[4 November 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Describing the video-making process from the artist’s point of view, Richard Ashcroft says, “The only self-doubt that really comes in is the fact that the video… will, without you knowing, take away not from the power of the music, but the options of the music, the options of the listener, in what the listener thinks, or sees, or visualizes,” adding, “Is this image I’m giving to the people the right one? Should it be this strong?” Ever since music videos exploded in popularity more than two decades ago, this quandary has always been on the minds of musicians, and for good reason, too, as the music video medium is a very difficult art form to perfect, the ability to effectively balance the visual with the musical a rare feat, no matter how doggedly some people try. Today, more than ever, music videos, at least the large majority of those that air on television, are banal, carefully crafted advertisements whose sole purpose is to sell the product, and nothing more. Every year, however, a handful of bold videos always make their way into the public consciousness, and are so good, they make us remember what has always made the amalgam of film and popular music so enticing, and forget just how diluted it has become over the years.
It wasn’t until the early ‘90s when viewers started taking notice of the names of certain music video directors, when MTV started adding the directors’ names to the video titles. In the ‘80s we knew about Julien Temple, Godley & Creme, and save for the odd big name movie director dabbling in music (Martin Scorsese, John Landis, Jonathan Demme), that was pretty much the extent of our knowledge of video directors. But when those names started popping up at the bottom of each title, more names began to get stuck in peoples’ heads; people like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and David Fincher. Profiles of video directors and write-ups of standout clips started appearing in magazines, and before long, the directors themselves had fans of their own.
Since the introduction of the DVD format in the late ‘90s, the idea of a collection of anthologies that chronicle the output of the most notable video directors was long overdue, but thanks to the ever-industrious Palm Recordings, the day many music and film enthusiasts had long been waiting for arrived in late 2003 with the release of the first installment of the Directors Label series, consisting of three separate DVDs featuring the collected works of the two biggest geniuses of the art form, the aforementioned Jonze and Gondry, as well as the much more avant-garde, experimental videos of Chris Cunningham. The Jonze and Gondry collections were absolute treasure troves, and while Cunningham’s was much more sparing (containing little more than a half hour’s worth of material), what it lacked in content was made up by the sheer, high quality of the work inside.
| The Directors Label series continues to grow in stature and popularity, and with the large number of highly talented video directors out there, here are four more who are deserving of anthologies of their own:
:. A Perfect Circle, “Judith”
:. Madonna, “Express Yourself”
:. Madonna, “Vogue”
:. The Rolling Stones, “Love is Strong” Garth Jennings/Hammer & Tongs
:. Badly Drawn Boy, “Spittin’ in the Wind”
:. Blur, “Coffee and TV”
:. Supergrass, “Pumping on Your Stereo”
:. Travis, “Driftwood” Shynola
:. Junior Senior, “Move Your Feet”
:. Queens of the Stone Age, “Go With the Flow”
:. Radiohead, “Pyramid Song”
:. U.N.K.L.E., “An Eye For an Eye” Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Farris
:. Jane’s Addiction, “Been Caught Stealing”
:. Korn, “Freak on a Leash”
:. Smashing Pumpkins, “1979”
:. Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”
Now, two years later, four more directors have been added to this Pantheon of music video auteurs, and quite frankly, you could not find four people more deserving of such a tribute: American master Mark Romanek, English maverick Jonathan Glazer, Dutch photographer/filmmaker Anton Corbijn, and the ever-hip French filmmaker Stephane Sednaoui. Not only have all four directors contributed several music videos that have become indelible slices of modern popular culture, but each has their own, very distinct style, and all four DVDs are deserving of our attention, and ultimately, our great respect.
