CBC digs deep for a monumental history of music in From the Vaults

As Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC has—literally—a treasure trove of an archive from which to pull footage and information. With over 90,000 reels to draw from, it was a monumental task. But it paid off with the network’s latest project.

From the Vaults—bowing Thursday at 9 p.m. on CBC—isn’t an update of the wonderful 1982 miniseries Heart of Gold. Where that three-hour special, narrated by Donald Sutherland, only explored Canadian singer-songwriters, From the Vaults uses music to tell the stories of Canada and the world through not just homegrown talent but international ones who visited CBC’s studios.

“I think the CBC has been trying to find a way to share their archive with Canadians,” says executive producer Sam Dunn. “It’s this massive, titanic, vault of material that not only exists in the basement of Toronto’s [CBC headquarters] but major cities across the country.”

Dunn’s Banger Films serves as producers of From the Vaults and CBC couldn’t have picked a better partner. Banger Films has produced a plethora of top-notch documentary films and TV series in Super Duper Alice Cooper, Metal Evolution, Long Time Running and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. Teaming with the CBC was a no-brainer, Dunn says. He and co-executive producer and Banger Films partner Scot McFadyen love working with archival material and being storytellers and embraced the opportunity to cross decades and musical styles. They and their staff know music and how to tell a story but were nonetheless overwhelmed by the sheer amount of source material.

“We were completely daunted,” Dunn says with a laugh. “We couldn’t just go down there and pull a tape off a shelf because it was like throwing a pebble into an ocean.” The solution? They reached out to people they knew in Canada: music writers, musicians, folks who had a great knowledge of the archive and had worked at the CBC for years. The team slowly began piecing together performances that stood out for people. A key appearance by The Who in a student union building. A special hosted by Harry Belafonte documenting his travels across Canada.

Sammy Davis Jr. on the set of his CBC special, Parade.

The next step was to structure each of the six one-hour episodes. The CBC, Dunn explains, didn’t want them divided by genre, decade or regions of Canada. The solution? Use a theme that says something about Canada and our culture.

Narrated by Amanda Parris and Tom Power, Episode 1—labelled “Land of Opportunities”—recalls musical acts that used this country as a stepping stone or key component in their career. Though he was a world-renown entertainer and member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, Sammy Davis Jr. would never be able to headline his own television show in the U.S. because of his skin colour. He came to Canada to do it, hosting a special called Parade. Singer-songwriter Joan Baez, meanwhile, performed and was interviewed at the CBC during the Vietnam War; and reggae legend Jackie Mittoo and blues singer Muddy Waters sought the freedom to explore their talents on Canadian soil.

From the Vaults not only spotlights music and musicians but the network as well. Footage is culled from several past projects like Adrienne Clarkson Presents, Let’s Go, Nightcap, Pilot One, Take 30, Talent Caravan, The Tommy Hunter Show and The Wayne & Shuster Hour, providing a history of the CBC and its ongoing relationship with the arts.

“Up until The New Music and the emergence of MuchMusic the CBC was the only place in town that would show music on television,” Dunn says. “I think the other factor is that we’re talking about a CBC at a time when it a little more like the Wild West out there. It’s a credit to independent-minded producers who were really determined to create the kind of shows they wanted to see on the network.”

From the Vaults airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.

Images courtesy of CBC.

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and owner of TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from hundreds of television series from Canada, the U.S. and internationally. He is a podcaster, public speaker, weekly radio guest and educator, and past member of the Television Critics Association.
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