As part of Music Video Week here on PPH, we asked our contributors to nominate their Top 3 music vids of all time along with a few words to explain their choices. Well they’ve all done that, so now it’s my turn. And due to a potent combination of hubris, indecision and the fact that, as editor, I have no-one to answer to, I’ve actually chosen 10. Here they are…
10. ‘Start The Commotion’ – The Wiseguys (Pedro Romanhyi, 1999)
I caught this cleverly edited vid one night on MTV2 and just could not stop laughing; the visual repetition works brilliantly with the nagging catchiness of the song, and creates a cumulatively hilarious effect. It’s a simple concept, perfectly executed. The bespectacled guitarist (who appears to be atop some sort of pivot), and the three clean-cut doo-wop guys, just get me every time.
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9. ‘Coffee and TV’ – Blur (Hammer and Tongs, 1999)
This tender, heartbreaking and ever so slightly silly video for Blur’s ‘Coffee & TV’ tells the story of a plucky, animated milk carton who goes off in search of Blur’s guitarist Graham Coxon, who has apparently run away from home. Across six suspenseful, charming minutes you’ll laugh, be wowed by the animation, and very possibly cry.
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8. ‘Ya Mama’ – Fatboy Slim (Traktor, 2001)
A redneck happens across a cassette tape with magical powers. He decide to exploit it for his own ends. The rest is loose-limbed, explosive bedlam. Uproariously, preposterously funny, and a great concept.
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7. ‘Always Be My Baby’ – Mariah Carey (Mariah Carey, 1996)
This one’s simple, really. I saw it when I was 10, and I immediately fell in love. However, until a very recent Google search, I didn’t know this sweet, nicely composed effort was directed by Carey herself.
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6. ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ – The Avalanches (Kuntz and Macquire, 2000)
This unforgettable promo is simultaneously fiercely literal (the actions of the cast often correspond to the stream-of-consciousness sampled lyrics) and mind-warpingly surreal (human-sized talking birds, for example). It’s difficult to pick out a single funniest moment, but once you’ve seen a turtle with the head of a confused old man, your life will never be quite the same again. The shabby, retro school play aesthetic haunts, too.
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5. ‘Da Funk’ – Daft Punk (Spike Jonze, 1995)
…in which a sad sack, anthropomorphized dog on crutches attempts to find love on the streets of New York. This genuinely odd piece casts a haunting spell, but don’t go looking too deeply for meaning. Here’s Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter: “There’s no story. It is just a man-dog walking with a ghetto-blaster in New York. The rest is not meant to say anything. People are trying to explain it: Is it about human tolerance? Integration? Urbanism? There’s really no message. There will be a sequel someday.” The sequel is yet to arrive, but if it does, let’s hope Spike Jonze is at the helm once again.
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4. ‘Drop’ – Pharcyde (Spike Jonze, 1995)
Back to back Spike Jonze. This mind-warping cut featured the South Central group performing their song backwards (yep, they had to learn their raps backwards!), and then replayed backwards to create the disorienting, WTF?! effect. An outstanding blend of pure inspiration and hard work that’s both surreal and fun. This really cool video explains how the ‘Drop’ was made. You should watch it.
I first saw this monochromatic classic at the age of about 10, on Dr Fox’s Video Jukebox, a short-lived, late-night ITV show which became defunct almost as soon as it was funct. The promo’s simple but brutally effective idea shows a succession of actors of all shapes and sizes miming the ballad’s plaintive lyrics direct to camera. The twist is that they are morphed into each other using a technique called analogue cross-fading, which creates some really disturbing imagery, and also underscores the universality of the song’s raw emotion. The same idea has been done since with higher budgets and greater slickness (see Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’), but never with the same aptness or gravitas.
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2. ‘Just’ – Radiohead (Jamie Thraves, 1995)
A man inexplicably lies down in the middle of London’s financial district. Scores of passers-by surround him to press him for an explanation, while Radiohead jam out their rocky ‘Just’ in an apartment above the city. The man resists, the crowd persists. Finally, the prone protagonist spills. What does he say? We’ll never know, but his whispered truths are so toxic that they cause all of London – in an astonishingly composed overhead tracking shot – to follow suit. The promo’s stark visuals and captivating plot thoroughly complement the dependably threatening obliquity of Yorke’s lyrics, and the end product lingers darkly in the mind like a half-remembered episode of The Twilight Zone.