Chris Rock put it best when he said that nobody makes a bad song sound good like Mark Romanek. Arguably the most prominent mainstream music video director of the last decade, Romanek excels at elevating the most mediocre songs to near-godlike status on film. Only he could make videos for Audioslave’s post-grunge snoozefest “Cochise” and Michael and Janet Jackson’s unbearably self-indulgent “Scream” seem better than they actually are, thanks solely to the power of the visuals. For the best example, though, his video for Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” takes the cake, as he takes a mildly engaging song by a middling classic rock wannabe and makes it look and feel exhilarating. By placing the bell-bottomed Kravitz on a spectacular stage set with a glitzy light show and scores of cool-looking kids dancing around him, as he shreds away on his Gibson Flying V, Romanek was singularly responsible for the song becoming a smash hit. His portrayal of Kravitz as an iconic figure working a little too well, as despite being catapulted to stardom, Kravitz has never come close to equaling that one moment. “Are You Gonna Go My Way” is the perfect encapsulation of what Mark Romanek can do with a half-decent tune and four minutes of film. His clips are always very precise, polished, distinct pieces (the word “perfectionist” keeps popping up in interviews with musicians), and although his collection of work is the most mainstream of the Directors Label series so far, his videos continue to push the boundaries further outward.
It’s no surprise that this DVD has been as painstakingly compiled as any of Romanek’s individual videos, and out of the four discs in the new series, this wins the Best Bang For Your Buck title, hands down. It’s an embarrassment of riches: there’s the infamous “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, Fiona Apple’s steamy (and unfairly criticized) “Criminal”, Jay-Z’s powerful “99 Problems”, another great Nine Inch Nails clip in “The Perfect Drug”, Beck’s Midnight Cowboy-esque “Devil’s Haircut”, the very underrated video for Madonna’s “Rain”, the very cool (and much overlooked) “Wicked as it Seems” by Keith Richards. It’s no surprise that Romanek prefers to work with solo artists, as his videos for bands, such as No Doubt’s “Hella Good”, Weezer’s “El Scorcho”, and Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound” (which is not included here), while adequate, don’t work as well as when Romanek focuses all his attention on one person instead of four or five. This is most apparent on Romanek’s masterwork, the timeless video for Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”.
“Hurt” ranks as one of the most genuinely affecting music videos ever made (Romanek openly admits it’s his greatest achievement), as we see the aging legend plaintively strumming a guitar, his wife June Carter Cash gazing at him with a combination of sadness and great love, interspersed with images from a decrepit Johnny Cash museum and old film footage of the Man in Black. Most interesting is that we learn on the DVD how the video came about, how easily Cash took to the process, how Romanek had no idea what he was going to do a day before filming, how, contrary to the images in the video, Cash was in very good health. It was a video that made an unprecedented splash across the board, appearing on every video channel, from MTV to VH1 to CMT, not only a highly emotional track, but a very warm, loving summation of Cash’s life and music. The genius of Romanek’s finest videos has been that his images always perfectly complement the music, and never overwhelm it. It’s a very tough balance to achieve (even Gondry, Jonze, and Cunningham have all been guilty of this at various stages of their careers), but Romanek’s clips have always had a consistency to them, a sense of dignity, something driven home with astonishing power on “Hurt”.
If Mark Romanek is the Stanley Kubrick of music videos, then Anton Corbijn is a strange combination of Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang, and Jean Cocteau. Unlike Romanek’s very precise, intricately planned out projects, Corbijn takes a much more extemporaneous approach (he confesses his complete inability to write a video treatment on paper). More than anyone else in the series, Corbijn’s clips all have a very strong photographic quality (photography was his first profession), and while he tosses in various nods to such styles as German Expressionism and Surrealism from time to time, there’s a visual consistency to his distinctly identifiable body of work, his videos always resembling his photographs.
Corbijn will always be remembered for three very famous music videos from the late-80s and early 90s. His treatment of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” is stunning, a posthumous tribute to Ian Curtis, as a group of hooded children carry 15 foot-high photos of Curtis in a ceremonial procession across a Spanish beach, the elegiac images underscored by the majestic audio track. Filmed in Berlin, the sepia-toned video for U2’s “One” was complicated, touching on male-female relationships, gender identity, and the relationship between a father and his son (Bono’s stoic father features prominently), and nearly 15 years later, it has certainly aged well, its visual impact and its lack of a single, concrete theme giving it a considerably mysterious air. Corbijn’s most famous video, Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box”, a dreamlike clip whose concept was conceived by Kurt Cobain, features a very unique use of color; Cobain wanted the film to be processed through Technicolor, but since that wasn’t available, Corbijn chose to film it in straight color, re-print it in black and white, and then paint every frame by hand. As a result, we get the ultra-vivid, otherworldly quality that makes the video so unforgettable. In an old interview on the DVD, Cobain expresses his amazement at how Corbijn brought his mental vision to life so accurately.
