I’m a huge fan of music documentaries and count Soundbreaking, It Might get Loud, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage and Sonic Highways among my favourites. I’ll add Amplify to the mix.
Debuting Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern on APTN, Amplify was created by Métis writer, director, musician and cinematographer Shane Belcourt, and focuses on Indigenous songwriters and those that have inspired them. What sets Amplify apart is not only the subject matter—songwriter Cheryl L’Hirondelle (above) and author Robin Wall Kimmerer are showcased in Episode 1—but the look of each of the 13 episodes. Rather than simple talking heads inter-cut with performances, the series’ cameras pause on flowers waving in a breeze, a tumbledown barn in a field, or ripples on a pond.
We spoke to Shane Belcourt about how Amplify came about, and what he hopes viewers will experience as they watch it.
What made you create Amplify?
Shane Belcourt: The producers that I work with wanted to make a music documentary series. The default for that kind of music documentary series is usually the biography series, ‘Here’s the musician, here’s what they’ve done.’ I mean, sure I like them, but I want to watch a TV show that has some artistry behind it, that has some kind of uniqueness that I can’t get anywhere else. I was quite inspired by Dave Grohl’s HBO documentary series, Sonic Highways, as well as the Netflix series, a very popular one, Chef’s Table.
I thought, ‘There’s something about both of these documentaries, the way that they’re structured and the pacing and the points that they bring out.’ But the other big one was when you think about going to musicians and saying, ‘Hey, you’re great. Tell me why you’re great. Rolling,’ they’re going to be like, ‘Uh, no thanks.’
But if you said, ‘Hey, what’s something that you’ve read recently or thought about, or something in our Indigenous world that you’re really excited to explore and think about that’s really shaped you? Will you tell me about that?’ And, of course, every musician is like, ‘Oh yeah, hey, you should read this and I love this part and that part. And here’s what it means to me.’ Through that micro focus, you get the macro feeling of who this person really is. So you get the biography, you get the feeling of who this person is through focusing on one thing that they’re excited to talk about.
One of the things that struck me were the times you’re showing a barn in a field or some flowers. Clearly that was a conscious decision on your part to make this different.
SB: Yeah. I’ve got to really tip my hat to the broadcaster, APTN. I sold them originally from the lookbook and from the pitch deck. I said, ‘Listen. I want to do something that has the pacing, like Chef’s Table, that’s very meditative, that takes time to linger on a shot. We’re in no rush.’
And to their credit, they said, ‘Great.’ One of my friends has this great saying. He’s actually musician. He said, ‘When the world runs, walk slow. When the world goes slow, start running. If you want to stand out, do the opposite.’ And so I think that there’s a history now of documentaries. There’s so many good documentaries. And I’m inspired by the visual treatment that we’re all pushing to.
How did you decide on the songwriters you were going to include?
SB: I work really closely with producer Michelle St. John, and she knows everybody. She’s great. We thought, ‘OK, well, we know what the recipe of the show is: Songwriter + inspiration = an episode.’ So we thought, ‘OK, well, who are 13 songwriters that we’d love to spend time with who we know are articulate, and also a mix between somebody who’s known like iskwē and someone who’s less known like Lacey Hill?’ We definitely wanted to make a list that had a lot of Indigenous female performers. So that was also a juggling act. You make your big list.
And I would say 80 per cent agreed right off. We called them. They’re like, ‘We love this idea. Totally interested. We’re in.’ And while we made that list of songwriters, we also then made a parallel list of what director would be perfect to work with that songwriter.
One of the things that I enjoyed is you had each person introduce themselves in their Indigenous language.
SB: Yeah. So much of welcoming and greeting yourself and introducing yourself to the space or to the people who you’re sharing that space with is to express who you are and where you’re from and what your community and nation is. Who holds you, what group has brought you forward as opposed to, ‘I’m this isolated person named Dale or Bob or whatever.’ That was something that we wanted, too. It just made sense to do that. And the other thing too, is that the musicality of the language was something that we just love to hear. It just gives them a little flavour of something that just to me, sounds a little sweeter and pulls the audience in a little further as they read the subtitles, but hear the sound for most of the people who don’t speak Ojibway.
When people tune in and watch Amplify, what are you hoping that they do? Do you want them to hit up iTunes and look for this music and start Googling these artists and the people who inspired them?
SB: That’s just it. You just nailed it right there. The hope that someone watching the show is that for a half-hour TV block, they get to sit down and be transported into a place that has these unusual and new characters and voices and sounds. And then at the end of it, they’re just thinking a couple of things. One is, for something like in the pilot, ‘I have to go buy a copy of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book. I want to read it.’ That’s what you hope because it’s such a great book. And then, ‘Oh, I want to check out Cheryl L’Hirondelle. I love the sound of her stuff. It’s so interesting.’ I’m someone who as an artist, I guess ultimately whenever I watch a great movie or a great show, I want to make something. It inspires me to be creative and do what I do. So I hope, ultimately, people watch it and go, ‘I want to sit down and write a song,’ or whatever it is that they do to get out there and just be creative.
Amplify airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on APTN.