The 20 Most Cinematic Music Videos from MTV’s Classic Era

11. Public Enemy – 911 Is A Joke (1990)

Featuring a cameo by “Señor Luv Daddy” himself, Samuel L. Jackson, this video is a full blooded comedy augmented with a perfectly calibrated sense of social commentary.

One of the rare PE tracks in which the band’s in house clown prince, Flavor Flav, raps lead. Flav spends most of the clip’s runtime rapping from inside a coffin ala horror R&B legend Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.


12. Michael Jackson – Billie Jean (1983)

It’s true that ‘Thriller’, the John Landis directed tribute to George Romero and ‘Beat It’, MJ’s riff on West Side Story, would seem to be the more ball-on-the-nose choices for the King of Pop’s count coup on this list, but hear this out.

This clip set the stage for Jackson’s ascendant mega-popularity. There’s a certain Lynch-ian noir quality to this clip with Tigers, a shiesty detective in Ray Bans and a trench coat, and Jackson’s ability to disappear at will and light up the pavement, all beneath seeming to have nothing to do with the narrative of the song.

Turn off the volume, drop the clip on a group of present day twenty something’s and damn few of them would guess that Jackson is singing about being on the business end of a maternity suit.

Still, this stylish clip makes it clear that you are witnessing the birth of a star and in 1983 it would’ve been almost impossible to imagine there was ever gonna be a fall, much less a fall that would involve incessant accusations of child abuse and a fatal overdose of sleeping . Maybe old MJ should have taken a tumble with ‘Billie Jean’ after all.


13. Tool – Sober (1993)

This video has the same washed out color palette that was common in both music video and feature film during the 1990’s; the Prozac fueled (and salved) malaise of the era being reflected in the patina of its entertainments.

Other music videos had used stop motion and or claymation before, the ship sailing on the “Sea’s of Cheese” sequence in Primus’s “Jerry Was a Race Car” for example. But perhaps no prior music video had so expressionistically used the art of stop motion to visually simulate existential anguish.

Though the narrative of the video is open to interpretation: a human-esque creature that looks vaguely like the Michelin Man wanders around an abandoned building and eventually pets what looks like a sack cloth intestine with a flow of meat visible through its ruptured seams.

There is, however, no question as to the innovation and the creativity present in this clip. What’s more, watching this video feels much the same to the viewer as listening to the Tool track it represents. The pair create an eerily similar emotional experience.

As with most tracks on this list, the video for “Sober” helped elevate Tool toward the status of rock stars.


14. Johnny Cash – Hurt (2003)

Directed by Mark Romanek, arguably the most talented filmmaker in music video. Romanek wrote and directed the excellent thriller “One Hour Photo” with Robin Williams.

As a biopic of Johnny Cash, this video is far more effective than the Oscar-winning “Walk the Line.” The video is a jarring collage of film clips from all phases of Cash’s career set to Cash’s transcendent cover of Nine Inch Nails, partnered with a quivering performance from the country and rock icon who is a mere three months from Glory at the time the clip was filmed, and looks it.

“Hurt” also incorporates many scenes from Cash’s little-seen 1973 self-financed film about the life of Christ, “Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus.”


15. Metallica – One (1988)

Anyone who’s ever fallen asleep during a summer school English class watching the fully uncut film version of Dalton Trumbo’s ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ appreciates how much more awesome and less boring a visual experience Metallica made of Trumbo’s masterpiece by cannibalizing the film and soldering together only the 1971 movie’s essential narrative chunks with heaping slabs of primo late ’80’s Art Prog Thrash Metal.

Seriously, kiddos. Skip the book and the movie if you got a paper due on Trumbo. So long as you avoid any reference to “Darkness, imprisoning me, all that I see, absolute horror” you’ll probably at least score a B writing about this video.


16. REM – Losing My Religion (1991)

When watching this clip, one can’t help but be struck upside the head by what a different country, planet, universe this was just 25 years ago.

A band of Southern record store dweebs write an introspective mandolin-spined folk rock masterpiece, solder said masterpiece onto an extremely ambitious four minute long visual orgy inspired equally by Soviet poster art and religious iconography and millions of teenagers not only ate that shit up like Basset hounds ravening a pile of warm, wet baby puke, the kiddies also were moved enough to go out and buy the record. This all seems impossible in 2016.

