David Ben in a mix of live action and animation. Yesno is based on a book of poetry by Dennis Lee and features the voices of Lee, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Karen Solie and d’bi young.
Following the success of his documentary feature debut, Al Purdy Was Here, Johnson is now developing new film projects and continuing to write for various publications, including Maclean’s and Zoomer.
Johnson retains the “D” in his byline, which was added in the late 1970s to avoid confusion with a former Globe and Mail namesake who, at last report, was managing a teenage brothel in the Philippines called Brown Sugar.