2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘I Want My MTV’

May 3, 2019

by Carla Hay

Animation image from MTV in “I Want My MTV” (Photo by Candy Kugel)

“I Want My MTV”

Directed by Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 1, 2019.

The documentary film “I Want My MTV” should come with a warning that the movie is primarily the story of MTV’s first decade in the 1980s. Even with that narrow view, the film misses the mark in many areas. The documentary relies too heavily on the words of the self-congratulatory executives who founded MTV, instead of taking a more responsible, investigative approach and seeking out a more diverse array of perspectives of people who are also part of MTV’s history. The film delivers if you want a predictable and superficial ride down memory lane—commentary on artists and old music videos are expected—but this documentary glosses over and ignores a lot of MTV’s real history.

The story of MTV (Music Television) has been already told in several books, news reports and articles. The network had humble beginnings, because it had a tiny start-up budget, and many people (including a few of its early executives) thought MTV was a bad idea that would fail. MTV’s early network-identification promo video that had NASA footage of the 1969 moon landing was prompted out of necessity because the footage was in the public domain (in other words, free), and MTV couldn’t really afford a fancy ad campaign at the time.  Launched on August 1, 1981, MTV started out as a 24-hour music network that initially wasn’t even available in a lot of big cities, such as New York, where MTV is headquartered.

MTV’s lack of availability on many cable systems was the impetus for the famous “I Want My MTV” ad campaign where major artists (such as Mick Jagger, Billy Idol, Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, The Police, David Bowie and The Who’s Pete Townshend) said the “I Want My MTV” slogan on camera, and urged people to call their local cable companies to add MTV to their channel lineups. Les Garland, who used to be a programming executive at MTV, takes credit for getting Jagger to do an “I Want My MTV” spot, by essentially convincing the money-minded Jagger that he would be filming a promotional video, not an ad. As a joke, Garland said he paid Jagger just $1 after the spot was filmed.

MTV’s music library also started off very small, as most of the initial videos available were from British artists (who were used to making music videos for shows like “Top of the Pops”) or American artists whose music videos usually consisted of cheaply filmed live performances with the studio recordings dubbed in post-production. The first two videos played on MTV exemplified these types of clips: the futuristic “Video Killed the Radio Star” from The Buggles (a British New Wave band) and the simple performance clip “You Better Run” from Pat Benatar, who was America’s top female rock star at the time.

Several artists who became popular on MTV in the early ‘80s are interviewed in the documentary, such as Benatar and her guitarist/husband Neil Geraldo; Idol; Sting (co-founder of The Police); Eurythmics members Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart; REO Speedwagon lead singer Kevin Cronin; and Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh. Also interviewed are two of MTV’s original VJs: Mark Goodman (a radio vet who describes his MTV audition process as “a little creepy” because it was in a hotel room, not a TV studio) and Alan Hunter, a self-described failed actor who got the job, despite having a “terrible” audition and no experience in broadcasting or the music industry. (MTV’s other original VJs—Nina Blackwood and Martha Quinn—are not interviewed, although there is archival footage of all the original VJs in the documentary. J.J. Jackson, another original MTV VJ, died of a heart attack in 2004, at the age of 62.)

To its credit, the documentary does not shy away from the controversy over MTV’s programming decisions. In its first two years, the network was frequently accused of racism for not playing enough black artists. MTV’s all-white first executive team—which included John Lack, Bob Pittman, Gail Sparrow, Fred Seibert, Tom Freston, Judy McGrath, John Sykes and Andrew Setos (Garland joined MTV later, after he had a long stint in radio)—are all interviewed in this documentary. Various excuses are given for excluding top-selling black artists from MTV’s playlists in the network’s early years.

One frequently given excuse is that the original concept of MTV was that it was supposed to be a rock’n’roll music channel. However, it’s a weak excuse because among the few black artists played on MTV in its early years were non-rock acts such as Musical Youth, Eddy Grant and Herbie Hancock. Meanwhile, bigger artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince, Rick James and Earth, Wind & Fire were being ignored by MTV.

The documentary includes a clip from the notorious 1983 MTV interview that Bowie did with Goodman, where Bowie asks Goodman why so few black artists are played on MTV. Goodman uncomfortably explains that too many black artists on MTV might scare the audience, especially those in “middle America.” It’s an incredibly racist belief, not to mention a condescending insult that wrongfully stereotypes people in the Midwest as automatically more racist than people who live on the East Coast and West Coast. Bowie’s withering stare and curt response in the interview speak volumes of his disgust. In the documentary, a present-day Goodman admits to being embarrassed about the interview all these years later, and he offers a sheepish apology for it.

