299 Queen Street West Review
Director Sean Menard’s documentary about MuchMusic, 299 Queen Street West, spends a lot of time contrasting that Canadian music channel with its contemporary and obvious inspiration, MTV. MuchMusic, the doc notes, played videos by Black artists at a time when MTV barely did, and it also went out of its way to feature homegrown Canadian artists, starting with its debut in 1984.
But at the same time, the arc of “The Nation’s Music Station” looks a great deal like MTV’s. It had an extended period of being the coolest thing around, and also went through several different eras while featuring different music and different personalities.
Several innovations were shared and/or stolen between the two channels, and I get the sense MTV’s TRL era took much of its inspiration from MuchMusic interviewing stars at its city headquarters as fans screamed below. And like MTV, there came a time around the turn of the Millennium when MuchMusic wasn’t about the music anymore and segued into lowest-common-denominator reality TV.
The filmmakers of 299 Queen Street West, which takes its name from the downtown Toronto building where MuchMusic was headquartered, had what appears to be complete access to the channel’s archives.
This leads to some very fun and memorable footage, including interviews and performances with a virtual who’s-who of famous stars from the 1980s and ’90s. Highlights include an interview with Kurt Cobain just months before his death and the then-new Canadian band Barenaked Ladies debuting “Be My Yoko Ono” on the channel. And there’s Bon Jovi, and the Foo Fighters, and Garth Brooks, many other huge stars seen in their much younger years.
We do, however, get the sense that the filmmakers were in love with all of this footage and couldn’t bear to cut much of it. The documentary, which feels a lot like it should be 90 minutes, stretches nearly to the two-hour mark instead. I’m not exactly sure why we needed to spend five minutes at Woodstock ’99 for an uneventful interview with P. Diddy, especially since this is the first depiction of that debacle of a festival I’ve ever seen presented in the media as a good time.
MuchMusic was something of a scrappy upstart, employing lots of on-air talent with little-to-no experience. And all of the footage is narrated by the video jockeys who worked at the channel at the time, none of whom are seen on camera in contemporary interviews, only in voiceover.
Sook-Yin Lee, a punk musician-turned-veejay on the channel, emerges as the documentary’s star. We see a priceless clip in which she repeatedly says the c-word (the one for female genitalia) live on the air while interviewing the Red Hot Chili Peppers; she later says that in the queer female spaces, she spent her time in, that word wasn’t even seen as a curse word. The interview had been presented on a delay, producers told her, because of the Chili Peppers, not for her.
As a way of disclosure, I’m American, not Canadian, and I never watched MuchMusic, although I did pass the 299 Queen Street building a couple of dozen times last fall while in town to cover the Toronto International Film Festival. 299 Queen Street West will absolutely hold appeal to those who aren’t from North of the border and never watched the channel, even if it could have used a bit more of an edit.