Situated on the corner of Queen Street West and John Street in Toronto, the ornate white building at 299 Queen West is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and the crown jewel of the former CHUM empire and the home of Much Music for years. Director Sean Menard’s new documentary, 299 Queen Street West, is a homage to all that that television empire produced and is a must-watch for music fans that taps into our love of nostalgia.
Hundreds of musicians and superstars have crossed the threshold over the years, some now household names and others long forgotten. Once drawing thousands of people and shutting down the street as fans from all over clamoured for a live look at their faves, the building now has a shabby abandoned look to it—an apt metaphor for the once cutting-edge music video channel that’s been slowly left to die an undignified death.
Director Menard’s (The Carter Effect) loving and bittersweet look at the creation and rise of Much Music is so much more than just a look at the channel that played wall-to-wall music videos. Premiering earlier this year at SXSW, 299 Queen West is the story of a pioneering Canadian broadcaster and the demystification of celebrity, the likes of which had never been seen before and perhaps never will be again. Menard’s telling of the incredible story of how a fledgling channel became a major cultural touchstone is underscored by the rise of the internet and YouTube videos. Suddenly, tuning into Much Music wasn’t a priority when you could watch any music video you wanted at any time, stripping Much of its necessity and prominence in pop culture.
There are many ways the story of Much Music could have been told and, to Menard’s great credit, he lets the archival footage speak for itself. You won’t find former VJs and execs featured as talking heads on camera but rather you’ll geet voiceover narration from the likes of Steve Anthony, Michael Williams, Rick Campanelli, Erica Ehm, Monika Deol, Sook-Yin Lee and many more who got their broadcasting start at 299 Queen (much like a few That Shelfers).
Arriving on Canadian airwaves in 1984, Much Music was the “nation’s music station”, putting music videos at the forefront as an art form and treating the musicians behind them as artists, worthy of conversation. Unlike the over-manufactured MTV, which sought to make its VJs celebs in their own way, the VJs at Much were secondary to the music. Here, they were given space to champion the music and artists they were into. With shows about Black music by Black artists fronted by Master T or country musicians hosted by Bill Welychka, the on-screen programming and the faces of the channel reflected the diversity of Canada.
One endearing legacy of Much Music is those VJs, many of whom got their start elsewhere in the building as tape operators, editors, a receptionist, producers, and yes, even a contest-winning intern. If at times Much’s shows felt chaotic, it’s because they were. Thrusting average, unpolished people without media training in front of the camera was refreshing to watch. Long before the carefully curated Instagram and TikTok influencers took over, Much Music made it seem like any average music fan could be on TV. Much even revolutionized this concept with their breakthrough Speaker’s Corner where for a few bucks, anyone could get their 15-minutes of fame on TV. Or, if you are Barenaked Ladies, an eventual recording contract. The VJs were big music fans, just like the audience and this approach made for more open and honest conversations with some of the world’s biggest stars.
Much Music was there for it all, from the rise of rap in the mainstream and the grunge movement to the club craze captured on Electric Circus to the pop explosion of the boyband era. As Menard shows, many of Canada’s early stars like Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne had their first brushes with fans in a live studio environment at 299 Queen or a pre-fame Backstreet Boys singing a capella for Campanelli and a small audience, only to later return to Toronto thousands of screaming fans.
The sheer volume and range of archival footage in 299 Queen Street West is something to be marvelled at. There are early interviews with everyone from Tommy Lee to Britney Spears, AC/DC, Beastie Boys LL Cool J, No Doubt, Radiohead, Garth Brooks, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, and NSYNC, as well as candid conversations with David Bowie, and Eminem, and Bono in the backseat of a car on the way to the airport. From the disaster that was Woodstock ‘99 to annual tree tosses, Menard manages to cover it all in a concise and entertaining package.
As someone who has spent over a decade working in broadcasting, the footage Menard was able to uncover is incredible, knowing all about the process and reluctance of our national broadcasters to digitize old footage. It’s remarkable that this footage still exists, raising discussion about how we handle our pop culture record in this country. I spent seven years at the now-cancelled ET Canada (with former VJs Campanelli and Matte Babel) and as much as the show’s cancellation is a blow to Canadian viewers and artists, it’s another to know nearly two decades of footage is lost to time along with it. Unfortunately, digitizing old content remains an uphill battle.
While it’s great fun to see Weezer and Beck, Steven Tyler and Duran Duran and countless more musicians in 299 Queen West, the real heart and soul of the movie is the recollections of the VJs. Providing never-before-heard context to some memorable moments, be it interviewing Nirvana in Seattle, P. Diddy behind the port-a-potties at Woodstock ‘99, or Deol becoming the first Indian woman in Canada to host a national show, it’s these insights that provide an extra layer to an already interesting story.
Rest assured, 299 Queen Street West is not just a nostalgic look back through rose-coloured glasses. Throughout the doc, behind-the-scenes creative decisions and changes are brought to the forefront, particularly in the later years of the channel. The switch to style-over-substance, reality TV instead of music, and marketing decisions over good content made it easy for VJs like George Stroumboulopoulos and Nam Kiwanuka to leave and, for many viewers, to tune out. It’s a sad end to a one-time juggernaut and national cultural barometer.
299 Queen Street West has proven popular with sell-out roadshow screenings across the country, many with former VJs participating in post-screening Q&As. If you weren’t lucky enough to catch the documentary in a public screening or at the Windsor International Film Festival where it was the closing night film this month, the documentary will premiere on Crave at a later date.