Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Tribeca ’19: I Want My MTV

MTV was nearly invisible on the cable radar and in danger of disappearing completely in 1982, until one of the most successful advertising slogans in history rocketed the network to cultural prominence. Years later, grown-up Eighties kids still want their MTV, but not the bastardized version now carried by cable systems. The founding of Music Television and its 1980’s glory years are chronicled in Tyler Measom & Patrick Waldrop’s documentary, I Want My MTV, which screened during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Before reality television and stilted political propaganda, MTV played music videos. They made and revived careers. The conceptual godfather of MTV was the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, but he stepped aside once it became clear this crazy idea could actually become a business. It was John Lack and Robert Pittman of Warner-Amex Satellite Communications (which no longer exists), who shepherded the project to fruition.

We hear a lot from Lack and Pittman, but that is cool, because they have a lot to say (Lack is a particularly colorful interview subject). Although ostensibly working in a corporate environment, they were definitely risk-takers who pulled off a big gamble. We also hear from the three of the four surviving original VJs (but some fans will be disappointed Alan Hunter and Mark Goodman both get considerably more screen-time than Martha Quinn).

Measom & Waldrop basically imply the real MTV ended with the departure of the last remaining original VJs and the sale of the network to Viacom. Most first-generation fans would agree with that (even though we eventually warmed to Kennedy). Despite the interview and archival appearances of some of the biggest rockers of all time (Sting in a sit-down, David Bowie on tape), I Want My MTV is still primarily a business documentary, which is its strength.

This doc will really take the target demo back in time to when MTV was fresh and fun—and mostly—you know—music. Yet, most of the behind-the-scenes info will be new to viewers who haven’t read Rob Tannenbaum & Craig Marks’ nonfiction book of the same title. Frankly, it is a bit mind-blowing to revisit the realities of the early cable era, which the film nicely puts in perspective.

I Want My MTV is highly entertaining and consistently informative, but it will also frustrate some viewers, because we want our MTV—the one seen in this film. Of course, any documentary that stirs strong reactions like that, as well as a generally wistful sense of nostalgia is definitely worth seeing. Enthusiastically recommended, I Want My MTV screens Sunday (6/2) during the 2019 Greenwich InternationalFilm Festival, following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca.