How the director of the new MuchMusic documentary found gold in a treasure trove of archives
Sean Menard's 299 Queen Street West takes viewers back in time to the heyday of 'the Nation's Music Station'
When it was first announced earlier this year that a new documentary about Canada's MuchMusic would be making its world premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW) festival this week in Austin, Texas, many were eager to know whether Ed the Sock appears in the film.
He does indeed, confirms 299 Queen Street West director Sean Menard over the phone. But he clarifies that the Canadian icon — a vulgar, cigar-smoking sock puppet that became a staple of the music television channel in the 1990s — wasn't among his actual interviewees. Named for its address at what's now the Bell Media building, the two-hour film chronicles the origins and heyday of "the Nation's Music Station," during which time a group of resourceful and relatively inexperienced on-camera presenters ushered Canada through the music video boom and beyond.
Menard chooses MuchMusic's former VJs as his main storytellers, treating us to a swath of familiar faces from Canadian media — George Stroumboulopoulos, Nam Kiwanuka, Rick Campanelli, and more. Or rather, familiar voices: instead of splicing traditional talking heads into contemporaneous footage of the channel, Menard — who was also the film's editor — lets his subjects' memories play over that footage, wanting viewers to "live in the space and the world of the archives."
Like many Canadians of a certain age, the director — who was raised in Hamilton, Ontario, and now lives in Toronto — says he grew up "watching the channel religiously," and joked to several of the VJs he worked with that they'd more or less been his babysitters. The documentary is mostly concerned with the 1990s and early 2000s, after MuchMusic had come of age but before it — as with other similarly-minded brands — suffered dwindling ratings in the digital era. (Since 2021, the channel has existed as a TikTok brand.)
Of course, MuchMusic's story had begun back in 1984 — the same year Menard was born — and the director quickly found himself unnerved by how little he knew about the channel's history prior to his time spent glued to it as a teenager. He says he was transparent with any VJs he'd only been introduced to through the research process — including original jockeys Erica Ehm, who eventually became a consulting producer on the film, and Michael Williams, who hosted and regularly broke new artists through hip hop- and rap-oriented programs like RapCity.
Menard eventually spun his knowledge gap into the film's mission. "Some of the VJs would tell me they feel like they're forgotten," he explains, recalling his first coffee shop meeting with Williams. "I was like, 'I didn't know who you were before this. My friends don't know who you are. The artists that you helped build that now help influence the current artists, those have been forgotten. So that's why you need to do this project with me.'"
Something that had always been clear was MuchMusic's tastemaking power, outside of Canada as much as within it. "Every time I would go to America, I'd be in a rental car and the radio would be on, and there would be Canadian artist after Canadian artist after Canadian artist," says Menard. "You start to realize, How does a place with such a small population have so many international stars? And you can really attribute it back to the channel."
Despite this legacy, he had trouble securing financial backers for his film. After six years of mixed luck, he "decided to just forge ahead and finance it" himself, working mainly with producing partner Molly Ye. With the help of Bell Media's own archivists and what Menard calls the "YouTube radicals" who've collected and preserved tons of relevant footage, the duo pulled the core of the story together in a couple of months — an "arduous" process, the director admits with a laugh — followed by another half a year filling in any gaps.
Aside from wanting to do the VJs and their stories justice, Menard says that he sought to replicate the experience of actually watching MuchMusic during its heyday — the simmering energy of a roomful of smartphone-free teenagers hanging on a pop sensation's every word, for instance. It sounds like he was successful to that end, given how often he apparently caught himself smiling while in the editing room. As he puts it, "If you're a fan of music, it's going to be very unlikely that you don't really enjoy this film."
Enter SXSW, which originated as a local music festival back in 1987 — in other words, around the same time as MuchMusic. In a rare over-the-phone (as opposed to email) acceptance, festival director Claudette Godfrey told Menard that his film reminded her of SXSW's early days, similarly anarchic in mindset and run by its own ragtag squad.
"Someone saw this in the heap and put it aside and flagged it, and it worked its way up the chain," he explains of the programming process. "That reminds me of how film festivals used to work, back in the day where unknown directors were discovered that way."
To be clear, Menard isn't all that unknown: "I think it helped that my last film had Drake and LeBron James as executive producers," he says, referring to 2017's The Carter Effect, a documentary about former Toronto Raptor Vince Carter that premiered at TIFF. But SXSW is giving him the welcome chance to break out of the sports-documentary bubble — 299 Queen Street West is his first and only non-sports project in a decade — which he's found as professionally limiting as it has been useful.
"When I would try and pitch production companies or financiers or producers or talent agents, everybody just kept coming back to wanting to keep me in a box," Menard explains. That said, he stresses that this newest film isn't as drastic a leap as it might sound on paper, aligned with his others in its focus on "humans doing extraordinary things."
As for the on-paper ambitiousness of such a Canada-centric story making waves in Austin? "To me, this is a global story," the director insists. "This is just as interesting as if it took place in New Zealand — it just so happened to be at 299 Queen Street West. There's this bigger story that I think people can relate to around the world, which is the growth and evolution of music."
Still, he'd love to bring things home sometime later on the festival circuit, perhaps at the TIFF Bell Lightbox — a stone's throw from the documentary's titular address, where it would be comparatively easy to gather all of his subjects onstage for some well-deserved applause.
"This is bigger than MuchMusic to me," Menard says of the project as a whole. "This is about preserving and telling the story of Canadian music history, in a way that I had never seen told."