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Rise Up: Canadian Pop Music in the 1980s (2009)

by on 2013/02/12

Rise Up (2009)

“We have such a wealth of talent and true natural beauty, of voice and lyrics here. I think it’s unparalleled anywhere else in the world. You could decide to listen to only Canadian music and have a very full life.”

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My otherwise esteemed co-reviewer was unimpressed when I proposed we go to a retro concert on Parliament Hill. A double bill of The Spoons and Glass Tiger was met with a mixed reaction but, me, I was ecstatic. Like, totally.

I appreciate the Sixties described in Shakin’ All Over. I remember the Seventies shown in This Beat Goes On. Yet nothing compares to the feeling I get when I hear the Canadian music of the Eighties surveyed in Rise Up.

As we watched, I couldn’t remember how often I said — to myself or out loud — “I love-love-love this so much!” I felt shivers, thrilled to remember good times, mourning for fun long gone, or twisting with their bittersweet combination. Which makes my own mixed reaction to this third in the series agonizing and appropriate.

Generally keeping to the format of its predecessors, Rise Up offers a brisk coverage of mostly mainstream acts, as many as it can fit into its all-too-brief running time. Its opening minutes describe the new decade being built on the base of the last. Optical disc technology and music video channels are name-dropped, then mostly forgotten, at least explicitly. The greatest reminder of the latter is contained within the production itself, in the new influx of non-concert-based footage, and more motion than panning over stills.

Where the Sixties was followed chronologically, and the Seventies divided into genres, the Eighties is treated more like a hodge-podge, where varied forms co-exist, all juxtaposed. Every once in a while some random factoid is thrown out as a segue: reggae is big in Toronto, disco is big in Quebec, the most photogenic performers succeed in the visual medium, and never before have we produced so many worldwide successes.

In fact, “Canadian music goes global” is ostensibly the theme of this episode, but I was never convinced it was demonstrated or proven. Overlays offer a smattering of proof: this track was used in a Miami Vice episode; another was a hit for Hootie and the Blowfish; one producer got to work with U2. There’s more than a whiff of desperation in seeking such validation. It says more about our homegrown insecurity.

There are balances for too many checks. An artist is lauded for being signed to the same label as the Ramones and Talking Heads; another finds little support in the States and must return again. And why is so much American footage from Saturday Night Live? It bears pointing out that SNL was created and produced by a Canadian. Allowing for an argument about international acceptance, where are the critical kudos, chart placements, sales figures, or concert attendance?

But why pay such attention to what non-Canadians thought anyway? How about examining our own identity? Synthesizers notwithstanding, what characterized our music? What were the themes of our lyrical content, our outlook in the Eighties? Does the presentation accurately reflect a damaged narcissism? If so, this documentary doesn’t clearly acknowledge it.

Ultimately, I watched and listened for pleasure. Here again, however, I was a little bit disappointed. Maybe the Seventies’ CanCon push was entirely too successful, resulting in too many new upstarts to cover. While I understand not itemizing every single one-hit wonder, even the briefest act of brainstorming can still conjure bigger successes unexplored: Blue Peter, Boys Brigade, Chalk Circle, Honeymoon Suite, Images in Vogue, Luba, the Nylons, One to One, Platinum Blonde, Rational Youth, Strange Advance, and Zappacosta.

And two more words: Northern Lights . . . likely our most significant gathering of talent at the time. It united the stars of multiple decades, and had more potential global reach than anything else included. Its absence is an astonishing omission.

It might be tough to reconcile this critique with my love for the era. Perhaps it’s inevitable disappointment from passionate over-expectation. At the risk of a music channel pun, perhaps it’s “much wants more”. If I weren’t being as objective, I’d give Rise Up a higher mark. It brings me to my feet, at least figuratively. There’s little — and probably nothing — quite like it but, against the measure of its fellows, it’s the least of a laudable group. It suffers for safe moderation, covering too much for depth, too little for breadth, and with too little of substance to say about its own content.

* * *

Not Rated

90 minutes

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