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Nickelback Hate to Love.jpg

TIFF 2023: 'Nickelback: Hate to Love' is a Musical Doc About Rock's Punching Bag

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 11, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | September 11, 2023 |

Nickelback Hate to Love.jpg

You hate Nickelback. OK, maybe you don’t actually dislike the Albertan rock band. They’re one of the biggest-selling acts in their genre so obviously they have fans. Yet it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a hell of a lot of people seriously loathe Nickelback. They have the dubious claim of being the most hated band in modern music, the group it’s OK to tear to pieces. You’ve seen the memes, heard the jokes, and watched the performatively angry YouTubers rant themselves into a stupor over them. It’s gotten so overplayed that the cycle has swung right back to ask, ‘But really, aren’t they actually great?’

Nickelback: Hate to Love is clearly intended to be a victory lap of sorts for Chad Kroeger and company. They’ve been together for well over two decades, going from broke and perennially touring startups to undeniable mega-stars. They’ve made enough money that they can basically do whatever they want, even as the increasingly precarious music industry undergoes irrevocable changes. But the thing about music documentaries is that the best of them are the ones that focus on the performer(s) being either fascinating personalities or total arseholes (see U2: Rattle & Hum, Madonna: Truth or Dare, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.) A glut of modern music docs are intended to be little more than brand extensions that reveal little beyond the well-worn and highly familiar details of the business. Between Nickelback acting as producers on Hate to Love and the distinct lack of anything truly prickly about them; it should be no surprise that this film is just kind of OK. Much like Nickelback.

The basics are all here: their humble origins in Alberta, complete with family drama; their slow climb to public awareness; the breakout hits and leap to stadium tours; the sacking of their original drummer and members’ various health issues. It’s all interesting enough and there’s always something to be said about a rock band that stridently avoided hookers-and-blow scandals. We talk about wanting more down-to-earth celebrities but they seldom make for compelling real-life drama.

The documentary is being sold off that ‘most hated band lore’, with the poster riffing on the memes of their single ‘Photograph.’ This is where the film could have delved into intriguing territory. As one band member says, nobody starts their music career with the hope of becoming the world’s least favourite group. It’s now seen as kind of passé to drag Nickelback, or at least so 2008. The band has joked about it for years, and their self-awareness reveals a raw emotional underbelly (wouldn’t you come close to cracking if you were in their shoes?) But there’s so little substance given to the topic beyond it being a thing that happened that totally sucked for them and their families.

You cannot dictate a person’s taste, nor can you shame someone into changing it. Sometimes, we have no reason more complex for liking the things that we do than, ‘I just like it.’ Nickelback has perfected the popular rock formula with a ruthless efficiency that has made them wildly popular around the world even as the internet claimed otherwise. This is a band that was designed to be mainstream. Their original record label, Roadrunner, was dedicated to hard metal and wanted a band they could take beyond that niche. It feels like there’s a lot to say about an artist’s ambition and eagerness to put general appeal first, even at the loss of critical credibility. We get none of that in this film, nor do we get any dissections of what it is that makes Nickelback’s music ‘bad.’ Hell, we don’t even get a lot of time discussing the haters, both online and industry-based. It seems like we see far more of the backlash to the backlash, a lot of which seems to center on Ryan Reynolds being their Canadian ally. It feels as though nobody wants to ruffle any feathers, which is curious since the whole point in being rich and hated is the ability to do whatever the hell you want.

The reverberations of such concentrated hate are hinted at, particularly with Chad Kroeger, who has had to deal with being the public face of the band for decades, making him the easiest target for such ire. Yet even he pulls away when the opportunity is presented to dig deeper. It happens again when they discuss sacking their original drummer. Various health issues are discussed then moved on from neatly. It feels like there’s little to truly chew on here. When the band members tell us that Chad is a talented and prolific songwriter, it seems like the perfect opening for a dissection of that process. Nope. Just enjoy another round of the songs you know.

There’s a moment where one band member says that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to listen to or make ‘dumb, vacuous shit’, all but confirming that Nickelback themselves are OK with those oft-bandied accusations of being bereft of substance. It’s a rare moment of candour in what ultimately feels like an exercise in control. It’s a shame because we could have really gotten something interesting here, akin to Carl Wilson’s excellent book on another frequently mocked Canadian music star, Celine Dion. Instead, Nickelback: Hate to Love is safe, designed for its fans, and unwilling to rock the boat outside of the vast mainstream. So yeah, typical Nickelback.

And ‘Rockstar’ is a terrible song.

Nickelback: Hate to Love had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.