[This is intended as my third entry to the Short Film Week Blog-a-thon hosted by Seul le cinema and Culture Snob, and also as the sequel to the post Lucifer Rising, Come into My World; or Welcome the Children of Anger]
I felt like George Castanza after posting my first music video blog, remembering so many fabulous videos that I neglected to mention the first time around. Forgive the intentional negligence of a handful of videos, for I chose to stray away from the ones whose appreciation seemed pretty well established ("Thriller," of course, being the big one... and though I like that he always did different stuff with video, I can't call any of David Bowie's videos personally memorable). In this post, you will find examples of cinematic reverie, technical creativity, and, maybe most importantly, the ability to resonate.
1. Sonic Youth - “Death Valley 69” - dir. Richard Kern, Judith Barry, Sonic Youth
In a way, all of Kern’s films were “music videos,” and all of his music videos films. He never looked at them separately, though “Death Valley 69,” which features moments of rollicking, haunting images of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and company going crazy on their guitars, is probably his closest thing to your typical “music video;” it’s electrifying nonetheless. Cutting between Zabriskie Point-esque planes and deserts (no orgies, sorry), Lung Leg (cover girl for the band’s album EVOL), and a bizarre massacre, the only thing holding Kern back, artistically, is the rare instance of early consumer-level video footage. If nothing else, Kern always knew how to marry music and film in the best possible way.
2. Cibo Matto - “Sugar Water” - dir. Michel Gondry
In terms of quantity and quality, Gondry’s probably the best music video director our generation knows. How the video was so perfectly constructed and timed, I never want to know, as it even exceeds “Come into My World” in its technical prowess. Its split-screen splendor will blow your mind harder than anything Mike Figgis could have imagined. For more split screen beauty, check out Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop.”
3. Madonna - “Bedtime Story” - dir. Mark Romanek
Madonna has always tried to outdo herself in efforts varying from puzzling to silly. Written by Björk for the Queen of Pop herself, “Bedtime Story” was probably the best song she released throughout the 90s and with a video of startling vision. A lot of her videos look the same, the videos for “Rain” and “Nothing Really Matters” (which was really just her attempt to sell herself to whoever was holding the money for the Memoirs of a Geisha film... didn't work, obviously) are totally children of “Bedtime Story,” but when the lyrics, “Words are meaningless, especially sentences,” pops onscreen in the form of text, you have to congratulate her, and director Romanek, for successfully outdoing herself, if only for once. [Naturally, if you haven't seen the banned-from-MTV video for her "Justify My Love," do yourself a favor and click that link.]
4. Missy Elliott featuring Ciara and Fat Man Scoop - “Lose Control” - dir. Dave Meyers, Missy Elliott
The musical genre got a serious facelift with the onslaught of the music video, and Missy Elliott has always provided some of the more dazzling examples of video choreography, even if you (and everyone else) could do without Tommy Lee’s cameo at the end of “Lose Control.” Here, body movement and color form a cornucopia of delights, looking like the wild, illegitmate child of Busby Berkley. Though its transitional sets don’t make much sense, the nice thing about playing with the format is that consistency and continuity don’t matter, just as long as it keeps impressing, as Elliott seems to always do.
5. Blind Melon - “No Rain” - dir. Samuel Bayer
“No Rain” proved that narrative and music video weren’t mutually exclusive, chronicling an awkward little girl in a bee suit running away from the scowls of a talent competition to perform on the street. Eventually, after the street folk prove as critical an audience as the laughing judge, she finds fellow bee adults in the meadow. It’s sweet and iconic, a likely inspiration for Abigail Beslin in Little Miss Sunshine, and a lot more effective in its simple narrative than the ever-popular Alicia Silverstone Aerosmith videos of its day.
6. Broken Social Scene - “Almost Crimes” - dir. George Vale, Kevin Drew
Silhouetted Leslie Feist, how you do it for me. The Canadian supergroup’s best video is a triumph of visual rhythm, using only overlaying silhouettes of the band in a dancing frenzy. It probably helps that “Almost Crimes” is the band’s most rock-out, anthem-y song, but the video manages to evoke such a contagious joy in movement, even if you never see anyone in the band’s face. Ms. Feist would continue to astound in the music video format as she left the group to go solo. Note: despite all this Feist-loving, I’m not positive that it isn’t Emily Haines who sings and performs in the video.