A clever, intense and quietly disturbing promo from the creative genius that is Michel Gondry. ‘Sugar Water’ is a witty meditation on identity and the time/space continuum, and inspired the famous split-screen sequence from Roger Avary’s massively underrated Bret Easton Ellis adaptation The Rules of Attraction. Once seen, never forgotten, and you’ll want to watch it again and again.
As part of Music Video Week here on PPH, we’ve asked our contributors to nominate their Top 3 music vids of all time along with a few words to explain their choices. Here are contributing editor Guillaume Gendron‘s choices. He can be followed on Twitter at @GGendron20.
The first of three collaborations between Spike Jonze – one third of the holy trinity of wünder directors that defined the nineties (along with Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry) – and Kanye West, the past decade’s most disruptive rap star, ‘Flashing Lights’ is also their best. At the time I waxed a little too lyrically about Yeezy reinventing the whole rap aesthetic – in fact he just raised it from bling to haute-couture – but this clip remains flawless. With its post-Lynchian vibe, ‘Flashing Lights’ challenges the rulebook form-wise (the abrupt cut) but also in substance, with the revenge of the video vixen and the end of the traditional notion of the rap star’s invulnerable masculinity.
Guitar heroes soloing on top of grand pianos, helicopter shots in the desert, people jumping through wedding cakes, an incomprehensible narrative, a millon dollar budget. Quite probably the most overwrought video of all time, ‘November Rain’ remains the exhaustive compilation of cock rock totems. Pretty much an archaeological document, the testimony of the decadent opulence of the MTV era at its peak, prior to the full bloom of the Nirvana inspired grunge revolution and the music industry’s economic crisis. Its preposterousness still inspires though, from Lady Gaga to Lana Del Rey.
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1. ‘Stress’ – Justice (Romain Gavras, 2009)
The breakthrough moment for French rascal Romain Gavras (the man behind MIA’s ‘Bad Girls‘) – it’s A Clockwork Orange meets La Hainewith a slyly subversive sprinkling of Man Bites Dog thrown in for good measure. Following a gang of ghetto kids causing havoc in the bourgeois center of Paris, the notorious video came only a few years after the 2005 urban riots which caused controversy in France and abroad, reigniting the old, rather boring debate on life imitating art and vice versa when it comes to on-screen violence. The video looked very timely once again in the wake of last summer’s British riots. Neither social commentary nor plain glorification of social evils, ‘Stress’ is above all an assured piece of gut-wrenching cinematography.
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[….and because he’s handsome and French, Guillaume gets a bonus]
‘It Was A Good Day’/’Check Yo Self’ – Ice Cube (F. Gary Gray, 1993)
The Chronicles of Compton, Tome I and II. Ice Cube’s diptych defined (or rather refined) the aesthetics of West Coast gangsta rap; influencing the whole perception of the era and the place, from films (Training Day) to video games (Rockstar’s GTA San Andreas) and beyond.
As part of Music Video Week here on PPH, we’ve asked our contributors to nominate their Top 3 music vids of all time along with a few words to explain their choices. Here are Fintan McDonagh‘s choices. He can be followed on Twitter @Fintalloneword.
3. ‘Outside’ – George Michael (Vaughan Arnell, 1998)
The former Wham! star emerged from controversy in 1998 with this outrageously successful lesson in how to spin a potentially career annihilating incident into a creative and commercial renaissance. This cheeky promo, all camp, disco balls and nudge-wink innuendo, scores a toe-tapping display of chutzpah – and is very funny with it.
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2. ‘Don’t Give Up’ – Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel (Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, 1986)
This is the simplest of ideas, executed consummately. 10CC bandmates turned directing duo Godley and Creme’s promo for the 1986 single is a perfect match of the lyric to the visual, with the solar eclipse providing subtle comment on Pete and Kate’s heartfelt performances. Pop fact: Dolly Parton was first choice for female voice. It would have been an intriguing combo, but Kate is unmatchable.
Another single shot lasting several minutes (maybe I just don’t like editing!) In choosing Baillie Walsh’s compelling L.A. shot masterpiece, I underwent a huge mental tussle between it and the same band’s ‘Protection‘. However, this astonishing effort for the single featuring the vocal talents of Shara Nelson edges it because it seemed so utterly fresh and innovative at the time. It’s a one-shot epic that remains mesmerizing.
As part of Music Video Week here on PPH, we’ve asked our contributors to nominate their Top 3 music vids of all time along with a few words to explain their choices. Here are Edward Wall‘s choices. He can be followed on Twitter @edward1wall.
