“What’s the most expensive music video of all time?” is ostensibly a fairly straight-forward pub quiz question, the answer to which is: “Michael and Janet Jackson’s ‘Scream'”. That’s the answer given by both the Guinness Book of Records and font-of-all-contemporary-knowledge Wikipedia, so most pub landlords would give you a point for that answer and move on with their lives.
However, I am not most pub landlords, I’m an anal and petty man and I don’t believe Wikipedia’s list. Neither, interestingly, does ‘Scream’s director Mark Romanek who has spent hours of interview time in the last few years denying that he’s a “profligate maniac who spent $7 million”.
1995’s ‘Scream’, if you’d forgotten, featured brother and sister team Michael and Janet Jackson on an animated inkjet printer flying through space and keeping themselves occupied with their virtual gallery of great art and a massive games arcade which, depressingly, still only features pong. For all the expensive effects on show, the best thing in the video remains the fact that Janet looks so utterly nonplussed about Michael dancing on the ceiling – an emotion that anyone tired of their sibling’s shit can surely sympathise with.
Romanek used an interview with Slash Film to point out the the real reason the video cost so much is that it was on a ridiculously tight deadline – five weeks from when Jackson’s label approached him to delivery – and because they had to pay for Michael and Janet’s various entourages and “assistants who have assistants who have assistants”.
Even with all these extra costs, Romanek still denies that at $7 million ‘Scream’ is the most expensive music video of all time. He says that Michael Jackson’s earlier ‘Black or White’ and the magnificently bonkers video for Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Estranged’, which were both made by Propaganda Films, cost “$9 or $10 million” each.
Watching ‘Black or White’ back to back with ‘Scream’, it does seem to be the former, John Landis-directed clip which appears the more extravagant. Released in 1991, it features an extended intro starring Macaulay Culkin and Norm from ‘Cheers’ and then sees Jackson dancing his way literally around the planet – although it’s made very clear we’re always watching a set, in a style that’s vaguely reminiscent of the bit at the end of Blazing Saddles when the Indians on horse-back run amok in the Warner Bros. studio set. The full ten minute version of the video also features a strange outro during which a black panther, prowling on the video set, morphs into Jackson who then performs a routine without musical accompaniment which involves him smashing various windows, later digitally altered to include racist slogans, blowing up a pub and most inexplicably of all doing his flies up. He then morphs back into a black panther, before we pan out through the screen to see Bart Simpson watching, and Homer telling him to switch it off. It’s as extravagant as you could ever really want from a music video.
However, compared to Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Estranged’ even ‘Black or White’ starts to look relatively workaday. Released in December 1993, directed by Andy Morahan and considered the final part of a trilogy which began with ‘Don’t Cry’ and ‘November Rain’, ‘Estranged’ is so demented you can only assume that the production spent more on high grade cocaine than most bands spend on videos in their entire careers. We see Axl Rose’s house being raided by a SWAT team, a ghost Axl Rose taking a shower fully-clothed and a bizarre subplot which sees bottlenose dolphins fly out of both the band’s tour plane and a billboard, before Axl strolls down a street which has become a sort of dolphin aquaduct. It also required the hiring of an oil tanker, the Judith Prosperity, which only appears on screen for about four seconds. There’s a very famous scene where Slash emerges directly up through the waves while playing a guitar solo – later paid homage to on a less grand scale in Sum 41’s ‘In Too Deep’ – and a less famous scene where he drifts down a street playing another solo without walking, like a vampire would. The video ends with Axl apparently being saved from drowning by the dolphins, although they don’t actually appear to do much and he ends up being airlifted out by a (human) helicopter team anyway. It’s properly nuts, and certainly seems to have more money ‘on the screen’ than either of Jackson’s videos.
But maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place all along. While Michael and Janet had to rely on expensive effects to create the illusion of zero gravity, Chris Hadfield’s cover of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ was filmed on the International Space Station and featured the real thing. The cost of his location alone? $150 billion.