7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds featuring PJ Harvey - “Henry Lee” - dir. Rocky Schenck
It’s one thing for the video, which features Cave and then-girlfriend(?) Harvey, to be as quietly disturbing as the song itself, off Cave and the Seeds’ Murder Ballads album. It’s another to achieve the sort of painful, should-I-be-looking-at-this uncomfortable intimacy as David Lynch did in Mulholland Drive with Naomi Watts’ audition scene. Cave and Harvey, dressed similar and with blanched skin, invade one another the closer the camera comes to them in that ever-wondrous use of the single take. As the camera approaches them, the tension builds and the squirming is induced, intentionally of course… for who wants to feel at ease during a murder ballad. For a vastly different approach off the same album, Cave’s duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” evokes not uneasiness, but the painful, epic beauty of killing the girl you love.
8. Gnarls Barkley - “Smiley Faces” - dir. Robert Hales
Zelig lives! In the form of Gnarls Barkley. Kudos to getting Blue Velvet costars Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell together for the video, but “Smiley Faces” is such a loving tribute to the great Woody Allen satire that it wouldn’t have mattered if they chose Pauly Shore and Carrot Top instead. Cinematic “parodies” in music video have worked before, such as in Jonathan Glazer’s Blur video “The Universal” which tributes A Clockwork Orange, but “Smiley Faces” works the best for my dollar for adopting more than just a stylish representation of Zelig. Note: Equally successful is The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight," a stylized tribute to Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon. And... if you want a much less successful example, watch Busta Rhymes' "I Love My Chick" which features the rapper and actress Gabrielle Union (in place of Kelis, who provides the back-up vocals) in a humdrum homage to Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
9. The The - “Slow Emotion Replay” - dir. Tim Pope
Matt Johnson was, and is, a total artist. Though best known as the creator and only constant member of The The, he always firmly believed in video as an extension of the music itself. “Slow Emotion Replay” excellently displays this fusion, using testimonial documentary footage overlapping portions of the song. It certainly feels like a case of taking superiority over your subjects, but certain moments suggest otherwise, notably when the camera fixates on the old man drying his tears. Johnson never tried to break ground with his videos, but instead capture mood as an augmentation of his music. You can find the complete collection of Johnson and The The’s videos on his official website.
10. Peaches - “Diddle My Skittle”
This particular Peaches video manages to repulsive even the most iron-stomached of viewers. With pink spandex, a lot of camel-toe action, hairy pits, a Charles Manson (or is it Jesus?) T-shirt, and two silver balls, Peaches tests the ground of perversion. It’s the sort of video I’d imagine from Richard Kern if he ever directed electrotrash music. Somehow, she manages to turn her silver balls into a pendulum of vulgar hypnosis as her display of impropriety never really allows you to take your eyes away. It would be no wonder that she later toured with John Waters (in fact, she sort of reminds me of Divine from Pink Flamingos here). Note: You need RealPlayer to view the video as YouTube, naturally, does not have it.
11. Vincent Gallo - “Honey Bunny” - dir. Vincent Gallo
Gallo’s video is deceptively simple: women in states of undress on a rotating table. Though notably a curiosity piece for featuring Paris Hilton (his album When opens with the track “I Wrote This Song for the Girl Paris Hilton”), it’s a remarkable work and a fine companion piece for The Brown Bunny, no matter how you feel about that. “Honey Bunny” basically takes all the themes of The Brown Bunny and consolidates them into this five-minute film, leaving a haunting exposé of male fantasy… or, at least, male fantasy as interpreted by Vincent Gallo. Things are made all-too-clear with the video’s final image, which truly depends on your tolerance for the man himself. Note: my apologies for the video site, as Gallo went on a rampage, forcing nearly every website known-to-cyberspace to remove his personal videos. So, if the link doesn’t work, you may be shit out of luck.
12. Björk - “The Triumph of a Heart” - dir. Spike Jonze
At the point "The Triumph of the Heart" was released in both Björk and Jonze’s career, they had complete artistic freedom (not that they ever lacked it) to do whatever the fuck they wanted. And, they did. And, I have to throw respect at them, even if I think the video is just ridiculous. Here, Björk’s husband isn’t paying attention to her, so she goes out on the town, gets tanked, falls through the streets, sends messages of love in the shape of floating pink hearts, and realizes that she prefers the country-life and wants her man back. Oh yeah, her husband is a cat. And he turns lifesize at the end. As stupid as it sounds (and, sorry, is), could you really imagine anyone else marrying and dancing with a human-sized cat? Björk is so uncompromising, the song even stops when she takes a break to the loo. In fact, all of the videos off her album Medulla are intriguing failures, proving like Inland Empire that artistic freedom can come at a price... at least to the spectator
13. Talking Heads - “Once in a Lifetime” - dir. David Byrne, Toni Basil
It should also not come as a surprise that Byrne and his Talking Heads fully utilized the possibilities of the video format. Byrne, particularly here, is an extraordinary presence. The video plays like an experimental version of Sliding Doors (albeit with more fascinating results, even in its brief length), where Byrne multiplies and yet somehow remains the same ("same as it ever was")… possibly. “Once in a Lifetime” marked one of the first times a music video deemed itself worthy of intellectual analysis in both its imagery and relationship to the lyrics.
