This special charts the rise of a cultural phenomenon that came to define a generation: MTV. What started during the nascent days of cable television as a scrappy, playful music video lineup, rapidly evolved into a reflection of American youth culture. As MTV came of age, the network pushed the boundaries of art, sex, gender and race, while cementing its image to celebrity. And when the information revolution raged, MTV was at the forefront exploring new technologies.
“I Want My MTV” weaves together exclusive interviews with the network’s founders and VJs, artists and journalists, along with rarely seen archival footage and outtakes, including an interview with the late David Bowie that was never broadcast on television. The documentary, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 and became a crowd favorite at festivals around the world, details the story of a network that evokes youth for a generation now grown, and influenced the global media landscape for decades to come.
Interview subjects include Sting, Pat Benatar with Neil Girado, Billy Idol, Annie Lennox of the Eurhythmics, Magne Furuholmen of A-HA, Nancy Wilson of Heart, Fab Five Freddy, Norman Lear, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, among many others.
I Want My MTV goes back to the earliest days of the network that became a standard-bearer for music trends in the ’80s and ’90s and also revolutionized in the original series department with shows like The Real World.
This documentary manages to get most of the biggest names associated with the beginnings of MTV, which launched on August 1, 1981, from stars who were in the early videos, to two of the original VJs to pretty much all the significant executives who helped bring the crazy idea of a 24-hour music video channel to life. (The network’s first video? “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles, of course.)
It’s hard to believe that notion, right? But in 1980, the idea of a 24-hour music video network was a crazy idea, as was a 24-hour news network (CNN) and a 24-hour sports network (ESPN). In cable’s early days, big ideas like MTV needed people of vision and a little bit of chutzpah to get massive conglomerates like Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, the network’s initial owner, on board. The documentary takes a look at the early days of music videos, where people like Michael Nesmith of The Monkees were at the forefront of making creative clips to accompany songs. At one point, Nesmith was asked to head up what would become MTV, but he tells the directors that running a network wasn’t this thing.
But it was in the wheelhouse of execs like John Lack, Bob Pittman, John Sykes, Tom Freston, Judy McGrath, Gale Sparrow, Les Garland, all of whom and more spoke about the audacious launch of the network. Original VJs Mark Goodman and Alan Hunter were also interviewed (Nina Blackwood and Martha Quinn apparently declined; J.J. Jackson died in 2004). The documentary goes over fun facts like the how the executives needed to drive to a old-man bar in Fort Lee, NJ in order to see the launch of the network at midnight, how one executive found the iconic logo scribbled onto crumpled tracing paper at the bottom of a pile of other logos made by the same graphic artist, and how difficult it was to get big record companies to make videos for the network in the early days.
The reason for that was because the network barely penetrated existing cable markets in its first couple of years. but when Garland created the “I Want My MTV!” campaign with pretty much every big music star of the time, everything changed.
Of course, once MTV got big, though a lot of good and bad stuff happened. It fueled a second British invasion, as the Brits had been doing video performances on Top of the Pops and elsewhere for years (Sting and Billy Idol were interviewed). Artsy bands like Devo — Mark Mothersbaugh is interviewed for the special — got a chance to shine with creative videos like “Whip It”. But by 1983 there were accusations of racism, as not enough Black acts were featured. The excuse was that they weren’t “rock.” But when Michael Jackson dropped “Billy Jean” on the network — a more R&B track than the promised “Beat It” — and it did well, everything changed. There’s no “Yo! MTV Raps” without MJ’s breakthrough.
This documentary did deal with some of the more controversial issues surrounding the network. The initial calls of racism, their resistance to hip hop in the late ’90s, the hair-band bikini-videoification of the network in the later ’80s, through the rise of original series that overtook the schedule by the late ’90s… they’re all discussed.
The executives are actually very entertaining, and not just the ones most of us know, like Freston and Pittman. These weren’t stuffy suits; they were even more interested in having fun than the VJs or maybe even some of the musicians. Les Garland looks like he could be the lead singer of Smash Mouth, not a former marketing executive.
TOTAL RUNNING TIME 1 Hour 24 Minutes