The Bowie/Goodman interview exposed the mentality of MTV executives at the time, but the former MTV executives interviewed for this documentary who were in charge of making those decisions are still indignant and in denial over their racism. It’s not too surprising, because people who want to be thought of as “liberal” and “open-minded” don’t want to admit on camera that they’ve been racist. The former MTV executives are quick to pat themselves on the back in this documentary (Sparrow calls herself and the other executives “trend-setters, risk-takers and rebels”), but they don’t properly acknowledge their old-fashioned bigoted beliefs that prevented a lot of people of color from being part of MTV in its early years.

One example of this hypocrisy is when Sparrow, with hatred still etched on her face, talks about how Rick James’ “Super Freak” video was unacceptable to MTV at the time because James reminded her of a pimp and she didn’t like the way women were portrayed in the video. Yet, she doesn’t mention that MTV was willing to play videos from numerous (white) heavy-metal bands that often showed women in much more degrading scenarios, such as barely clothed or locked up in cages. Maybe MTV executives like Sparrow just didn’t like to see a music video of a black man being a sex symbol with women of different races. James was an outspoken critic of MTV at the time for not playing enough black artists, so it’s likely that MTV also had an unofficial ban on James, out of spite.

One of the most irresponsible parts of the “I Want My MTV” documentary is how it fails to give the full story of how Michael Jackson broke the racial barrier at MTV. Pittman tries to rewrite MTV history in this documentary by saying about the racism accusations: “Michael Jackson single-handedly pulled us out of that controversy,” and that it was MTV’s idea to “start courting Michael Jackson.” He also makes it sound like MTV had the vision to play Jackson’s videos right when his “Thriller” album was hitting big. What Pittman and the documentary did not talk about was the well-documented fact that CBS/Epic Records (namely, record-label chief Walter Yetnikoff) demanded that MTV play Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video or else the record company would boycott MTV. When MTV caved in, and saw that Jackson became the network’s most-requested artist, that opened the doors for more black artists to be played on MTV.

Yetnikoff, who was not interviewed for this documentary, told more details about this controversy in his 2001 memoir, “Howling at the Moon,” as well as in several media interviews. His credible account of MTV playing Michael Jackson only after MTV was threatened with a boycott has also been verified by numerous non-MTV people in the music industry who were involved at the time, none of whom are interviewed in this documentary.

The movie mentions that as MTV’s popularity grew in the 1980s, tensions grew between MTV and record companies because the record companies eventually wanted MTV to pay licensing fees for the videos. However, this documentary did not interview anyone who worked at record companies at the time to give their perspective. Video-promotion executives, who were on the front lines of music-industry relations with MTV, are shamefully left out of this documentary. Unlike some big-name artists, these past and present record-company executives are not that hard to get for interviews, so not including them in this film just shows that these documentary filmmakers were too lazy to get this valuable insight or they just didn’t care.

And even though “I Want My MTV” addresses the issue of MTV excluding many top-selling black artists in the network’s early years, ironically, the documentary does some noticeable racial excluding of its own, since no women of color are interviewed in the documentary at all.  The movie focuses primarily on MTV in the ‘80s, and gives a spotlight to a long list of artists from that era, so it’s mind-boggling that this documentary erases black female artists who had a big impact on MTV in the ‘80s—such as Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Salt-N-Pepa—by not giving a spotlight to any of these women of color.

No disrespect to Tegan and Sara (who were never really big artists on MTV but are interviewed in this documentary anyway), but there are plenty of women of color who were more influential in MTV’s history who could have been interviewed for this documentary but weren’t. The few people of color in this film who are interviewed are black men who talk about hip-hop or “Yo! MTV Raps”: Fab 5 Freddy, Ed Lover and Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniel, who says that Run-DMC was probably the first popular MTV rap act because Run-DMC incorporated a lot of rock music in its songs.

