I went into The Sheepdogs Have At It with interested, persuasive ears. I had heard some of the band’s work and liked it, but never found myself yearning to find out more about the band members themselves. I would take the music at face value and soak in the nostalgia that lined the tracks.
The Sheepdogs Have At It offered insights here and there regarding how the band got started and how tough and exhausting touring is, but director John Barnard never gives his audience more than just a few insights – at least, for the first 2/3 of his documentary.
As we hear these floating facts about the band’s origin and how their appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine changed their lives, Barnard tends to repeat himself. We constantly hear fans, family, and essential workers in the music industry commend The Sheepdogs on having non-stop drive and perseverance – even during those slower periods as the band tried to find their audience. However, it’s the post-Rolling Stone opinion that seems all too clichéd and usual.
“Their next album needs to be big,” says everyone as they comment on The Sheepdogs possible future. It’s a true, concern but needn’t Barnard keep a control on how many times its uttered? It’s times like these along with other continual instances – like watching the band record solos and becoming upset at their messy takes – it feels like the doc is chasing its own tail.
Even though they have a history with band members Sam Corbett, Ewan Currie, Ryan Gullen, and Leot Hanson, the documentary isn’t all that flattering of a vehicle for these third party interview subjects or for the band either. That’s not to say it puts these people into a negative light. The thing is they aren’t put in the light as best as they could’ve been.
A good example would be that concert footage. Not only is The Sheepdogs Have At It a straight-up documentary, but it’s also a semi-concert film as well – giving moviegoers the feeling of being awash in the crowd of rockers. The footage is frequently displaying these rugged musicians from profile shots while their hair drapes over their faces. These shots are mixed in with random unsteady close-ups of instruments and unfocused snap-zooms into the smiley crowd. It’s as if the shoot called for multiple cameramen to take aim at a musician and improvise creative shots.
The willingness to get creative is mindful, but there needs to be more planning and a more detailed shot list before shooting a concert on-the-fly and accumulating lots of footage that isn’t so appealing to look at.
It’s not until moviegoers start to learn more about the contest process behind the Rolling Stone cover that the film builds genuine excitement. Again, we hear how so many people adore the old thyme-y sounds of The Sheepdogs, but we figure out how their word-of-mouth can be so effective.
Because of their distinct, unnatural sounding tunes (by radio stations’ standards), The Sheepdogs had a hard time getting listeners of all ages to hear what they cooked up. Interviews with Fearless Fred from 102.5 The Edge as well as other chats with knowledgable musical hounds tell audiences how they worked to get airtime for the band. Barnard’s doc also highlights a funny but equally odd piece of promotion that helped the band significantly – a featured spot on the reality TV show Project Runway.
When we see the crowds gradually grow building up to the final days of voting for the Rolling Stone contest, our smiles can’t help but grow as well. The support by Canadian listeners alone is an impressive move and subtlety shows how dedicated fans can make a difference for their beloved band for the better.
Barnard and his doc are adamant to win you over by the end credits. The filmmaker manages to make us smile and tap our feet as we approach the final moments of the film, but The Sheepdogs Have At It needed that same excitement during its introduction. That excitement may have been there but, unfortunately, it would’ve been done in by repetitive direction and unpolished editing.
I’m more of a fan of The Sheepdogs and their music after watching Barnard’s hasty doc, but the filmmaker needs a bit more rehearsal time behind the camera in order to pull off something consistently effective.