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'Spirit of MuchMusic' still alive at doc premiere with former VJs in attendance

Former MuchMusic VJs Bill Welychka, Denise Donlon, and Rick Campanelli, share a laugh on the red carpet for the documentary "299 Queen Street West" in Toronto, on Friday, September 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

TORONTO — While the party died years ago at MuchMusic's broadcast centre on the corner of Queen and John streets in Toronto, the screening of a new documentary on Friday proved nostalgia for the nation's music station is still very much alive.

Thousands of people filed into Roy Thomson Hall, only a few blocks away from Much's former headquarters, to catch the Canadian premiere of "299 Queen Street West," a feature-length look at the legacy of the TV channel.

Joining the crowd were some of Much's most famous video jockeys, better known as VJs, including Rick Campanelli, Erica Ehm, Sook-Yin Lee and "Electric Circus" host Monika Deol.

Many of them were stunned by the enthusiasm around their reunion.

"This is surreal," said Campanelli, known to viewers as "Rick the Temp," from the red carpet as he surveyed the crowd outside the venue.

"I didn’t expect it to be like this — but in the back of my mind, I sort of was hoping," he added.

Bill Welychka, who worked as a VJ on the station throughout much of the 1990s, found himself at a loss for words as he reflected on his former job.

"I had no idea the fascination with Much was still there after all these years," he admitted.

Filmmaker Sean Menard was less surprised than the VJs at the turnout which came close to filling the 2,600-seat Toronto venue.

The Hamilton native invested about six years making "299 Queen Street West" and mortgaged his house to afford the time and resources to dig through the archives.

He's confident the enthusiasm at the Toronto screening will be replicated across the country when he takes the movie on a roadshow next month.

The MuchMusic Experience Tour pairs a screening of the movie with a conversation between Menard and select VJs, who will take questions from the audience and share memories.

The tour crosses the country with 12 stops that include Montreal (Oct. 17), Halifax (Oct. 25), Calgary (Nov. 1), Vancouver (Nov. 24) and Winnipeg (Nov. 27).

Packed to the brim with archival footage, the two-hour documentary retraces MuchMusic’s origin story, starting around its inception on Aug. 31, 1984.

MuchMusic launched as an unpolished 24-hour music video channel created by Toronto media visionary Moses Znaimer and a team of inexperienced but creative young people.

Three years after MTV launched in the United States, the concept was no longer new, yet the look and feel of Canada’s version was much different, partly because the budget was tighter and there was no rule book.

"We were kids in the trunk of the car getting into the drive-in, that’s how it kind of felt," recalled former VJ Steve Anthony outside the premiere.

The documentary presents the VJ's memories entirely in voiceover against old footage of MuchMusic.

Michael Williams recalls his move from Cleveland to Canada where his do-it-all mindset eventually led to the creation of the “Rap City” program, while Erica Ehm retells how she was upgraded from a receptionist to a TV personality with no experience.

"They gave me the opportunity to sink or swim and I certainly sank at the beginning but they didn't kick me out,” she says in the film.

“299 Queen Street West” chronicles some of MuchMusic’s most innovative ideas, from the annual Christmas tree toss to “Combat des Clips,” the 1-900 viewer-voted music video show.

It also captures some of the channel's biggest moments, including when the area around the street-level studio was shut down to accommodate rabid fans of the Backstreet Boys for the boy band's appearance on "Intimate & Interactive."

“Electric Circus,” an in-studio live dance club program, is presented as a guilty pleasure that Canadians couldn’t deny.

"Nobody wanted to admit they watched it,” host Deol says in the documentary.

“And I was like, if nobody is watching this show, how does everybody know who I am?"

Deol took up the defence of her former show once again in a live panel conversation after the documentary's Toronto premiere.

She credited the dancers for being the lifeblood of the program, which was often ridiculed while it was on the air.

Denise Donlon, who climbed the ranks from VJ to general manager at MuchMusic, told of a memorable encounter with David Bowie at one edition of the MuchMusic Video Awards.

"I heard him say, 'This place is chaos,'" she said in a fake British accent. "'It seems to be run by children.'"

While the documentary is an exhaustive account of MuchMusic's history, some topics are left out, including the channel's oft-forgotten influence outside of Canada.

There's no mention of how the “MuchOnDemand” program, driven by viewers' music video requests, helped inspire MTV’s “Total Request Live” or the Much channel's mid-1990s iteration south of the border called MuchMusic USA.

Lee said even though time has passed, she believes MuchMusic's impact continues in the city.

Recently, she walked by the former headquarters — now home to Bell Media's offices — and observed a few "wayward young people" snapping photos against the building's facade.

"That corner is very different now: it’s much more corporate; it’s very much the antithesis of live rock 'n' roll ... (but) there still resides a little bit of energy."

"That spirit of MuchMusic," she added. "It doesn't ever go away."

“299 Queen Street West” will premiere on Bell Media's Crave streaming service in December.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2023.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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