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Zack Mosley [Film Festival 12.07.12] Canada music documentary

I come to the The Sheepdogs Have At It as an established fan of The Sheepdogs. I first noticed the Saskatoon neo-classic rock group in the back half of 2011, shortly after they won a contest to become the first unsigned band to ever appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. I listened to their album "Learn & Burn" over and over, and wondered how a bunch of Canadian boys in this day and age could sound so eerily like The Allman Brothers. I saw them at the Rickshaw when they opened for Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, a $15 show that might be the best live music value-for-money I've ever experienced. I saw them at Sasquatch Festival. Not only on stage, but in the crowd, taking in other acts like regular music fans. I might have even drunkenly yelled "WOO! SHEEPDOGS!" at guitarist Leot Hanson, like an idiot. But his response was simply to smile and nod back, as if to say "far out, man." Their 2012 self-titled album is full of tracks that sink their hooks into you immediately, almost as if they are covers of classics that already exist. I'm seeing them for the third time at the Commodore Ballroom later this month. I don't tend to see the same band three times over the course of a year unless they put on a ridiculously tight live show. So yeah, I'm kind of a fan. WOO! SHEEPDOGS!

Prior to the screening, however, I wondered what this documentary would consist of. I'm not aware of any public drama. They haven't given a member the heave-ho, like Wilco in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. They're not broken up and beefing, like A Tribe Called Quest in Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. They're not down-and-out, like Anvil in Anvil: The Story of Anvil. This isn't a concert film that revolves around an epochal show, like The Last Waltz or Monterey Pop. So where's the drama? What's the gist? The Sheepdogs Have At It turns out to be an underdog story, charting the progress of the band from total obscurity in 2006 to sophomore success in 2012. Here's what you need to understand about this group: they play classic rock. Not a modern spin on classic rock, but the genuine article. And they have the flowing manes and epic beards to back it up. So their success in the age of the bubblegum auto-tuned pop star is something of an anomaly, explained only by the fact that they are utterly legit at what they do. It actually creates a feeling of cognitive dissonance when you hear vocalist Ewan Currie utter the words "Facebook invitations" in the song "Learn & Burn," for the music simply does not sound as if it comes from this century. Despite their anachronistic vibe, The Sheepdogs have gone from opening in a room with four audience members to headlining huge venues. At one point they recorded with two microphones and copy of Pro Tools, now Patrick Karney of the Black Keys is producing their album. They've pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, so this story is a tremendously inspirational one.

The lynchpin of the band's success is that history-making Rolling Stone cover. Interviews with agents, managers, execs and family members reveal how the whole thing went down, while also touching on the formative years before the home recording of “Learn & Burn” and the high-stakes studio recording of "The Sheepdogs." If I were to lobby a critique at the film, it would be that this non-linear structure could use some refinement. The editing hops around in a free-for-all effort to make the "will they make it?" question suspenseful, but as a fan I already know the answer. One could argue that the film is aiming at a new demographic that hasn't heard of the Sheepdogs, but the existence of the film itself (and the music on the soundtrack) should suggest to even the uninitiated audience member that they didn't drop the ball on their sophomore release. I'm not necessarily convinced that the film would work better if it proceeded in straight linear order from 2006 to 2012. I'm merely suggesting that there are further opportunities for fine-tuning in the editing room. Director John Barnard announced that they had locked this cut of the film three days prior to the screening, so it's possible the filmmakers already agree with me.

The concert footage included in this documentary is great. Cinematographer Dave Gaudet (who was wearing a leather fringe jacket and a Jheri curl at the screening, looking like a member of the band) captures the live Sheepdogs experience with bold, cinematic shot choices. The Sheepdogs are not quite big enough yet to have thrown their guard up, so the behind-the-scenes footage is candid and engaging. A rock movie was the perfect choice to close the Whistler Film Festival with a lot of energy. The Sheepdogs Have At It is a great documentary about a great band.

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