Sunday, March 20, 2011
Yonge Street Is Must-See TV!
Simply stated the three-part music documentary Yonge St. is the kind of TV event worth staying home for.
I knew it was going to be something when I heard Bruce McDonald was going to direct it.
Bruce and I go as far back as the 1998 CBC TV comedy series Twitch City with Don McKellar --I hung around the set entranced with the conception and the presence pf such Canadians as Callum Keith Rennie and Molly Parker.
Later on I watched in awe as McDonald flawlessly directed episode after episode of the trend setting Toronto-made series Queer As Folk.
On Yonge Street McDonald told me everything "just seemed to come together. We've been shooting and editing it since October.
"A lot of it had to be done on the road --with Robbie Robertson at his L.A. office, to Nashville, Chicago, everywhere we could find survivors."
Yonge Street takes us on a giddy tour of the Toronto's downtown music scene during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
McDonald who is 51 says a lot of the stuff he'd just heard about. And getting to meet and interview the remaining legendary performers was "a dream come true."
Well, I did grow up in the staid Toronto of the 1950s and I read the entertainment pages of The Telegram every night. But some of the names are even new to me.
And this was all happening when Toronto had one local TV outlet --Channel 9's CBLT (it moved to Channel 6 in the Sixties).
Coverage of fringe musicians was not CBC's thing to begin with. There's one great clip from later on as CBC begins a kind of anthropological investigation into the growing phenomenon known as Yorkville.
"Some of the clips we use came from basements. Some even from crawlspaces. We'd be talking and the subject would suddenly remember there was some film somewhere."
One clip unseen for 50 years has Robbie Robertson, aged 16-17, performing in one of his very first gigs.
And there's color footage as the camera crawls up Yonge with all the neon signs flashing: the Edison hotel, Coq d'Or tavern, Blue Note, Sam The Record Man's. All have vanished save for the Zanzibar tavern.
"That's the surprise," says McDonald. "How vital the scene was. How many great perfprmers were all in Toronto in the Fifties. There was a lot of activity."
How was such a wealth of material discovered? "Jan Haust functioned as our archivist and he came up with incredible finds that make the series. The producer David Brady (The Grey Fox) and our creative consultant Duff Roman made similar contributions. WE got very lucky time and time again."
One high light for McDonald was getting Robertson to sit down and spew forth the most wonderful stories. "He'd just been recording and it was a good day for him and his stories were fantastic, his memory is so sharp about that specific period."
Equally compelling is Stompin' Ronnie Hawkins --every time the camera widens he's seen petting a different tiny dog."But his knowledge of the scene is very essential."
Layer on in Episode 2 on The Sixties there's Gordon Lightfoot in his home giving anecdotes about the growth of the Yorkville scene. "He was very gracious, offered us tea and as we walked in his guitars were lined up at the door. It was quite a moment for me."
If there's anyone most deserving of being rediscovered it's the black singer Jackie Shane who usually dressed as a woman. In the all white community of the time Shayne really stuck out and his musicality and way of selling a song is simply stunning.
There are stories he was later asked to return to the U.S. by Canadian immigration officials. Shayne today lives in complete onscurity and no one has recently contacted him.
"The only one I needed who couldn't make it was Joni Mitchell," McDonald says. "I was told she wasn't feeling up for it."
For the folk music segment in Episode 2 McDonald got both Ian and Sylvia (although separately). "Sylvia is naturally older. But she's still one of the sexiest singers around."
It seems to me that Episode 3 about the height of the "Toronto sound" and its inevitable decline is the sdaddest.
At first the scene is vibrant, filled with the likes of Neil Young, Rick James, John Kay and The Paupers.
But McDonald is correct in pointing out that the lack of sustained air time contributed to the exodus of prime talent to the U.S.
It's noted here that by the early 1970s strip clubs outnumbered music clubs and the Yonge strip was no more so far as first class music was cxoncerned.
"We shot for 30 days and we've got so much extra stuff a sequel would work," McDonald laughs. "
And many of the talent is at an age where McDonald was still able to capture them on good days when they could look back with pride at the era they were a part of.
YONGE STREET PREMIERES ON BRAVO! MOND. MARCH 21 AT 10 P.M.
PART TWO IS ON BRAVO! TUESD. MARCH 22 AT 10 P.M. AND PART 3 ON BRAVO! WED. MARCH 23 AT 10 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.