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Erica Ehm on MuchMusic documentary and her VJ 'trial by fire'

The MuchMusic Experience brings documentary 299 Queen Street West to Royal Theatre Saturday with filmmaker and VJs in tow
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Former MuchMusic VJ Erica Ehm HANDOUT

THE MUCHMUSIC EXPERIENCE

Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Saturday, Nov. 25, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $34.75-$65 from the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or rmts.bc.ca

The television industry during the 1980s — somewhat staid, far from groundbreaking — was not prepared for a youth movement when an usptart Toronto station dedicated exclusively to music and movies went live to air.

Kids, however, were mad for it.

The arrival of MuchMusic in 1984 was a culture shock, in every sense of the word. Its presence in homes across Canada made its on-air talent instant celebrities. MuchMusic’s impact was immediate, with an official moniker, “The Nation’s Music Station,” that was very well-earned.

The United States had MTV, which was dominant. But the network wasn’t widely available in Canada. MuchMusic found its way into every Canadian home and by 1987, when parent company CHUM received permission from the CRTC to move the channel to basic cable, eventually became a cultural entity unto itself. Programming-wise, it was all things to all people; at its peak, it was considered among the most critic-proof properties in TV.

The station was wasn’t impervious to swings in popularity, however. MuchMusic as it once existed dissolved into irrelevancy the early 2000s, when the focus on music videos had long since dissipated. The presence of reality TV was also looming. In 2023, Much, as it is now known, bears practically zero resemblance to what came before.

299 Queen Street West, a new documentary from director Sean Menard, takes a look at the station’s journey and historical import, and includes interviews with iconic MuchMusic VJs Erica Ehm, Monika Deol, Denise Donlon, George Stroumboulopoulos, and Michael Williams, among others.

The origin story has kickstarted a wave of nostalgia for the kids of yesteryear, who were once the station’s core demographic. The film had its sold-out Canadian premiere Sept. 22 at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, not far from 299 Queen Street West, where MuchMusic’s headquarters were based. A question-and-answer period followed the event, and was rapturously received by fans, prompting subsequent screenings and live events across the country.

299 Queen Street West arrives at The Royal Theatre tonight [Saturday] as part of its 13-date Canadian run. Menard will be in attendance for a Q&A following the film, as will Ehm, Deol, and Rick Campanelli. The Times Colonist caught up with Ehm, 62, for a chat about the film, her experiences at MuchMusic, and the broadcast industry’s treatment of women during her time in front of the camera.

Times Colonist: Did you have a cross-Canada MuchMusic tour on your agenda in 2023?

Ehm: This has taken me by surprise. I had closed the doors on MuchMusic, considering I left 30 years ago and have since re-invented myself at least three times. This was not anything I expected. However, it has been an incredible experience and has really lit me up.

MuchMusic was always an alternative to traditional programming, from its open-air studio to its fan-friendly live programming. At the time, it felt normal, because that is simply what MuchMusic did from Day One. Looking back, it was definitely unique. Unpredictable.

Chaotic is a word that most people use, but unpredictable is a beautiful word as it applies to entertainment. People tuned in because there was this magic unpredictability. It was real life being broadcast in real time.

When you saw the documentary 299 Queen Street West for the first time, what were your thoughts?

I felt a mix of emotions for that 20 year old, who was thrust onto that national stage with no training and no support. I was made of steel. It was trial by fire, and I came out the other end — a little singed, but much stronger. This documentary really shows my strength.

When you were approached to participate, had the idea for a documentary about the station even occurred to you?

MuchMusic is a lifetime away from me, so I don’t really think about it on a day to day basis. I was not interested at all. I don’t want to live in the past, and I feel like my current successes are more exciting for me. I didn’t want to go backwards. However, when I met [director] Sean Menard, he was such a thoughtful person and filmmaker, I just wanted to help him.

Was there always a plan to take the film across the country, or did the initial reception to it lead to that?

Sean wanted to give the gift of this experience to the on-air people at Much, who mostly left unceremoniously through the years. We were there, we each had a great run, and then we were gone. And when BellMedia took over, the history of those who came before evaporated. Sean recognized that, and thought it would be a great to give us the gift of recognition and to be celebrated for the work that we did. I don’t think he planned it, I think it came to him when [the Toronto International Fim Festival] turned down the film.

Between that snub and the subsequent legal challenge by Universal Music [which threatened legal action after Menard used Much clips featuring unlicensed audio and video by the label’s artists], did it feel like some in Toronto didn’t want the film to succeed?

I have no idea about the backstage politics involved, what I care about are the millions of Canadians who are touched by Much and want to see this story come to life. The people who show up and talk to us are what’s important. It’s both overwhelming and very touching to see the audiences showing up across the country, and how emotional the post-show Q&As are. Some people are in tears talking about what we meant to them growing up.

Somewhat lost during the passage of time is the positive impact you had on female viewers. You were a role model.

I get comments on how I impacted women and girls, with the way I presented myself. I showed that it’s okay to be yourself, and it’s okay to be a strong woman. Having said that, when I look at old footage now, it’s very clear to me how objectified I was. My bosses never stepped in and supported me when I was in these very sexist situations. If you look at the footage now, with fresh eyes, you’ll be horrified at what I had to put up with. And it wasn’t just me, by the way. It was all the women who worked at Much. Once you see the film, you have much more perspective.

mdevlin@timescolonist.com