Rock doc "I Want My MTV" won't leave nostalgia fans wanting
For better and worse, "I Want My MTV" is the perfect match for the once-groundbreaking network. As the network's early detractors claimed back in the day, Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop's rock doc – Thursday night's opening selection for the 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival – is a bit shallow, focused more on head-bobbing energy and poppy fun than any particular depth or substance, and the filmmaking involved merits more of a place next to its subject on television screens than on the big screen.
Then again, just like MTV, it's completely addictive, compulsively watchable and a brisk, colorful way to waste a few hours in front of a screen. The only way it could be more MTV's essence distilled into documentary form would be if a runaway camera chaotically zipped across the frame during one of the interviews and the audience had to call their cable provider to have it put on the screen.
Essentially an 86-minute adaptation of Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's 2011 book of the same name, "I Want My MTV" chronicles the earliest days of the channel and its hilariously unqualified creators, from getting its famous logo from behind a strip mall tai chi academy and watching its first broadcast from the basement of a dingy townie bar – a broadcast that lasted all of about one video before going dark – to suddenly becoming one of the most influential entertainment outlets across both industries in its name.
Most of the doc's low-rent-to-riches tale comes courtesy of interviews with the network's first producers and VJs. And as one would expect from a gang of young, inexperienced kids who had no idea what they were doing – because no one else really did either – that ended up hobnobbing with celebrities, and becoming celebrities in their own right, during the uncouth '80s, they've got more than a few entertaining and informative stories to tell. One interviewee shares how MTV's iconic moon landing intro was almost the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald. Another senior staff member talked Mick Jagger into starring in one of the channel's famous "I want my MTV" promos for a whole $1.
The result is a fun play-by-play ride through cable television's charmingly primitive and unpolished days – especially from today's vantage point, where everyone can not only be a creator but at a crazily high level – aided by a treasure trove of archival footage from the network's high school AV club-level underdog early years and, of course, the stars of their show: the music videos. Ranging from the iconic – "Thriller," "Take On Me" – to the delightfully kitschy and happily forgotten (just try to listen to REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" after seeing their adorably dorky and stiffly sincere music video) and even just the channel's animated mini-commercials, "I Want My MTV" effectively pushes the audience down an entrancing memory rabbit hole.
The end credits feature several interviewees naming their favorite music videos – and after an hour and a half of blasting through the past, both the legendary and the laughable, the audience is sure to join in on the game walking out of the theater.
Even more essential than the videos, though, Measom and Waldrop get to chat with several of the era's video vanguards – including Sting, A-Ha and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo – who, along with some great stories and quotes, contribute some of the doc's most thoughtful insights on how MTV changed their industry and their approach. Heart's Nancy Wilson, in particular, gets one of the film's most potent and pointed moments, talking about how the channel's focus on look and sex appeal contorted both her and the band's image.
Moments like that, though, are admittedly in short supply in "I Want My MTV," which wants more fun details and entertaining surfaces than depth. The channel's accusations of racism, spurred by rarely playing black artists and later ignoring rap before ghettoing the genre to a comically early time slot, are discussed but mostly tip-toed around and explained away with PR speak from the former MTV creators and stars, who get most of the say. In the end, the most strongest criticism still comes from decades-old interviews with Rick James, who's treated as a funny nuisance, and David Bowie, who, with a sly cat's grin, gets a VJ to reveal an accident peak behind the gatekeeping curtain.
To Measom and Waldrop's credit, during these sequences, they incorporate archival footage of MTV's overwhelmingly white production meetings – easily one of the more overt and pointed filmmaking choices in an otherwise quite simple and straightforward TV-ready talking head doc. (It's fittingly an A&E Networks production, with plans to broadcast the movie on TV or streaming next year.)
Later conversation about misogyny, putting image over music and even the early age's end is fairly rote and run through pretty quick, as if the film's afraid of harshing the audience and its subjects' buzz. Everyone interviewed feels like either a founder or a fan when perhaps a few more culture writers, historians and general outside voices could've shone a more critical spotlight, as well as a wider one, on the channel's deeper impact.
As it stands, "I Want My MTV" plays engaging but insular and slight, and when it does make a stab at What It Means in the final few minutes, claiming credit for granting today's musicians power over their image and creativity, it feels like an unearned leap – especially since the movie itself delicately skips through the channel's move away from music and jumps over several decades to reach that somewhat self-congratulatory conclusion.
But as one pearl-clutching newscaster reports early in the doc, MTV makes no attempt to educate. It was created to listen to catchy music, look at cool celebrities and have a good time. And "I Want My MTV" has a great time generally following suit. You might want a deeper look – but more than anything, on the way out of this flurry of giddy flashbacks and earworm-y hits, you'll want your MTV.
"I Want My MTV": **1/2 out of ****
"I Want My MTV" screens two more times during the Milwaukee Film Festival: Saturday, Oct. 19 at 3:45 p.m. at the Broadway Theater Center, as well as Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. at the Times Cinema.
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