Thursday, September 15, 2011

Life Is a Highway: Canadian Pop Music in the 90s (A Review)

Those of you who have read my blog over the years know that I’m a big fan of pop music including any type of music countdown or retrospective (please see every VH1 show – such as Behind the Music and Top 40 one-hit Wonders of the 1990s – that doesn’t involve Wives, Basketball & Mob). Therefore, when I learned that there was a documentary about Canadian pop music in the ’90s, I had to see it. Sure, I may be an American but I once created a list of the greatest Canadian musicians. Plus, I’ve visited the Hockey Hall of Fame, attended a Habs game, and narrowly preceded President Obama and Hilary Duff in Ottawa, so that has to count for something, right?

Here’s the synopsis of this two-hour documentary premiering on CBC Television tonight (Thursday, Sept. 15 at 8:00 PM Eastern time) and concluding next Thursday, September 22nd:

LIFE IS A HIGHWAY: Canadian Pop Music in the ’90s looks at the explosive decade when Canada’s superstar divas and rock gods shared the charts with DIY indie bands, Celtic virtuosos, worldbeat ensembles and hip-hop heroes.

The press release I received touts “thrilling performance footage and candid interviews with such major stars as Sarah McLachlan, Tom Cochrane, kd lang, Barenaked Ladies, Jann Arden and The Tragically Hip, as well as alternative music groups like Rheostatics, Sloan and Dream Warriors.” I wouldn’t necessarily call the performance footage, many from Saturday Night Live appearances or Juno Award shows (Canada’s version of the Grammys), thrilling, but they were a nice touch. I also appreciated seeing the perspective of so many Canadian artists; however, you get the feeling that the filmmakers were unable to land the major, major stars like Céline Dion, Alanis Morissette and Shania Twain.

After a brief introduction, the documentary starts as it should...with Bryan Adams. Adams had a very successful run in the 1980s with hits like Summer of ’69; Run to You; Somebody; and Heat of the Night. Then, instead of Bryan Adams, rocker, he became Bryan Adams, sappy singer to start the 90s as evidenced by (Everything I Do) I Do It for You, which became the #1 song in the world. In the documentary, Jann Arden refers to Bryan Adams as “our rock god.” Really? You have Neil Young, Rush and Joni Mitchell and Bryan Adams is your rock god?

The documentary goes from Adams to the Crash Test Dummies (that’s quite a drop-off!), to kd lang to Tom Cochrane. The underlying theme seemed to be showing the investment made by the Canadian music industry in selling Canadian artists in Canada. This sounds rather obvious, but apparently, the industry folks focused their attention on the American market and worked back up instead of the other way around. Consequently, the money and investment went to America. This may also explain why the Toronto Blue Jays didn’t win the World Series until the 1990s.

The remaining portion of the first hour discussed the Celtic music movement, independent scene and a street alternative revolution. I hadn’t heard of most of the artists featured, so while interesting, wasn’t my favorite part of the film. However, it is amazing the success many Canadian artists had simply by starting busking on the streets.

I enjoyed the second hour much more since I was more familiar with many of the artists discussed (Twain, Dion, Morissette, McLachlan & Snow). The portion on Canada’s “urban stars” was fascinating since I didn’t know of any Canadian hip-hop scene other than Snow’s classic hit Informer.

Here are a few items from the documentary that I found interesting:
- Sarah McLachlan refers to Bryan Adams as a taskmaster.

- Brad Roberts, lead singer of Crash Test Dummies, reveals that he couldn’t think up any words for the chorus of Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm. He was planning on writing words, but it didn’t happen.

- The documentary states that Barenaked Ladies became successful in America by constant touring. Doesn’t Jason Priestley deserve some credit? (Seriously, look at Jason Priestley’s Wikipedia page)

- There’s a video of Natalie MacMaster, someone I had never heard of prior to watching this documentary, performing while wearing Seinfeld’s pirate shirt.

- Several artists refer to the indy Halifax scene as the “new Seattle.” There were also mentions of a Montreal scene and Vancouver scene. Was there no Regina scene or Saskatoon scene? I feel like Saskatchewan was grossly under-represented!

Whether or not this was an intentional overriding message of the documentary, the filmmakers expressed the legacy of Canadian musicians helping each other and the spirit of collaboration. Many of the smaller acts that never made it in America talked about opening for Shania or BNL or Céline. Apparently, there were no rivalries as everyone got along and supported one another. I feel like we should all get together and sing O Canada!

For more information about Life Is a Highway, visit the CBC website and/or check out this article in the Toronto Sun.


Gilahi said...

As so often happens, our musical tastes don't exactly sync up. I'd listen to Crash Test Dummies until my ears bled if it meant I could avoid Bryan Adams (who, in my opinion, is nothing more than a second-rate Rod Stewart wannabe).

And I know it was focused on the '80s, but when we're talking in terms of Canadian rock gods, where's The Guess Who (who sort of introduced Canadian rock to the world) or Bachman-Turner Overdrive? Yeah, yeah, I'm old.

I'm guessing, as you alluded to, that there were sponsorship issues in the making of this particular documentary.

Sean said...

Gilahi - Can you actually name another Crash Test Dummies song other than Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm? As for Adams, I think Summer of 69 is a great song and some of his other hits are good. I'm not a fan of his 90s, slow stuff.

Guess Who and BTO are prior to the 80s (did they have any hits in the 90s?), so that's why they weren't in the film. These film-makers apparently did films about Canadian music in the 60s, 70s & 80s, so I'm sure they were featured in them.

Sean said...

That should have read Guess Who and BTO are prior to the 90s.

Gilahi said...

Yeah, I knew that those groups were pre-80s, but since you had mentioned the likes of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in terms of Canadian rock gods, I wondered why these guys were left out (and whether or not James Taylor and Joni Mitchell actually counted as "rock").

And since I own not one but 2 Crash Test Dummies CDs, I can actually name several of their songs without having to consult the playlist on the sleeves. :-)

Gilahi said...

And just to be clear, I didn't intend my initial comment to be any sort of a judgment call on your taste in music. I was simply mentioning that our tastes are different. No offense intended. That's why there's such a diversity in music out there, because different people like different things.

Sean said...

No offense taken. I'm not claiming to be a Bryan Adams fan. My point is that at least in terms of worldwide success and awareness, there is certainly a big drop-off between Bryan Adams and Crash Test Dummies.

Gilahi said...

Certainly can't argue with that. In terms of popularity and success, they're not even in the same league.

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