The Sheepdogs' rapid rise to fame after winning Rolling Stone's 2011 cover contest might be well-documented, but the challenges the scruffy Saskatoon rockers faced after the magazine cycled through newstands has been a lesser-known story — until now.
No, the group didn't spiral into drug addiction, develop clashing egos or fall victim to any other rock star clichés. Rather, they beelined into the studio to craft a new album, their first with major label backing. That's where director John Barnard's documentary, The Sheepdogs Have At It, starts.
"The idea is they reached this certain level and that's where the real work begins," Barnard says. "Suddenly, they had something to lose."
The film will be finished just in time to close the Whistler Film Festival with its world premiere Dec. 2. Those exclusive behind-the-scenes moments are part of the reason film fest program director Paul Gratton jumped at the chance to host the screening. "I'm trying to do a number of music movies as a way to attract the Whistler worker, the young person in town who isn't necessarily a film buff," Gratton says. "I'm very pleased to have the premiere."
Barnard came to the production late, after Spencer Rice (of Kenny vs. Spenny TV fame) realized he wouldn't have time to make the project and hired the Winnipeg company Barnard worked for to take it on. He knew little about the band or their storied history, but delved into it regardless. "I kind of fell into this job with very little prep and almost no plan whatsoever," he says. "I just started working. My initial job was just to start documenting them and see what happened. So, I did that as best I could and pulled my narrative from the events that unfolded in front of me."
He began in Tennessee where the band was recording their self-titled fourth record. "They had to write and record a new album as quickly as possible and get it out into the world before the sizzle on this whole contest win went away," Barnard says. "My film follows them into a recording studio in Nashville. They were working with Patrick Carney, the drummer from the Black Keys. He produced the record. Meanwhile, they were touring across Canada and the U.S."
After visiting Music City, Barnard picked interesting locations on the band's extensive tour to meet with the group and tag along. The band, meanwhile, was happy to accommodate.
"They welcomed me into their lives and work. So that part worked quite nicely," he says. "I think at the time they were still a little bit new to the media attention, still a little bit new to doing things like interviews. I only filmed them for four months. During that time, the changes in their abilities, in that sense, were really noticeable."
For Barnard, the thrust of the film — and the band's shift in profile — is best summed up by a scene he shot in New Orleans on Halloween.
"It was their day off and they agreed to hang out with me and my cameraman and shoot some of the movie. Nothing that wouldn't normally happen in New Orleans on Halloween happened, but, to me, it was kind of an indicator of how far things had gone from them being a small band from Saskatchewan to being recognized by fans on the streets of New Orleans," he says.
Although the documentary is largely aimed at fans of the band, their modern spin on scrappy '70s rock means that's a diverse crowd.
"I would like to think this film is for everyone who appreciates that world of music," Barnard adds. "Without sounding too earnest, I hope people can see that there's some value in the statement that working hard for your dreams is actually worthwhile. Perhaps that doesn't work out perfectly for everyone, but every once in a while if you stick by what you believe in and work at it, it might actually pay off."
In a way, that message also applies to the documentary, which is Barnard's feature film debut. He also had a baby and began filming a TV series for APTN shortly before flying back and forth between the band's gigs. When we spoke, the film still wasn't quite finished.
"I'm standing 20 feet away from an edit suite where colour adjustments are being made right now," he says. "In another building the sound mix is being finalized. (The festival deadline) is kind of a gift because it forces me to finish. My new motto is get it down as well as you can, learn from your mistakes and move on to the next one. There's so much to be gained from deadlines."