The video was directed by Tarsem Singh, who also directed the visually sumptuous 2000 horror thriller “The Cell” with Vincent Donofrio. As a feature length film director Singh is often accused of emphasizing style over substance- which is true, but Singh’s signature largesse of style is perfectly applied here.

‘Losing My Religion’s’ most searing visual is an old man probing the gaping chest wound of an angel with his finger. Consider this, in the Spring of 1991 how many times a day did MTV cut away to Daisy Fuentes issuing breathless updates on the New Kids On The Block after secreting that provocative image onto the eyeballs of unsuspecting prepubescents?

‘Twas a beautiful thing.


17. Motley Crue – Dr Feelgood (1989)

Motley Crue’s greatest video is the tour and performance clip that accompanies their 1985 power ballad ‘Home Sweet Home’, but this video is the ‘Crue’s most cinematic.

A hard rocking retelling of Oliver Stone and Brian DePalma’s riff on ‘Scarface.’ You would expect the Crue to know the best coke dealer in Los Angeles and in this video MC prove more than capable biographers, dancing around an abandoned amusement park in the desert while ‘ Dr Feelgood’ also known as ‘Jimmy’ falls victim to betrayal and hubris in his Bel Air mansion.


18. NIN – Closer (1994)

Another Mark Romanek video filmed at the height of NIN’s mid ’90’s fame. With a washed out and rusted looking film stock that brought to mind the artwork of Simon Larbalestier, who contributed much of the cover art for the early Pixies’ catalogue. Romanek made ‘Closer’ an homage to the avant-garde animated film “Street of Crocodiles.”

But if you were a kid in a leather jacket and a black short sleeved NIN t-shirt amped up on “Robo”, chances are you didn’t care about that. You just thought the shit looked cool. And if pig heads and martyred monkeys was what MTV was allowing you to see, imagine what kind of twisted shit was going on in the “scenes missing.”


19. Eminem – Stan (2000)

The foul-mouthed yet brilliant Detroit rapper presents his vision of a modern day “Rupert Pupkin” (See Scorsese’s largely unheralded 1983 masterpiece “The King of Comedy”) only “Stan” doesn’t care a wit about Jerry Lewis. Stan wants to meet, as well as possibly fuck and kill, Eminem.

‘Stan’ is the rare video on this list in which the narrative of the source song and the video are both patently obvious and complimentary.


20. Sonic Youth – Teenage Riot (1988)

Directed by the band, simple yet dramatic, this clip takes a similar approach to Def Leppard’s “Rocket” which also hit MTV in 1988.

The video is a filmic tribute to a mid 1970’s cool kid’s bedroom wall. With the caveat that instead of pics from Tiger Beat and Hit Parader, we see performance clips of The Stooges, The Fall, Kiss and other rock n’ roll heroes.


Honorable Mention: The ’80’s teen comedies of John Hughes

Hughes is the odd bird filmmaker who is both wildly overrated and underrated. ALL Hughes films- (and the best of them basically are feature length music videos) even the dear sainted ‘Sixteen Candles’ and ‘Pretty In Pink’- have their troubling flaws. The questionable racial humor of Long Duc Dong “Burn the sheets!” Or the Nagel paintings come to life that serve as the poor, tough kids in “Pretty In Pink.”

J’accuse, and Hughes is damn sure guilty. But there’s almost no denying that Hughes did more than any other artist to bring MTV to the cinema and kick some cinema back at the cable box in the form of Hughes-birthed video stars such as Simple Minds and Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark.

Author Bio: Jerimie Richardson AKA Carbonated Warrior ( or is a newspaperman and aspiring filmmaker that has resided in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley for the past 12 years. Richardson has a degree in Mass Communication from Colorado Mesa University. When he isn’t writing about circus elephants rampaging across Rocky Mountains in the 1950’s or the RE-2 school board for the Rifle Citizen Telegram, he can also be found working the overnight shift at the Carbondale 7-11, dispensing roller grill delicacies to other Children of the Night as well as pondering the moonshine fueled wisdom of Wes the Home Bum.