It’s fair to say that in 2011 when Rolling Stone started their contest to let their readership decide which band would be the first unsigned talent to be on their cover that almost no one knew who The Sheepdogs were. Immediately after winning, the band – comprised of Saskatchewan natives Sam Corbett, Ewan Currie, Ryan Gullen and Leot Hanson – was rocketed into a level of fame that most musicians can only dream of.
Frequently this kind of Cinderella story ends with a brief flash in the pan, a few radio singles and a fizzle a la any American Idol, Voice or X Factor winner, but The Sheepdogs were determined not to let that happen to them. Presented with an unprecedented opportunity, they set out to capitalize on their new found success and filmmaker John Barnard was there to capture their journey.
When Barnard got the call to direct the movie, which chronicles the time after the contest was over, he wasn’t in the loop about the Rolling Stone cover contest, nor The Sheepdogs. “I was the only person in Canada who didn’t really know who The Sheepdogs were,” he says noting that the story of how he became involved with the project isn’t sexy. “The truth was it was a Super Channel documentary about them and it needed a director.”
Interestingly, Barnard feels his lack of fan status helped the process and the film, allowing the audience to take a “getting to know the band” journey along with him. His production company, Farpoint Films was hired on a Thursday to start shooting on Saturday, so Barnard did what all good directors do: he got up to speed – fast. Driving from Winnipeg, where he lives, to Saskatoon and back again, he grabbed the band’s albums (including Learn & Burn, which went Platinum earlier this year) and started to learn whatever he could about them.
Starting from scratch on a film you have to start shooting in two days isn’t easy, he says. “When I started I kind of had to prove myself to them because they didn’t know who I was. They could have said no, they could have said no to all of it. I really showed up and started shooting and I don’t think they even understood what I was doing at the beginning. I think the communication maybe wasn’t all in place, but they just kind of trusted me and went with it.”
The film is an interesting mix of a concert film, a making-of-an-album film and the kind of bio doc that typically gets made when a band is inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, but it plays as though it’s a journey of discovery for everyone involved. “So from the beginning I had this kind of incremental relationship with them where bit by bit we had to learn a little bit about each other. For the most part I kind of learned about them and they learned about me in the same way that the movie unfolds.”
The most interesting thing about the film, it seems, comes directly from this back and forth learning. Barnard took the unusual step of sitting down with The Sheepdogs’ parents for a little background, which ended up being the heart of the movie. “The parents were there in Saskatoon when we shot the Saskatoon show and they were just a phone call away and they were willing to help. I think part of when you’re in a band and you’ve achieved something, and you’re nervous about wrecking what you’ve accomplished, you don’t want to say anything that’s going to detract from your street credit. I think that at the time they were being careful. I needed someone who would speak absolutely candidly about everything they had on the table and that was the parents.”
The parents offer a refreshing perspective on the band members themselves, since they’re right there in the moment with their sons. Often this type of documentary is made well after a band is successful as a retrospective on a career, so interviewees memories are rosier and their basements cleaner. Barnard has captured this very important moment in time for The Sheepdogs, and he’s quite proud of it. “Because that’s what bands do, right? They perform and they go and make albums and that’s why you see it in films again and again, but you don’t ever see their parents. Other people had stuff to lose too, right?”
What was at stake for The Sheepdogs is incredibly clear from the moment the film starts, and even though the band was hesitant about Barnard and his crew being around, they did have some ground rules. “From the very beginning they didn’t want anything to be artificial or staged or made up,” he says. “They created this kind of mandate for me, it’s not like they ruthlessly enforced it, but they said it was important for them that what we did was real. So I tried something that I hadn’t done before which was this kind of fly-on-the-wall perspective where you create the story as it unfolds for you. I didn’t know how it was going to end.”
His remark is interesting because not knowing how things will turn out is a common theme for the band, and many musicians like them. There is no question that The Sheepdogs are talented, hard working and dedicated, but that’s not a new story in the music industry. Many musicians spend their entire lives trying to build a fan base and career that will pay their rent and put food on the table, only to watch Justin Beiber get hit by lightning on YouTube and explode into stardom.
In a way The Sheepdogs were also hit by lightning, and once they were there was no stopping the train. “I was surprised by how quickly things changed for them, even while we were shooting,” Barnard says. “Even during that little window of three or four months while I was making the film I saw things change for them. They became more popular during that time, but also they became more comfortable in front of the camera. They had new opportunities show up. They kind of changed before my eyes. I don’t think the film is long enough to show that really, but I definitely saw the circumstances around them change.”
The film is exactly the right length to tell the story of what happened to the band after the contest, but there is always something left on the cutting room floor. In this case, it was something fairly important. “When they won the contest and the article came out in Rolling Stone there was a bit of backlash in the community to the article,” Barnard says. “Some people in town felt that Saskatoon had been portrayed badly in the article – that The Sheepdogs were maybe looking down their noses a little bit at their own home town. And that the writer of the article, Austin Scaggs, felt the same way; that he was kind of looking down his nose at Saskatoon, too.
I did an interview with Austin Scaggs while they were making the record and he said it was completely different than that. It’s not at all what he intended to come across. When he met the band he found that they were totally enamoured with their home town that all of the funny things that people took offence to were things that they liked about Saskatoon and he as the writer of the article felt that it had been completely misinterpreted by those people.
We didn’t go into that in the film because it didn’t fit but if you follow the story and you know what happened after the article came out it’s an interesting little tidbit.”
His experience with the band was obviously one Barnard will remember fondly. He may have started out a stranger they gave the side-eye to, but by the end he was obviously a member of the team. During the interview he often said “we” did things, correcting himself to note that it was actually The Sheepdogs who did it (“…we were making the record – well, while they were making the record…”) and his relationship with the band is clearly close to his heart. “I think it deserves being said that they didn’t have to let me do this,” he says humbly, “I showed up and I have no interest in gonzo TMZ journalism, but they didn’t know that at the time. As far as they knew I was out to expose whatever their secret for success was, any of their vices that they might have had (incidentally I don’t think they really have any), but they might have thought that was the case and they just rolled with it anyway. So I’ve been lucky.”
This very Canadian film is being distributed by Indiecan Entertainment, headed by Avi Federgreen and it is being released at a very interesting time. While most indie documentaries about Canadian bands, even those as big as The Sheepdogs, are often released when the competition of audience is less fierce, The Sheepdogs Have At It is being released in the heart of summer blockbuster season. This, above all else, might be why you should head out to Cineplex Yonge & Dundas and see it when it opens on Friday, June 21.
Of course the other compelling reason to see it is that it’s a fantastic film about some good prairie boys who really know how to rock and roll.
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