MTV’s influence in hard rock/heavy-metal’s popularity in the mid-to-late 1980s—as well as many of the genre’s sexist videos that got heavy airtime on MTV—are also addressed in the documentary. On the one hand, former MTV executive McGrath says that all that sexist content was “demoralizing.” On the other hand, she and other executives were responsible for choosing to give it so much airtime on MTV. Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video (which shows model Bobbie Brown being blasted with a fire hose by members of the band wearing firefighter hats) is mentioned in the documentary as an example of the types of MTV-approved rock videos where women were frequently treated as nothing more than playthings and props. Poison lead singer Bret Michaels, who’s interviewed in the documentary, says the popular MTV videos that Poison made were all in good fun.

Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson offers a different perspective of how the testosterone-fueled, often-sexist hard rock videos that MTV favored had an effect on her own career. She and her lead-singer sister Ann Wilson (who co-founded the rock band Heart) became successful with Heart in the mid-‘70s, when they didn’t have to wear revealing clothing to sell records. But by the mid-‘80s, Heart’s record company was pressuring them to make sexpot videos with cleavage-baring outfits that the Wilson sisters say they now regret doing. Nancy Wilson says that a lot of that pressure was because of MTV’s preference of showing rock videos with scantily clad women.

Music-video directors are given minimal scrutiny in the documentary. Mark Pellington, an early MTV hire, is interviewed, and says he was hired even though he had no experience at the time. A few music-video directors who went on to become major film directors are barely mentioned in the documentary, such as David Fincher and Michael Bay. However, the film does talk about how Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video (directed by John Landis) was a game-changer that impacted how videos were made, as budgets became larger and concepts became more elaborate.

In addition to “Thriller,” other music videos that are mentioned as the most-influential of the 1980s include a-ha’s “Take on Me,” Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” And although there are numerous artists whose careers were boosted because their videos got played on MTV, the documentary mentions that a few artists had their careers damaged by this exposure. Billy Squier is singled out in particular, for his 1984 “Rock Me Tonite” video (in which he awkwardly dances and slithers around in a “Flashdance”-styled ripped tank top), which ruined his rock credibility, and his career was never the same.

The documentary shows that the end of MTV’s ’80s golden era was around 1987, when some of the original team of network executives and VJs began to leave. It was also around this time that MTV began introducing more non-music programs, such as the game show “Remote Control,” which had a then-unknown Adam Sandler as a cast member.

As former MTV executive Freston says in the documentary, reality TV was “a blessing and a curse” for MTV. Grammy-winning musician Jack Antonoff adds that he (just like many other people who grew up with MTV) became frustrated with the decrease in music content on MTV over the years. The documentary also interviews OK Go, Good Charlotte twins Benji and Joel Madden and indie rock twins Tegan and Sara to offer their perspectives of musicians who were toddlers or weren’t even born when MTV was launched. (By 2010, MTV removed the words “music television” from its logo.)

One of the biggest flaws in the documentary is how it barely mentions the impact of the annual MTV Video Music Awards, which launched in 1984. Many of MTV’s biggest pop-culture moments came from the MTV VMAs. Perhaps the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to a lot of VMA footage, but that shouldn’t have prevented the documentary from giving more time to discuss the VMAs, other than a passing mention.

Because the focus of “I Want My MTV” is so heavily concentrated on 1980s-era MTV, the documentary breezes through mentions of MTV’s post-1980s programming, such as “The Real World,” “Singled Out” and “Jersey Shore.” Artists who became popular on MTV after the ‘80s are barely acknowledged, so don’t expect to see anything significant about Eminem, Nirvana, the Spice Girls, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Sean Combs, Jennifer Lopez, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears or any boy bands. Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell and Tori Amos are among the few ’90s-era artists who are interviewed in the documentary. It’s briefly mentioned at the end of the film that YouTube  (which launched in 2005) has significantly decreased MTV’s influence, and YouTube is now the main outlet where people see music videos.

“I Want My MTV” could have been a better documentary if directors Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop didn’t let the film be dominated by executives who haven’t worked at MTV in years, and if the filmmakers included a wider variety of people whose careers were also significantly impacted by MTV. In order to do a truly comprehensive history of MTV, the documentary probably should have been an episodic series instead of a feature-length film. “I Want My MTV” also comes at a time when a lot of people don’t want MTV, because the network just isn’t that relevant to pop culture as it was in the 1980s and 1990s. But for people nostalgic about MTV’s glory days and looking for a thorough examination of MTV’s history, this documentary is ultimately an incomplete disappointment with a lot of valuable perspectives shut out of the film.

A&E will premiere “I Want My MTV” on a date to be announced.