Those three clips might be the famous ones, but Corbijn’s strongest work has always been with Depeche Mode, to the point where Corbijn has done so many videos for Depeche Mode, that it’s impossible to include them all on this DVD (“Personal Jesus” and “I Feel You” are two notable exclusions). Corbijn found the perfect musical collaborators in Depeche Mode, a band whose dark, yet sensual music suited Corbijn’s visual style perfectly, and a singer in Dave Gahan willing enough to take chances with Corbijn’s unique, often odd ideas. “Behind the Wheel” is dominated by the grainy monochrome look that would become a Corbijn calling card, which would be immortalized by his cover photo for U2’s The Joshua Tree. The best known video of the lot, “Enjoy the Silence”, is both silly and poignant, as Gahan portrays a king who wanders the globe looking for a place to sit on his deckchair. The sumptuous “Walking in My Shoes” is gorgeous, “Barrel of a Gun” is much darker (with its allusions to Gahan’s 1995 suicide attempt), while the cheesy nightclub feel of “It’s No Good” is pure comedy, both the band (and Corbijn himself as a greasy emcee) clearly hamming it up.
The son of a Protestant minister, Corbijn always seems to toss in religious imagery into his video work from time to time, which is often counterbalanced by a decidedly dry sense of humor. For instance, while you’re hit with iconic imagery in Depeche Mode’s “Walking in My Shoes”, Corbijn also tosses in such oddly absurd footage as Dutch ice skaters filmed backwards in the same clip. Watching Corbijn’s videos chronologically, you can see how Corbijn’s filmmaking evolved from more unsure, tentative early work (Propaganda’s “Dr. Mafuse”, David Sylvian’s “Red Guitar”), to a more confident, playful style (Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Seven Seas”), to more straightforward, grainy monochrome in the mid-80s (“Atmosphere”, Joni Mitchell’s “My Secret Place”), to heavy emphasis on striking primary colors in the early 90s (“Heart-Shaped Box”, “Walking in My Shoes”, Henry Rollins’s riotous “Liar”). His recent work has become decidedly more varied; Corbijn in total command of his directorial skills, proven by the overwhelming beauty of U2’s “Electrical Storm” video, the darkly hilarious video of Travis’s “Re-Offender”, and the nonlinear, Russ Meyer referencing clip of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done”.
One of Stephane Sednaoui’s most identifiable characteristics is how his music videos focus on the energy of either the song, the artist, or both. Whether the camera is either moving in time to the music, or is simply focusing on the magnetic presence of the artist, the tone of a song is made all the more palpable by Sednaoui’s panache behind the camera lens. Definitely the most stylish and abstract of the group of four directors in this series, Sednaoui evokes mood better than anyone. Like Corbijn, his background is in still photography, but Sednaoui’s real ambition has always been film, and you can see that, especially when you compare his lively, daring video clips with those of Corbijn’s.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give it Away” is his most ubiquitous work, one of the most famous music videos from the ‘90s, and watching it again today, you can see why; the clip propelled the Chili Peppers from college rock mainstays to a mainstream smash, as for the very first time, a video director had come up with the perfect visual accompaniment to this most energetic rock ‘n’ roll band. Sednaoui’s concept seems so ridiculously simple: drive out to the desert, paint the band silver, and have them dance and perform in front of a stationary camera while filming them in black and white. However, what Sednaoui did was match the Chili Peppers’ energy, step-for-step, from behind the camera and in the editing studio, using simple visual tricks like wide angle lenses and kaleidoscopic gimmickry, with brilliant results. The video has become so overplayed over the years that it’s easy to forget just how good it is, but in actuality, it’s still a vibrant piece of filmmaking.
