Explore every nook of “299 Queen Street West” with Sean Menard’s new documentary. [SXSW]

If you grew up in Canada, specifically Toronto, the address 299 Queen Street West most likely held a special place in your heart as more likely than not you either fought your way through the pandemonium of crowds OR you spent the better part of 10+ hours there. It was/is the home of Much Music, Canada’s answer to MTV. Sean Menard explores the creation of Much Music from its very early days to its eventual demise from what its roots set it out to be, in the documentary amply called 299 Queen Street West.

Much Music is a subsidiary of CityTV which is a television network that set out to be a hyper-local network that was founded by Moses Znaimer. In 1984, a producer named John Martin pitched an MTV-style of programming to Znaimer, and the rest, as they say, is history. However, Much Music was much more intricate than MTV. It was just not the Canadian answer to a 24-hour channel covering music and music videos, it was THE place to catch things about your favorite band in Canada. Now a television network was born and a variety of shows were created for the network that brought viewers in, but it soon birthed something even more special, something more interesting, something unheard of. Due to the nature of the network being an unplugged (for lack of a better term) kind of format, where the audience was there, in the moment, at the ground level of 299 Queen Street West, they did something in Canada no one else did. They talked to artists, they cared about the artists, they let the artists be who they wanted to be, and, in turn, created something Canada wanted.


A still from director Sean Menard’s documentary 299 QUEEN STREET WEST. Photo courtesy of SXSW/Sean Menard Productions.

As time went on, the audience got more involved in Much Music with the Much Music Awards, Live in the Lot performances, and holding shows with the garage door of the building opening and performing for the audience overflowing into the major intersection downtown Toronto. Much Music gave us VJs (video DJs) who made it mandatory to be home at a certain time to catch the hottest and newest music video. 299 Queen Street West showed footage of talent like Noel Gallagher (post Oasis) playing on the steps of the building to a handful of people to massive crowds lined up engulfing the streets to see The Weeknd play the MMVAs (Much Music Video Awards). To understate the significant cultural impact 299 Queen Street West had on Canada is a crime, but when the network made a tonal shift from music to reality tv, it declined swiftly and furiously. A quote from the documentary states “music became secondary at Much Music which is ironic.” To paraphrase The Buggles, “the internet killed the music station,” YouTube forced a tonal shift, and what Much Music was, was no more.

Sean Menard (The Carter Effect) certainly examines every single facet of 299 Queen Street West and the importance of Much Music, however, with his near two-hour documentary, maybe every single drip of information did not need to be entirely explored. There are moments that are entirely way too long and fleshed out which just drag down the pace of the overall documentary. While Menard refuses to leave a singular pebble unturned, it seems, it is essentially an encyclopedia of information that is engrossed in the rich history of Much Music, its iconic location, and what the channel as a whole met for Canada, CityTV, and the future of music-focused programming in Canada, and possibly the world, in more modern times. There is no question about the fact that it is a well-done passionate project for Menard, and he shines a light on a historic institution, it just suffers from a pacing issue and needing to leave a little bit more on the editing floor.

Due to everything and anything being included in this exposé on Much Music, it leaves nothing unsaid or undocumented. While that is typically a good thing for a documentary, it does leave certain parts exhausting and overdrawn. Documentaries that soar to the top of peoples’ minds must be tight and engaging with the audience, or possibly enraging to the heart. While there is nothing enraging about the foundation of Much Music, aside from its demise, ultimately the encyclopedic amount of information that is given is a tad much. “Behind the Music” is the closest thing the documentary can be compared to, and when it gets into the meat, it is truly incredible. But when we’re cutting through the gristle and chewing on it for a tad too long, the documentary does eventually slow its pace and become more of an exercise in patience than one of enjoyment.

Screened during SXSW 2023.

For more information, head to the official 299 Queen Street West SXSW webpage or documentary website.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

SXSW 2023

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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