14. The Replacements - “Bastards of Young”
“Bastards of Young” is metaphysics, Dadaism in its finest incarnation in the medium. The camera lingers, relentlessly, on a speaker… and, yeah, that’s it. It’s fucking brilliant. I’m serious. It’s terribly subversive and utterly transfixing. Blah! I love it.
15. Sigur Ròs - “Viðrar vel til loftárása” - dir. Celebrator (Stefan Arnie, Siggi Kinski)
Taking cues from established cinematic or even literary motifs isn't always a bad thing. If Blind Melon’s “No Rain” is my favorite narrative music video, this video from the Icelandic group is my favorite of poetic realism. Aided by the dreaminess of the song, two lonely boys find love in the form of brainless dolls and a futbal match. Its daringness (more likely a product of the band’s unparalleled musical stylings and abandonment of expected form than an assault against MTV) drifts away as the video progresses, leaving a wordless, handsome love story, as effective if not more than any feature-length romance you could name off the top of your head.
16. Nada Surf - “Popular” - dir. Jesse Peretz
If you were a child of the 90s like myself, I would hope you would have fond memories of this video, which ranks as one of the pinnacle "alternative rock" songs and videos of all time. It’s really hard for me to speak of what I might have expected from the video as I could never separate the song from that crane shot of the cheerleader mouthing, “I’m the cheerleading chick,” to the camera. It resounds with that tongue-in-cheek dissection of high school hierarchy, even more successfully than the herds of teensploitation flicks that would inevitably follow.
17. Portishead - “Only You” - dir. Chris Cunningham
If Gondry is the most prolific of the music video directors, Cunningham is the most revered. “Only You” is frightening and, above all, reason to forgive Cunningham for Madonna’s “Frozen,” and, most importantly, stunningly mysterious. Filmed seemingly underwater (here’s another example of a video whose astounding technicality would only ruin the experience), a young boy floats while a man overlooks, cut alongside lead singer Beth Gibbons in a similar state of submersion. The addition of the man overlooking the alley from a factory window multiplies the eeriness, which only further aided the glory of the song itself.
18. The Pretenders - “I Go to Sleep” - dir. Derek Burbidge
It’s oh-so-simple, yet perfectly evocative. When I first saw the video, it was on a lousy VHS which had the top half of Chrissie Hynde’s face cut off, and somehow that almost worked better. Yet how it stands, it’s one of the best songs from the group even though it's a Kinks cover. In so many ways, “I Go to Sleep” was the band’s clairvoyant requiem, pre-dating the drug overdoes of two of the core members. With its final shot of an empty room with lonesome instruments, the video works outside itself, furthering a hindsight appreciation through the lyrics, minimalism, and subtle movements and facial expressions of the incomparable Hynde.
19. Kelis - “Bossy” - dir. Marc Klasfeld
The effectiveness and trash-elegance of Kelis would never work if she were as popular as, say, Mariah Carey. She struts around “Bossy” as if she fucking invented R&B, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. She makes a costume change around every twenty second mark, from slinky bikinis to designer sunglasses to ribcage-high jeans. It’s the finest recent example of ludicrous excess in music video egoism, surpassing all of her peers as a result of such refined obliviousness. Kelis’ shameless, undeserved self-confidence makes her the most fantastic shrew in the popular music circuit, and with her smug dance moves and green poodle, “Bossy” is thus the best visual representation of this.
20. Feist - “1234” - dir. Patrick Daughters
I’m still unaware how Leslie Feist turned into the spokeswoman for just about everything music-related, from iTunes to VH1, but unwarranted it surely isn’t. Her third album, The Reminder, isn’t as excellent as it’s cracked out to be, but with a song like “1234,” forgiveness comes easy. Ms. Feist released this video, along with two others, before her album even hit stores, and with that alone, she became the finest endorsement for her own product. Feist has a certain Morrissey-quality to her finer songs; she laces the poppy tone with a melancholic longing. “1234,” the video, is fucking stunning, no matter how many times you’ve seen that iPod commercial. It’s another of those one-take wonders that’s never as alarming or jaw-dropping the second time around (see Children of Men). Yet that doesn’t even matter. The fact that the video is void of editing becomes an afterthought upon multiple viewings and what remains is the consummate joy that puts even the perky Hairspray musical to shame. Its charm is immeasurable which is considerably more than I can say for, really, anything at this point in time. God bless those Canadians.