Music video directing is the vehicle that many of our current generation of filmmakers rode before attaining their status as accomplished film directors. 80’s MTV glamorized music videos in what became a sort of renaissance for those interested in creating artistic videos in a short, musical form.
Its influence can’t be measured in the manner it propelled so many directors to the public eye. Many started expressing their idiosyncratic ways through this medium, honing their individual techniques and coming up with new, inventive methods of editing and synching audio and video.
This is a top 10 list and analysis of some of the most striking music videos of the past two decades.
10. Fluorescent Adolescent – Richard Ayoade (Arctic Monkeys, 2007)
Fluorescent Adolescent handheld shots transport us right into the middle of the action: a gigantic, rambunctious brawl between a group of clowns and non-clowns at an abandoned warehouse. We get to watch the fight in the personal way only a handheld shot could provide: the hits feel more real and brutal, the running about is more ferocious and erratic.
This 2007 video clip is the first collaboration between Richard Ayoade and Alex Turner, Arctic Monkeys’ vocalist. They would later do another music video in 2009, Crying Lightning, and team up for the soundtrack of Ayoade’s debut film, 2010’s Submarine. The teenage quirkiness and sensibility later used on his first feature is felt in Fluorescent Adolescent from start to finish. Despite its nonsensical quality, the video creates a stark contrast between the colorful clown suits and the dark, soulless clothes the other group is wearing that instantly signify a bit more than a simple drunken brawl.
Stephen Graham stars as the titular red clown, and he does a wonderful job capturing the manic temperament on which the clown acts. But just as we’re getting accustomed to the drawn out fighting sequence, the music slows down and we experience a flashback where we understand Graham’s clown and the leader of the other group were childhood friends, and the whole thing gets turned on its feet.
What we’re watching is a classic story of a childhood friendship that couldn’t last through adulthood. All the teen-angst and youthful drama is felt in each kick and each punch; none of the factions know how it all ended up so wrong, but the hard truth is that it did. The clown suits are a symbol of their innocent times as children swinging in the playground, and the ‘regular’ clothes a symbol of adulthood and responsibility.
Time is fleeting, and Ayoade successfully captured that transient moment in this action-y coming of age short film.
9. Judith – David Fincher (A Perfect Circle, 2000)
No music video list would be complete without an entry by eclectic auteur David Fincher. He’s perhaps the most well-known filmmaker that started his career directing ads and then music videos. His latest film, Ben Affleck starring Gone Girl, was a major hit and over-the-seas success. Everything he touches is considered gold in Hollywood, and he’s one of the most renowned auteurs of this generation.
Before being chosen to replace Vincent Ward mid-production to direct his debut film, Alien 3, he worked for famous artists such as Rick Springfield, Paula Abdul and Madonna. His videos for the latter are what catapulted him into stardom: Vogue cemented his then-immature visual style that he would hone in his following releases.
A Perfect Circle’s Judith is a turn of the century collaboration between Fincher and ´Maynard James Keenan’s band that’s perhaps the most straightforward performance video clip in this last. Made after his 90’s hits Se7en and Fight Club, Fincher had some time to spare to sharpen his short form directing skills. What makes this one stand out, though, is the full array of fincher-esque techniques applied to the four minute clip. Obscured faces; film manipulation and scratching; dark smoky lighting; stark contrasted surfaces and an unrestrained cinematic energy that’s hard to replicate.
Judith might not be his most well-known or appreciated music video, but it certainly is the one where he has the most fun directing.
8. Sabotage – Spike Jonze (Beastie Boys, 1994)
Spike Jonze started his career photographing skateboard and BMX stunts, but quickly shifted his gaze to the film medium. After spending most of the 90’s directing music videos, he released his debut feature in 1999, Being John Malkovich. Even though it garnered massive critical attention and some Oscar nods, he continued directing some video clips in between his subsequent films.
He’s directed a fertile bunch of music videos, but Beastie Boy’s 1994’s Sabotage is such a fun, self-parodying mess that it can’t help but stand out. It’s great. It meshes the over-the-top but serious 70’s crime TV series, like Hawaii-Five-0 and S.W.A.T. and buddy-cop films like Starsky and Hutch, with a lo-fi sensibility that’s particular to Jonze’s films. Those three minutes fly by so quickly that you can’t quite assimilate what you just saw, but there’s no need to. It is what it is: a rather inspired take on the kind of cop shows that we’re prone to diss nowadays, but can’t help enjoying them.
Sabotage presents itself as the opening credits of a fictional tv-show. Danny Boyle has said that the football game opening sequence of his 1996 film Trainspotting was inspired by the music video, which is no small compliment. Jonze struck gold.
7. Crazy Clown Time – David Lynch (David Lynch, 2012)
David Lynch is like the Da Vinci of our times. He’s designed furniture in the past and has penned two books about his creative process. In addition to his filmmaking career he’s carved a name on television thanks to his wildly popular series Twin Peaks. Beyond the audiovisual medium he’s also a prolific painter and a musician with a couple of experimental solo albums that haven’t been that well received due to their inextricable lynchian vibe.
This last strand of his creative outpouring is responsible for Crazy Clown Time, an eclectic 2011 album that houses its homonymous song in Crazy Clown Time, sang in a feverish, helium-injected voice by Lynch. The video clip is nothing that the filmmaker’s fans haven’t seen before: a piece of Americana (this time a teenage backyard barbecue) gone hellishly wrong.
It’s a nonsensical 7 minutes of pure surrealist experience that takes a jab at what a teenage party in the American suburbia might be like if pushed to its subconscious extremes. Lynch distorts the frat-party hedonism by intercutting a woman’s topless masturbation with a football player running in laps across the backyard; or a nameless thug pouring beer all over another topless woman until they start strangling each other.
The repetition of the lyrics is reflected on the slow pacing of this dreamlike clip that begs the question: is this what we’ve became? The future of our species? A bunch of violently sexual, self-mutilating, beer-chugging Neanderthals?
It was fun, Lynch concludes, and then everyone’s running around in circles as the woman orgasms.
6. Six Days – Wong Kar-Wai (DJ Shadow, 2002)
Six Days works as a love story in reverse, Memento-style. Kinda. We’re introduced to a couple in love intercut with their break-up and subsequent violent aftermath. All these chapters of their life are presented in a seamless manner: they aren’t flashbacks or flashforwards, just bits and pieces of a ruined relationship.
This is Wong Kar-Wai’s last foray into music video directing and it’s a shame he hasn’t continued since then. Joined by his constant collaborator Chang Chen and cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who worked on seven of his films), this short is a treat for the eyes. With its saturated imagery and bright, warm colors, the video clip sports a slick and stylish visual aesthetic that’s not uncommon in Kar-Wai’s films.
The story is fairly simple: after the man (Chang Chen) discovers his girlfriend (Malasyan model Danielle Graham) is cheating on him with another guy, he tries to erase every trace of their previous relationship only to find that such a quest is a futile endeavor.
Numbers are a constant in Kar-Wai’s filmography, and this short video isn’t an exception: the numbers 246 symbolize the man’s obsession with his girlfriend and their relationship in general. We can find them in the tattoo he carves into her body, his boxing bag and the mirror that he then smashes. They could also be a not-so-subtle hint at his then-upcoming film 2046.
All in all, Six Days keeps in line with the filmmaker’s thematic obsessions and his particular visual style, prone to melancholy and introspection. It’s the work of a master.