“The VJs were like the cool kids in high school”: This director mortgaged his house to make a doc about MuchMusic
In 299 Queen Street West, filmmaker Sean Menard chronicles how the legendary TV channel defined a generation and changed music history
It’s been a decade since MuchMusic shuttered its iconic live taping studio at the corner of Queen and John. Once known as “the nation’s music station,” Much was a touchstone for teenage music fans in the pre-internet era and a launchpad for local talent like Erica Ehm, Sook-Yin Lee and George Stroumboulopoulos—all beloved VJs who interviewed the biggest music stars of the era. “I wanted to tell the story of what happened to music between the ’80s and the 2000s,” says Sean Menard, a producer and director who mortgaged his house to finance a doc about the erstwhile TV channel. After a buzzy premiere at South by Southwest earlier this year, 299 Queen Street West will screen at Roy Thomson Hall on Friday. Here, Menard talks about that time he went (nearly) naked on Electric Circus and how he feels about getting snubbed by TIFF.
How did this project start? Were you a massive MuchMusic fan growing up?
I grew up in Hamilton, and I definitely spent a lot of time on the couch watching MuchMusic in the ’90s, during the Master T era. I had two older sisters, and they always had it on. But the idea for this movie actually came about after I released my previous doc, The Carter Effect, about Vince Carter’s time in Toronto. It ended up being a big success—bought by Netflix, trending in the top ten worldwide at one point. I took a lot of pride in taking what was a distinctly local story and sharing it with the world, so I was keen to do that again. And then, at the same time I was spending time in the US, and it was amazing to me how many Canadian artists—people like Drake, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Jessie Reyez, Shawn Mendes—are the biggest acts there too. I was thinking about how such a vast country with such a small population managed to become so dominant in terms of the music we’re producing, and I started thinking about the role MuchMusic had played in that success story. I got really excited about the idea, but I wasn’t able to get funding.
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The classic cri de cœur of the Canadian documentary maker.
Right. It was the same way with The Carter Effect, where I was only able to get funding after LeBron James and Drake got involved. I decided to move forward and finance the film independently. I’m lucky enough to own a house in Toronto, so I put that up to get the money. I connected with a bunch of the Much VJs and cut a trailer from that material. I showed that to Justin Stockman, a VP at Bell Media, which bought CHUM in 2006, and he agreed to give me access to 30 years of archives. That was huge—the first time any filmmaker had ever gotten access. And it was really important to the way I wanted to tell the story, which was to have the experience of watching the doc feel like watching MuchMusic: two hours of archival footage.
You mentioned getting the VJs to participate. Was there anyone who took some arm twisting?
I would say that at first most of them were really hesitant. Later I found out that I was not the first person to attempt this and that a lot of them had sat for interviews that never amounted to anything. Erica Ehm was the first person I approached, and she had those reservations, but we went out for a drink and by the end she had agreed to take part and come on as a consulting executive producer. Probably the hardest person to bring on was Strombo, just because he was really busy with his Apple show and then he was also concerned about the movie having the right message.
Which is what, exactly?
The VJs are the stars of the show, but I also wanted to tell the story of what happened to music between the ’80s and the 2000s. If you look at the charts now, you’ve got two types of music: pop and hip hop. Thirty years ago, you had rock, metal, punk, grunge, pop, hip hop and R&B coming up the whole time. I think, when you look at the industry today, it’s all about running the data to figure out what the audience wants to hear, whereas at Much the VJs and the programming team they worked with were tastemakers, not followers. These were like the kids in high school who knew all the best bands, and you wanted to know what they were listening to. That was something that Moses Znaimer, who was the founder of Citytv and Much, really believed in: you can teach a lot of things, but you can’t teach passion for music.
In the doc, you see those early clips of Erica Ehm where she is totally inexperienced. She started at Much as a receptionist, and they threw her on camera, and then there she is interviewing Kurt Cobain at the height of Nirvana’s fame. There are a lot of people who say that is the best interview Cobain ever did, and I think it comes down to that fact that it’s a real conversation. The composer who did the score on the doc came off The Last Dance, the Michael Jordan docuseries. He grew up in America watching MTV, and when I sent him a rough cut, he couldn’t believe how much the artists shared in their interviews. These were the same artists he grew up on, but he never saw them so raw and real. There is the one where Michael Williams is interviewing Seal, who was just starting out at the time. He was having so much fun just playing guitar that he said he wanted to miss his flight. Or the interview between Sook-Yin and Anthony Kiedis where they’re playing with each others’ hair.
Is Rick “the Temp” Campanelli actually the nicest guy on the planet? Or is he secretly a total pill to work with?
