Columns / Discourse / October 12, 2011

Check the Reel: Giving music videos their due

There exists a strong, vaguely understandable prejudice against music video directors amongst “legitimate” filmmakers. These people — so the sentiment goes — need only attach their name to a popular band and boom! They’ve earned millions of dollars and YouTube views. I follow the reasoning and sympathize, but, frankly, it’s wrong. Case in point: search the music videos on VEVO and tell me how many cite their director’s name. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Truth is, music videos possess as much artistic merit as any other visual art, and the people who make them deserve equal respect. These are just some of the names you might want to remember when someone tells you music videos are corrupting today’s youth.

“Godley & Crème”: Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, former members of pop group 10cc, distinguished themselves in the ‘80s both as a songwriting duo and music videos’ first serious practitioners. At a time when the language of music videos was still immature and developing, Godley and Crème gleefully experimented with the medium’s possibility: they made mannequin legs dance (Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,”) presented The Police in glorious black-and-white (“Every Breath You Take”) and morphed faces before “morphing” was an actual Hollywood technique (their own “Cry”). Also watch: the trippy, epileptic “Everybody Have Fun Tonight.”

Mark Romanek: A legend in the music video circuit, Romanek takes his strong film background — he decided to become a director after watching “2001” and studied under Brian de Palma — and applies it to clips for some of music’s biggest stars. With Madonna, he made the cool and gorgeous “Rain;” his video for Nine Inch Nails (NIN)’s “Closer” might be the most disturbing thing you’ve ever seen; his video for Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt,” the saddest. Also watch: his magnum opus, Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”

Jonas Åkerlund: Åkerlund has made videos for Lady Gaga, Maroon 5, Madonna and Britney Spears without sacrificing his creativity. If anything, they have given him a mainstream outlet for his fire-raising antics. He’s dealt with X-rated movies (Maroon 5’s “Wake Up Call”), a Tarantino-esque murder spree (Gaga’s “Telephone,”) and a night of excess and twist endings (Prodigy’s “Smack My B—- Up”). That Åkerlund is a nuanced, capable director sweetens the deal, elevating his work from cheap shocks to the music equivalent of “in-yer-face” theatre. Also watch: a reprieve from the controversy, Madonna’s optimistic “Ray of Light,” “Moves Like Jagger.”

Michel Gondry: In feature films, special effects must have some narrative relevance to be included. In music videos, filmmakers are free to dazzle us with whatever visual trickery they conceive, no matter the context. The French genius behind “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” exploits this mantra to its logical conclusion: our favorite bands as blocks of Lego (The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl”) and humanoid skyscrapers (Beck’s “Cellphone’s Dead,”) playing instruments made of yarn (Steriogram’s “Walkie Talkie Man”). Watch his clips for Lucas’s “Lucas with the Lid Off” and The Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be;” marvel at how much Gondry can accomplish with basic theatrical illusions, outside the comforts of CGI and post-editing. Also watch: Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” Gary Jules’s “Mad World.”

Spike Jonze: You can recognize a Spike Jonze video immediately from its grainy, home video aesthetic. Inspired by his background as a skateboard video maker, Jonze offers his service to smaller, indie bands even now that he’s made it big. He culls material from his childhood — a “Happy Days”-themed video for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” a cop show intro on The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” — and comes up with some captivating, yet ridiculous situations: a burning man running through the streets to catch a bus (Wax’s “California”), an anthropomorphic bloodhound walking around with a boombox (Daft Punk’s “Da Funk”). Alongside his feature length accomplishments—“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation,” “Where the Wild Things Are”—Spike Jonze brings an intimate, unpretentious touch to the music video medium. Also see: the Christopher Walken showcase “Weapon of Choice” and his Arcade Fire mini-epic, “Scenes from the Suburbs.”

David Fincher: “Whoa!” you yell. “David Fincher? As in, “Seven,” “Fight Club” and “The Social Network,” David Fincher?” While many film directors dabble in music videos (Scorsese directed Michael Jackson’s “Bad”) none have been so defined by their musical output as Fincher. Years before he touched feature-length films, Fincher was a music video powerhouse. His work for Madonna, George Michael and Aerosmith were noteworthy for their part-dramatic, part-erotic tones, frequent film allusions (he referenced “Citizen Kane” and “Metropolis” on Madonna’s “Oh Father” and “Express Yourself,” respectively), and stunning cinematography. It’s no hyperbole to say Fincher’s work has directly influenced the feel of modern music videos and fashion. Also see: “Vogue,” “Freedom ‘90,” “Janie’s Got a Gun,” NIN’s “Only.”

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