When Canadian specialty station MuchMusic launched in August 1984, founders John Martin and Moses Znaimer had about two hours of planned content to fill six hours of airtime. Their strategy? Pack the place with notable faces (Eugene Levy, Martin Short), create a party atmosphere in the control room “stage,” and let inaugural VJs Christopher Ward and J.D. Roberts figure out the rest as they went along.
Thus, the iconic “Nation’s Music Station” was born.
It was a scrappy, wild atmosphere in which inexperienced but music-loving kids stepped in front of the cameras with free reign to experiment and play the videos they loved. There were no rules and even less structure, but it worked. At the height of its popularity, MuchMusic was the global destination for artists of all genres. And it was led by a diverse and history-making group of hosts who connected those artists with fans in a new way—through the legendary studios at 299 Queen St. West in Toronto.
Decades later, filmmaker Sean Menard (“The Carter Effect”) brings that story to North American audiences with the SXSW debut of “299 Queen Street West.” The film clocks in at just under two hours and features an amazing archive of footage that brings you right back to the station’s glory days, told from the perspective of those who were there at the time.
“I wanted to recreate a voice,” Menard explains. “I wanted to recreate the experience both for viewers who grew up with it and for those who have no clue what MuchMusic was. I wanted them to be immersed in that channel and the best way to do that is to live in the space and the world of the archives and not cut back and forth to on-camera interviews.”
Some of those voices include seminal VJs like Erica Ehm (who also serves as the film’s consulting producer), Sook-Yin Lee, Michael Williams, Namugenyi Kiwanuka, Denise Donlon, Steve Anthony, George Stroumboulopoulos and Rick Campanelli, who believes in the doc so much he flew out on his own dime to join Menard at the SXSW launch.
Throughout the film, subjects go back to MuchMusic’s launch, then trace it as it grew and expanded into a successful station to rival (and arguably surpass) MTV in Canada.
“They were given complete freedom creatively, but they had no money to really do anything,” Menard says. “There was a lot of beauty in that and being able to make those decisions without having to get all these approvals.”
That frenzied enthusiasm shows in the film, as VJs recall heading on-air with zero experience and giving fans unprecedented access to world-famous artists at the street level. Some of the most moving moments of the film come when VJs present fan art to artists or take questions from the crowd surrounding the building during the “Intimate and Interactive” sessions.
The archives covering such moments are impressive, and include an array of talent ranging from Kurt Cobain and David Bowie to Tupac, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. Getting a hold of that footage, however, was also Menard’s biggest obstacle.
The filmmaker spent the past six years trying to get financing in place for “299 Queen Street West” with little response. Eventually he put up his home in order to secure the cash, and cut a trailer from the surge of YouTube footage users uploaded from old VHS tapes during the pandemic.
That footage was enough to convince Bell Media, the current channel owner, to open up the vault and strike a deal to bring the film to Canadian streaming service Crave later this year. (Bell Media’s VP, content development & programming, Justin Stockman, now serves as the film’s sole executive producer.)
“About 95% of this film wasn’t digitized,” Menard says of the nearly 400 clips, which were culled from 10,000 earmarked ones during research. “That’s now changing because they’re putting more resources into digitizing all that footage from the beta tapes.”
During that process, Menard went through more of a history lesson than he thought he would. Through his interviews he learned how “Electric Circus” host Monika Deol was the first Indian woman to ever host a national television show in North America, for example. Or that the legendary and ground-breaking series “Rap City” was the brainchild of Michael Williams.
“Why do we not know this amazing part of our history and all the magic that happened at 299 Queen St. W? It needs to be known and I hope I can play a part in it,” Menard says.
Heading into SXSW, Menard is representing himself in hopes of securing more broadcast or streaming partners. Early feedback from programmers has been that, even though this is a uniquely Canadian story, it’s also an essential film for any and all music lovers who remember the days of MTV.
Meanwhile, Menard also has his eye on another film festival later this year—one that’s a bit closer to home.
“This film took place blocks away from TIFF headquarters,” Menard says, adding that a splashy premiere there would remind these VJs that they and the instrumental period of TV history they created aren’t forgotten.
“During test screenings, younger people were blown away that you could just walk up and see these big stars playing there for free,” he continues. “This existed. Some people have no idea. That’s the coolest part: to preserve that and try to make something that is consumed and loved by the people who experienced that time in Canadian history.”