No, Rick is actually that nice. When I first met him, I thought, this guy must be putting on an act, but no. He actually flew to the world premiere at SXSW in Texas on his own dime. He’s a former VJ, yes, but he’s also just a really big fan.
You do make a point of contrasting MTV’s slickness with MuchMusic’s more authentic appeal.
Right. Because, if you watch MTV at that same era, it’s just a totally different thing where it was these super-polished on-air talent and sets. At Much, they didn’t have a budget for a studio, so they would just shoot in the office. It was a necessity, but now you look at how many shows have adopted that same format as a creative choice. It’s almost like MuchMusic had a freedom of limitations.
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You also talk about how Much was way ahead of MTV in promoting hip hop and other music by Black artists.
That was really Michael Williams. He came from the US because he couldn’t get a job in the States. At Much, they gave him free rein to play whatever he wanted. This was when nobody else was playing rap or hip hop. The stuff he was playing on Rap City, you couldn’t hear it on the radio. It’s what I was saying earlier about tastemaking rather than following. This year, we’re celebrating 50 years of hip hop, and I don’t think Canada and Rap City in particular gets enough credit for our role in that.
You watched 30 years’ worth of archival footage. Was there anything that surprised you? Other than Steve Anthony nearly falling to his death while tossing a Christmas tree off the balcony?
Ha—that was definitely a crazy time, and you can see that in a lot of the footage. It was really refreshing to watch a bunch of teenagers not on their cellphones. You see how captivated they are doing these interviews, and it’s these longer conversations where there is room to breathe. And everyone in the studio is watching. Today they’d all be staring at their screens. And then I guess the other thing that I wasn’t aware of is how the whole thing of Much being interactive with the audience out on Queen Street came about really organically. They used to be up on the third floor, and then one day Duran Duran was coming in for an interview, and they were caught by a mob of fans on the street, and it sparked this idea of having the artist-and-fan interaction that became a MuchMusic signature.
Fast forward to thousands of screaming boy-band fans shutting down traffic in the Financial District. Was that the peak or the beginning of the end?
I think that, by that time, what got played was a lot more influenced by popularity. The marketing department had slowly taken over the programming department, and the VJs had less and less say. At the same time, you can turn your nose up at the boy bands, but you can’t deny the connection they had with their fans. The first time Much had to shut down Queen Street was for the Backstreet Boys, and then when the Spice Girls came it was Queen and John Street. From what I heard, the craziest of all time was NSYNC. We show an aerial view in the doc, and it’s a total mob in every direction.
Were you ever in a MuchMusic audience?
My friends and I would come into the city from Hamilton and head over to 299 Queen just to see what was going on. I was never in a live audience, but embarrassingly enough, I was on Electric Circus. They did this one-night relaunch on Halloween in 2012 and my friends and I went down. I was dressed as an Oscar—just my underwear and gold paint and this cardboard thing that was the base of the statue but made it very difficult to dance. I can’t remember the song, but I remember there was a DJ who said, “Shout out to the shiny man in no pants.”
I guess we know what you’re wearing to the premiere on Friday.
Erica Ehm posted on Instagram about the movie. It’s a tribute post to your hard work but also a takedown of TIFF and how they never got back to you after you submitted the film.
Yeah, that has definitely been frustrating. After the movie premiered at SXSW earlier this year, people kept asking me, When is the Canadian premiere going to be? And I would just say that I was hoping for a certain local festival in September. And even after the success with The Carter Effect premiering at TIFF, they wouldn’t return my emails. I just thought, Come on. I’m making a movie about this beloved Canadian arts institution that is a few blocks from the TIFF offices.
I guess Steve Anthony and Master T aren’t quite Drake and LeBron on the fame-o-meter.
I do think that there is maybe a tendency to book films based on talent, which is too bad.
Is it true that you rented out Roy Thomson Hall for the premiere?
I figured, this was the dream: to have a premiere at Roy Thomson. They told me it’s the first time an independent producer has ever rented the space. My wife, Molly, who is also my producing partner, was a little freaked when she saw our credit card statement, but we have done really well in ticket sales. When I was first shopping this project around, people said, ‘Nobody is going to pay $15 to see a Canadian doc,’ and now we’ve made over $100,000 at the box office.
In your face, TIFF! And I guess you get to keep your house.
Yeah, that all worked out. We also made a deal with Crave to air the movie in December, so that was a clincher. Of course, I want to earn back the money I invested, and a profit would be great, but mostly it’s about celebrating this institution and these people. It’s going to be a great party.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.