The visceral impact of Sednaoui’s oeuvre is evident on every one of the 19 videos included on the DVD. Distorted images stretch and sway in time to the sinewy guitar licks of U2’s “Mysterious Ways”. A charmingly effervescent Bjork dances exuberantly on a flatbed truck driving through Manhattan. Tricky appears as menacing as his song “Hell is Around the Corner” sounds. A gorgeously sleazified Sofia Coppola walks the streets of New York on the smacked-out clip for the Black Crowes’ “Sometimes Salvation”. Four different Alanises (Alani?) interact on the ebullient video for “Ironic”, while the Chili Peppers appear aged, exhausted, and just plain beaten on the beautiful “Scar Tissue”. The one video of Sednaoui’s that stands out today, though, is Garbage’s “Queer”. Another example of a simple idea done ridiculously well, the viewer sees from the point of view of an anonymous prettyboy, as he’s approached and propositioned by the very sultry Shirley Manson. She lures him down the street (at one point the camera looks away, only to have Manson forcibly pull his our gaze back towards her) and into a house, where she throws the protagonist down on the floor, gags and blindfolds him. When he comes to, Manson is straddled on top of him, the rest of the band behind her, as she tears off the guy’s clothes and shaves his head. It’s both a highly savage and erotic video, every bit as seductive as it is disturbing, and impossible to tear our eyes from.
Sednaoui has done so many videos in the past dozen or so years that there is a large number of well-known omissions. Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today”, Madonna’s “Fever”, Fiona Apple’s “Never is a Promise”, Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U”, and the Chili Peppers’ “Breaking the Girl” and “Around the World” have all been ignored, and in retrospect, that was probably a good thing, as none of those clips exude the kind of energy, be it upbeat, morose, or otherwise, that seems to be the central theme of this compilation. This could have easily been a double-sided DVD, like the Gondry and Jonze DVDs, but Sednaoui wisely chose economy over a more exhaustive collection.
Jonathan Glazer’s DVD, compared to the other three, is markedly low on content, but his is arguably the best of the set. All of his videos are enthralling, highlighted by the unforgettable video for Radiohead’s “Karma Police”, the harrowing, ultimately redemptive clip for U.N.K.L.E.‘s “Rabbit in Your Headlights”, and his most famous work, the mind-bending video for Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity”, in which the behatted Jay Kay appears to be sliding on a moving floor. It’s a fantastic optical illusion, so much so, that it’s impossible not to get sucked in by the movements, even when you know how it was done, as the tricks are explained with great gusto by Jay Kay in his commentary.
What’s most noticeable about Glazer’s work is the man’s great wit. He’s quirky without being precious, innovative without being gimmicky, capable of getting both belly laughs one moment, and nervous, uncomfortable chuckles the next. His visual images are always very vivid, and like it or not, they always stay with you whenever you hear the songs. Many might argue this is not a good thing (Nick Cave states on the DVD that the highly intense visuals in his “Into My Arms” overwhelmed the music too much), but striking as they are, Glazer’s images have always been a very good fit with the music. It’s impossible to forget the surreal slow motion effects in Radiohead’s “Street Spirit”, the beleaguered man’s revenge in “Karma Police”, the laughing priest and the mortified man in the Clockwork Orange-referencing video for Blur’s “The Universal”, the comedic payoff in Richard Ashcroft’s paranoid “A Song For the Lovers”, or the Shining-like scenes in Massive Attack’s eerie “Karmacoma”.
All four DVDs are brimming with extra features, including well-made documentary profiles (save for the Glazer DVD), all directed by Lance Bangs, and commentary by most of the artists involved. Romanek’s extras are highlighted by the very detailed commentaries (nearly every track comes with two; one by the artist, and one by Romanek) and a short documentary chronicling the making of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”. Glazer’s disc contains a large selection of his commercial work, including some fabulously made ads for Guiness and two hilarious pieces for Stella Artois, while Sednaoui’s entrancing “Acqua Natasa” (featuring model Natasa Vojnovic writhing sensually underwater) and his explicit, darkly beautiful short film interpretation of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” are every bit as good as his past videos. The extras on the Corbijn DVD, while plentiful, don’t quite have as much an impact as those on the Glazer and Sednaoui discs, but the special alternate version of Depeche Mode’s “It’s No Good” is still well worth watching.
With newer talents like Dawn Shadforth and StyleWar turning heads over the past few years, music videos continue to evolve, and anyone who still decries the music video as a useless art form would best give the outstanding Directors Label series a look. Not only do the DVDs prove that these directors deserve respect, but even better, you won’t find any music DVDs this year as entertaining as these four. Each disc, in its own unique way, is easily worth purchasing (in this writer’s opinion, the Glazer DVD is the one to get first), and first time viewers will be struck by just how powerful a medium the music video can be, especially when done as masterfully as these four superb artists have.