Exploring art life

Queen’s alumni debut music documentary

Andrew Smyth (left) and Josh Jensen (right) pose outside of the Roxy in Toronto.
Andrew Smyth (left) and Josh Jensen (right) pose outside of the Roxy in Toronto.
Supplied by David Killing

Life’s challenges can be a source of fulfillment and even success, as two Queen’s alumni express in this soon-to-be-released documentary.

The Scene: An Exploration of Music in Toronto was edited and produced by Andrew Smyth, ArtSci ’10, and directed by Josh Jensen, ArtSci ’07. It’s an up close and personal documentary film about the life and times of Canadian musicians today.

Both the artists explained that while Toronto has a unique music industry, the idea of the starving artist remains a universal theme.

The film includes local Toronto bands The Ruby Spirit, The Alter Kakers and Committed to Rhyme with commentary from well-established musicians, including Tokyo Police Club, Bif Naked and Anvil.

For Jensen, it felt like a natural fit being in the creative industry and being surrounded by musicians all the time.

Smyth and Jensen’s friends supplied the rest of the cast and crew. Friends and fellow Queen’s grads David Killing, Eng ’07 David Koiter, Eng ’07, and Tim O’Reilly, ArtSci ’09, contributed to the film with camera work and audio mixing.

As for finding the bands, Jensen humorously shared how Smyth contacted one of the bands on Craigslist — one way that had the pair meeting people from different parts of the industry.

For the filmmakers, watching the artists sustain themselves was a personal story that they hoped to apply to their own lives.

Neither Jensen nor Smyth owned a camera before their DIY film project. They said they had to find cameras, lighting, audio, editing equipment and the right people for the equipment, who would also work for free.

“The advantage to doing the DIY approach is that no credit cards were maxed out in the making of this picture,” Jensen said, “but at the other end of the spectrum, you put extra stress on yourself.” Neither of them said they had solid past experience to build on for making a music documentary.

It was mostly trial-and-error, both said, and they constantly had to balance the need to pay the rent while doing what they really loved.

Luckily, the forgiving format of a documentary allowed them to piece together, as well as unfold, the story naturally. The entire project took about a year from concept to screen.

“The arc of the film kind of follows the career of a band,” Jensen said, “from inception to songwriting, to playing live, recording, getting representation [and] touring.”

A musician’s life has its own challenges and rewards.

Few artists get paid, and with the Internet, they get paid even less. With touring costs, basic living necessities and unexpected costs like US working visas for American shows, it can be very daunting. Some musicians stream their music online for free, in hopes of enticing people to buy their show tickets or merchandise.

In Toronto, the sheer amount of musicians playing in the same genre, Smyth said, in the same venue and on the same night makes it hard to get noticed.

“It sort of becomes very mindblowing when you start to think about how these bands actually support themselves,” Smyth said.

In this light, the film celebrates those who are willing to keep playing for the love of the music.

For Smyth, the idea of fighting for an artistic income is very real. He was an unpaid intern in Toronto’s film industry.

“I got very frustrated trying to support myself in a creative industry,” Smyth said, “and I had these lingering questions about how music, another creative industry, is able to support the people that work with it.”

At the end of the month, Smyth and Jensen will be coming full circle by screening their film at Queen’s, where they were first introduced to the art of film.

“We’re very excited to have this opportunity to come back to campus and show it so hopefully we’ll get a crowd out,” Smyth said.

The Scene: An Exploration of Music in Toronto will be shown at a free screening on Nov. 22 at 3 p.m. in Ellis Auditorium. It’s expected to be released on iTunes, VOD and DVD form in early 2014.

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