299 QUEEN STREET WEST @ RIALTO THEATRE, MONTREAL
Walking into the warm lights, and retro reds and golds of Montreal’s Rialto Theatre, all expectations were set on a night of good music, with a nostalgic air, and perhaps a glimpse of a vintage VJ crush past. A crowd of music enthusiasts and media gathered to take in the backstory of a slightly forgotten piece of their hearts. Long before music lived in the palm of the hand, and celebrity was demystified by social media’s easy access, there was MuchMusic, and its Quebec counterpart; Musique Plus. Enveloping the screens and minds of Canadian youth, these pop culture then-monoliths served up music accessibility in ways completely unprecedented at Much’s 1988 public cable start. Originally premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, Sean Menard’s 299 Queen Street West captured all of the magic of the station, delivering its quirk, endearing naivety, and unexpected revolution in perfect symphony.Telling the story of the little station that could as it evolved from a short program on Toronto’s City TV station into an independent 24/7 programming hub and household name, Menard paints a story of a booming success, with the sad ending the audience knew to expect. What wasn’t on anyone’s bingo card for the viewing was the intense Canadian pride strung throughout the film’s narrative: one ample enough to likely sell through the merchandise stand’s branded toques, and probably the neighboring restaurants’ poutine reserves. The film sifts through almost two and a half decades of dedication done differently – with an earnest crew of VJs (video jockeys) completely untrained, unscripted, and mostly unpolished, plucked from nearly anywhere, and brought on to connect with the artists as much as they’d relate to the crowds. Told through clips from the archives, with VJ voiceovers delivering the story, the powerhouse of the MuchMusic legacy was richly conveyed. Sure, it played tunes, but it was so much more (no pun intended). The station aimed to bring an approachability to music, as it embraced different eras of sound, and delivered it through a representative cast of Canada’s melting pot population. MuchMusic had one main ethos: play good music, and that often meant challenging norms with a punchy irreverence that always put talent at the forefront. The station was paramount in the introduction of rap & hip-hop to broader audiences, while welcoming black artists to the stage at a time when MTV was still fearfully pandering to ratings. It helped birth grunge across the nation and cast a front row seat to the boy & girl group mania with its intimate interviewing style. Early on, the humble, if not scrappy behind-the-scenes studio decided to bake in the audience, and even set up an outdoor space for the live artists to meet the crowds at the street level. MuchMusic brought the party inside of their own living room, as it invited you to join in yours, airing the Electric Circus dance show, with live acts well ahead of their career breakthrough moments. And where the music and social change left off, the “user at home” experience picked right back up with Speakers Corner, set up at various spots across the country. This video recording booth allowed passersby to record a short video that would play on the station. Think TikTok, but broadcast on national television. And if you’ve somehow yet to feel the Canadiana flow through veins like maple syrup on snow from this recounting, perhaps the anecdote of Barenaked Ladies using this avenue to make their television debut with a quick blast of “Be My Yoko Ono” will be enough to get it done.
The story is chock full of footage of the early days of so many impactful musicians, including one especially raw interview with Kurt Cobain, a few cheeky chats with David Bowie, and a bunch of unplugged versions of your favorite chart toppers. The end feeling is one that leaves audiences time traveled and craving for more.
Yes, MuchMusic broke through barriers, but its feel-good retelling followed suit, as 299 Queen Street West broke Canadian Box Office records for a single showing of a documentary with the hometown Toronto screening on September 22. And for a damn good reason. If you’re able to catch the tour in a Canadian city ahead, the VJ & Director ‘Intimate & Interactive’ panel at the end promises to be the perfect punctuation to a brilliant night at the movies. The Montreal edition partnered the two channels and looked at relevant themes untouched in the film such as collaboration between the two cities, and the early days of getting Musique Plus going. It also brought the personal touches, asking favorite music videos, covering some early hiccups, and giving context to the interpersonal side of the VJ job for MuchMusic’s Michael Williams, Erica Ehm, and Rick Campanelli (forever Rick the Temp in Canada’s collective heart), and Musique Plus’ Geneviève Borne, Sonia Benezra, and Pierre Landry. If you’ve already bypassed your chance to catch the live show in your city, the film will be streaming on Crave this December, and any non-subscribers would be wise to cash in their free app trial ahead of this release. Take a step back in time to your teenage years, when the anticipation of a music video drop had you queuing up the VCR recorder, and you had a permanent spot on Electric Circus‘ guest list from your old tube TV.
Photos: Emily Rubin