5 Film Directors Who Got Their Start Making Music Videos

Music VideosThe music video is one of the youngest art forms in the world, so young that calling it an “art form” might still raise eyebrows in some quarters. Next we’ll be calling TV commercials and video games “art.” I’m not really interested in entering a debate on this point; it seems about as useful to me as arguing over whether cheerleading is a sport. (Stray thought: are video games the cheerleaders of the arts?) There are plenty of negative things to say about music videos. At their basest, they are rapidly paced montages of sensory shock revolving around a performing artist on an ego trip. More than any feature film star vehicle, the music video tends to live and die on the strength of the singer or band in front of the camera. The video is, essentially, a commercial for the artist and the music. In the thirty-three years since MTV launched, videos have become part of the package for every pop star. Talent is no longer sufficient in this world; the person’s image must be as glossy as his or her music. Everything is manufactured to (sometimes) soulless perfection.

Movies weren’t considered art at the beginning, either. Early films have something in common with music videos. What Tom Gunning called the “cinema of attractions” — emphasizing exhibitionism and spectatorship rather than narrative — describes a lot of videos, as well. Quite a few directors over the decades have grasped the form’s possibilities as a filmmaking laboratory. Some established names, like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson, have had fun slumming around, but most interesting for the current cinematic landscape are the directors who started out shooting videos (as well as, in some cases, short films and commercials) and have now made the big time. I’ve selected five (which, of course, leaves out a few important figures) that have made both videos and films that I like, focusing on a single video that shows them at their best. These individuals represent the best argument for taking music videos seriously: David Fincher, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, and Francis Lawrence. I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t point out that music videos are also responsible for giving us Michael Bay, Brett Ratner, and McG. You win some, you lose some.

1. David Fincher

“Express Yourself” (Madonna, 1989)

Fincher is the outstanding example of a crossover success, winning “Best Director” at the MTV Music Video Awards three times and receiving two Oscar nominations in that same category over the past decade. This particular video is a perfect illustration of my two main points: first, the performing-artist-as-auteur, and second, the connection between music videos and cinema. Fincher’s visual style is readily apparent, with incredible use of light and shadow. But Madonna was an equal creative force. It was her idea to make the video an homage to Fritz Lang’s silent science fiction classic Metropolis. The results are beautiful and symbolically loaded. Classic Hollywood elegance above, dripping masculine physicality below. I have only one quibble: something brings together “hand” and “mind” in this video, but I’m not so sure that thing is “heart.” (The cat is a hint.)

My Favorite Fincher Film: The Social Network (2010)

2. Jonathan Glazer

“Karma Police” (Radiohead, 1997)

There have been other music videos that rely on long takes rather than quick cuts to command the viewer’s attention, but few have conveyed such authority with such simple technique. Glazer implicates himself as the man behind the camera, and also the viewer as the person staring through it. We’re all behind the wheel of this car, driving down a country road in pursuit of…someone. There are a few crucial cuts more than halfway through, forging our identification with the running man. But when the “karma” happens, we’re back in the car, and the retribution is terrifying. The filmmaking style is a perfect fit with the song — slowly rolling through the dark, culminating in hellfire. The band, of course, doesn’t make an appearance. Only Thom Yorke is visible, lounging in the backseat, to keep the absence from being its own distraction.

My Favorite Glazer Film: Under the Skin (2013)

3. Michel Gondry

“Come into My World” (Kylie Minogue, 2002)

Here is a true single-take video, although it’s safe to assume some trickery was involved. The concept is almost as simple as the one for “Karma Police”: Minogue strolls around the streets of Paris, cheerfully observing several mini-dramas. But when she completes the circuit, a duplicate emerges from the same door she did at the beginning. We see the same 360-degree scene four times, but each time the participants emerge out of it and continue on their way. So it appears that we’re watching four copies of everyone by the end. The miracle is that the video doesn’t get too busy. Everything in this composite shot is choreographed to make sense. Gondry is a master at employing special effects to whimsical ends. Arguably, his style becomes excessively twee over the course of a feature-length film, but in three or four minute bursts it’s delightful.

My Favorite Gondry Film: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

4. Mark Romanek

“99 Problems” (Jay-Z, 2004)

The ability to match sound and image is fundamental to the music video — and to filmmaking in general, which is why making one of these is such good practice. Over the years, there have been far too many videos that never feel like logical extensions of the music. Not this one. Jay-Z’s furious political statements are matched by Romanek’s furious montage. This is an altogether more serious portrait of a city than we find in “Come into My World.” With black-and-white grit and handheld immediacy, the images capture the essence of being black in New York City. The quick cutting among disparate scenes creates a series of almost subliminal feelings in the viewer. I wanted to share this style of filmmaking to contrast with the “long-take” experiments above. These videos are wildly different from one another, but each bears the stamp of its maker.

My Favorite Romanek Film: Never Let Me Go (2010)

5. Francis Lawrence

“Bad Romance” (Lady Gaga, 2009)

With this, we come full circle — another video that combines sex with science fiction, contains explicit movie references (Hitchcock this time), and features a performing artist/auteur/exhibitionist (who has, in fact, been occasionally dismissed as a Madonna imitator). Lawrence is a solid craftsman, but this video clearly belongs to Gaga. “Bad Romance” represents the moment when I liked her the most, when she seemed to have something to say but didn’t sacrifice the art for the message. Connecting pop stardom with prostitution, the video is a mesmerizing collection of future shock and outré fashion statements. It’s also funny, which is not an adjective often applied to Gaga. I had to include a video with choreographed dancing — that’s what pop videos are all about, going back to Michael Jackson’s pioneering “Thriller,” which this one sometimes recalls. The editing is razor sharp, and there are no boring narrative interludes. Just a look inside the mind of a monster.

My Favorite Lawrence Film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

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