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Originally published January 29, 2010 at 10:05 PM | Page modified January 29, 2010 at 10:24 PM

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MTV's '$5 Cover' project puts Seattle bands and filmmakers in the spotlight at Sundance

"$5 Cover: Seattle" is a series of short films focusing on Seattle-area bands, made by Seattle-based directors. The films will be presented on MTV's Web site this spring. Clips from the series premiered last weekend at the Sundance Film Festival.

Special to The Seattle Times

'$5 Cover: Seattle'

HERE'S A LIST of local bands appearing in the upcoming MTV Web series, shown in part at the Sundance Film Festival:

Champagne Champagne

Corespondents

GOD

The Lights

The Maldives

The Moondoggies

Sean Nelson

The Spits

Tea Cozies

Thee Emergency

Thee Satisfaction

Weekend

Whiskey Tango

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PARK CITY, Utah — Seattle filmmakers have created a love letter to the city's music scene — an MTV series called "$5 Cover: Seattle." They're sharing it with the world via the network's Web site this spring, but gave audiences an early look at the Sundance Film Festival this week.

"$5 Cover: Seattle" is a sprawling project melding film and music and delivered via the Internet. At its heart are a dozen short movies, directed by Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, featuring area bands like The Moondoggies and The Maldives.

Shelton's shorts are scripted vignettes about local musicians, many based on real incidents in their lives.

Her films are not documentaries, Shelton said at Sundance, where she showed sneak-peek clips. "But I wanted them to have that air of authenticity."

Shelton, who leapt to national prominence at Sundance last year with the breakout success of her movie "Humpday," was recruited for the project by MTV executive David Gale. He launched the series' first season, "$5 Cover: Memphis," with filmmaker Craig Brewer ("Hustle & Flow") last summer.

Gale felt it was important to find artists from Seattle who could get inside the vibe surrounding the city's up-and-coming bands.

When he saw "Humpday" last year, he knew he'd found the woman to create the intimate stories at the project's core. He approached Shelton while she was still caught up in the frenzy over her film.

"I couldn't take anything in at the moment," she said.

But she decided to do it — partly out of a love for music, partly as a chance to throw some work to her Seattle crew, and partly because it was a chance to tackle a new challenge.

Shelton was inspired by Seattle's mutually supportive musicians, many of whom are friends and occasionally join each other to play.

"They're not musicians to be famous. They're musicians for the music," she said.

Shelton wasn't sure her "noncommercial aesthetic" would be a good fit for MTV, but Gale convinced her he wasn't going for anything glossy or artificial and gave her artistic control over the final product.

She aimed for a diversity of musical styles, backgrounds and personalities. She especially wanted to counter the notion Seattle is still all about the grunge music that made it famous in the 1990s.

Gale agrees, saying the grunge reputation "doesn't do the city justice anymore, although there are a lot of strains of it still around." In Seattle, he found, "you can pretty much see music anywhere, anytime. And most people who are making music aren't doing it to make a lot of money. There's an authenticity to the music there that's really, really clear."

As she had with "Humpday," Shelton eschewed a structured script in favor of an outline she and her subjects fleshed out as they went. "The vast majority of the characters are played by musicians who are playing themselves," she said. "I just hoped that because they were all musicians and performers at heart that they would pull through — and they did."

Immediately after watching the narrative short based on his band, The Moondoggies, singer and guitarist Kevin Murphy's first response was relief. He remembers some trepidation about agreeing to star in one of the films, thinking, "Musicians should not act."

But he says the band members also asked themselves, "Whatever other time would we be in this situation?"

Shelton put them at ease with her enthusiasm and respect for their work. "She's definitely very understanding of where we were coming from," Murphy said.

Although the money and manpower for "$5 Cover" were small by Hollywood standards, they dwarfed those for "Humpday."

In all, the project incorporated a cast of about 60 and about 40 locations, some of which are actual performance venues in Seattle. "It was by far the biggest production I'd ever worked on," Shelton said.

The Seattle Office of Film + Music and Washington Filmworks helped pull the project together. Although the state's rebate for films shot in the state had originally only applied to traditional media, the creators of "$5 Cover: Seattle" convinced the office an online project was just as worthy — especially one that showcased the city and would employ only Washington-based filmmakers and crew.

Gale says distributing the films via the Internet gives him and his collaborators freedom and flexibility they couldn't get through TV or movie-theater channels.

"This can grow naturally. It can become something people find, that they can discover. You don't have to worry about opening weekend," Gale said. The "$5 Cover" project is "a nonlinear experience. You could never do that with TV or films."

Shelton's films make up one leg of the three-part project: Seattle moviemaker John Jeffcoat ("Outsourced") created short documentaries introducing the bands. And local director Sue Corcoran organized the "B-sides," 22 shorts made by 18 local documentarians that give tastes of Seattle's diverse cultural scene — from sculpture to burlesque dancing.

When it all came together, the filmmakers saw a portrait of a vibrant city full of artistic possibility.

"I feel like Seattle — the different clubs and places we show up — is a character, maybe the main character," Shelton said.

Christy Karras: christykarras@gmail.com

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