Queen probably had no idea what they were unleashing when they submitted a promo for the unperformable ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to the BBC in 1975, in order that there wouldn’t be a six minute gap on Top of the Pops where the No.1 should be. During the 80s and 90s the pop video became integral to any artist’s campaign, with showtime on MTV as crucial as airtime on radio, and while it looked to be a dying artform when the same MTV threw out the three minute pop promo in favour of reality TV content around the turn of the century, the advent of YouTube has made the music film more important than it ever was. Big budget or lo-fi, if your song doesn’t have a video then to a whole new generation it may as well not exist.
Traditionally the music promo has been a breeding ground for fledgling film directors to cut their teeth, and while the disciplines are obviously different, lessons can be learned. Just because you’re brilliant at pool, doesn’t mean you’ll be good at snooker – and some music video directors like the inspired Chris Cunningham (Aphex Twin’s much-lauded ‘Come to Daddy’ and ‘Windowlicker’) never bothered making the leap (Cunningham’s work remains within the realm of short form video art when he’s not shooting music clips).
One director who is a colossus in both the movie theatre and in illustrated song is the legendary David Lynch, who worked on Nine Inch Nails’ single ‘Came Back Haunted’ in 2013.
Lynch is unusual in that his best films are almost certainly behind him, while his involvement in music – as video maker and artist – becomes more active and hands on as time goes by. Lynch hasn’t suddenly become a bad filmmaker but in the world of the pop promo he’s free to do as he pleases artistically without interference from big budget studios looking to appease shareholders. Shame on those big studios. That all said, Lynch has been making great pop videos sporadically since the original version of ‘Wicked Game’ for Chris Isaak in 1991 (the original version). Here are five more awesome pop videos made by movie directors of great note.
Spike Jonze hit the ground running when only his second ever film – for Sonic Youth’s ‘100%’ – became the unlikely recipient of heavy rotation by those folks at MTV. Jonze’s sparkling wit and imagination came through in Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly’ and Dinosaur Jr’s ‘Feel the Pain’, though it was the Beastie Boy’s 70’s Starsky and Hutch spoof ‘Sabotage’ that propelled him towards superstardom. It feels like retro parodies have been done to death now, but when ‘Sabotage’ came out in 1994 it was fresh, funky and really fucking funny (and it still works because the source material was so keenly and affectionately observed). Jonze won countless awards for Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ promo, but this was the pinnacle of his video making. The way he made the jump from pop vid to a feature with Being John Malkovich in 1999 look so seamless was doubly impressive given how recondite his material was.
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The video for Björk’s first single announced a star unto the world (or at least to those unaware of the Sugarcubes), and its dreamlike, cartoonish and sometimes nightmarish sequences fitted perfectly with the modus operandi of the Icelandic superstar in waiting. It brings something different to the table, as well as Björk a table, a la Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and as promos go it’s not an easily forgettable one. Nor have Michel Gondry’s films been – especially Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – which took dream sequences to staggeringly vivid new heights on its release in 2004.
The best videos are those that eschew literal translation for something more artistic and abstract, and Anton Corbijn’s video for Nirvana’s ‘Heart Shaped Box’ does that in spades. It’s easy to read interpretations into this promo, given that we all know what happened next, but the noirish, spooky imagery and crows waiting expectantly upon a cross do suggest the confusion and turmoil Kurt Cobain must have been going through, whether that was intentional or not. This visionary mixture of empathy and aestheticism served Corbijn well when he directed 2007’s excellent Ian Curtis movie Control.
The video for Michael Jackson’s retaliatory rebuttal to the press (that had hounded him over child molestation accusations) ‘Scream’ is jaw droppingly stylish. It’s a pity that Michael forgot to add the tune. Like the Jose Mourinho of video making, Mark Romanek manages to work wonders with a massive budget here. Critics might say Romanek – a veteran of the video promo – is yet to make a classic movie just yet, though for my money the creepy weepy Never Let Me Go comes pretty damn close.
Jubilee Street casts Ray Winstone as a grubby little man seeking out pleasure in a red light district and juxtaposes stolen moments of sexual gratification with guilt-ridden repentance under seedy, fuchsia light. It might well be John Hillcoat’s best video in a long career that’s seen him work with the best glam and goth artists pop has to offer, including Suede, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Placebo and Muse. And of course, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Here Cave appears to reprise the role of the voyeuristic narrator walking amongst Sao Paulo transexuals in 1995’s excellent ‘Do You Love Me?’ video, also by Hillcoat. In fact Cave and Hillcoat have collaborated countless times, and their first feature together The Proposition (Cave wrote the script and the soundtrack to the 2005 movie starring Guy Pearce, John Hurt and Winstone again) is an excellent big movie debut.