3. ‘Go With The Flow’ – Queens Of The Stone Age (Shynola, 2002)
Sleazy hard-rock goliaths Queens of the Stone Age made their play for international superstardom off the back of the relentless Songs For the Deaf album. Following the relatively straightforward (ie boring) band video for ‘No One Knows’ this psychedelic scuzz-fest finally located an aesthetic to match the music. A breakneck stereoscopic journey through hell, a bad acid trip in deep reds and blacks, the band hurtle down a lost highway on the back of an out of control truck.
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2. ‘Cheerleader’ – St Vincent (Hiro Murai, 2012)
As though Gulliver had been captured by the Saatchi set, Annie Clark lies prone in the centre of a plain white gallery space – a giant, live (and, so it seems, a little depressed) art installation. As the impassive Lilliputan punters look on, the giant rears up and appears set to stomp out in a break for freedom, only to fall to pieces at the first step. Is this a normal element in the exhibit? Was the statue aware itself, or of its plaster peril? I’m a massive St Vincent fan, and totally willing to overlook the not-so-faint whiff of egomania hinted at in this video. Does as the best music videos do and adds to rather than detracts (distracts) from the music.
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1. ‘All is Full of Love’ – Bjork (Chris Cunningham, 1999)
I have a strong intuition that this might feature on a fair few peoples’ lists (you’d be surprised – ed.), but the question I feel obliged to ask in response to that potentiality is ‘how on earth could it not’? On paper, the idea of an identical pair of female androids making out whilst being assembled in a futuristic factory workshop sounds like the softcore dream of some 1970s science fiction B-movie director. But the elegant and visually arresting masterpiece that resulted from the art-house-all-star combination of Chris Cunningham and Bjork has haunted me ever since that first jaw-dropping viewing as an early teen. More tender than titillating, though undoubtedly erotic. Sparks fly whilst milky liquids fall in reverse. Sublime.
Despite being only 26 years of age, the University of Brighton graduate has built up an impressive CV, with videos for the likes of Metronomy, David Guetta and The Maccabees under his belt. He can also count KanYe West among his fans. We caught up with the talented young director in Blink Productions’ plush Soho offices to discuss his inspiration, his exciting career to date, and going on sushi benders with Adam Buxton.
PPH (in bold): Hi David. What is your artistic background?
David Wilson (in regular): I studied illustration at Uni Brighton, and taught myself animation there on After Effects and Hand Drawn Animation, and started making my own little films while I was studying. I found that I got a really good response to the films that I made from my peers, and other people on the internet. That encouraged me to make more. I moved to London and started showing people my work, people started to get into it. I got commissioned to do music videos and some work for MTV, and then I got signed really early with Blink Productions. I sat with them for about a year assisting other directors but also on small projects that never went out into the public domain, but really helped both my confidence and my knowledge of the inner workings of commercials and music videos. So when I put out my first public facing video in 2009 (‘We Got Time’ by Moray McLaren) it was my artistic schooling reaching its pinnacle, and my break into professional life.
What kind of feeling did you have when you saw your first piece go out into the public domain?
Really exciting, but at the same time what was great was that I’d already got my next music video job. So on the day it went out into the public domain, it went really mental, people liked it. It went on this blog called Motionographer on the day it was released. That was a really big deal for me cos it’s the most widely read blog for motion graphics in America. KanYe West put it on his blog as well! That film went down extremely well and I don’t think I’ve had a film quite like it since. I was already on set shooting my next music video so although it was going down well, I never had that pressure of going “How do I follow this up?”, I just kept going. It was fantastic to see it come out, and it opened so many doors for me. Thankfully it wasn’t as daunting as it could have been.
Do you feel that you have been chasing that initial high in any way?
To a certain extent, yes. It’s been great for me in that a lot of people have seen it, and like it, and it’s got me admiration, but at the same time it’s a film that I did over three years ago and I’ve moved on a lot as a filmmaker since making that piece. I animated it on a praxinoscope and I guess there’s always that thing of people going “Yeah, it’s good, but I still prefer that thing you did three years ago!”, and I’m really trying to move on. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Some of your work has a very DIY aesthetic. Is there a particular part of your creative process that you enjoy more than others?
My creative process is always changing, and I enjoy challenging myself. My challenge with that project was that there was no money. I did everything myself. I made the praxinoscope myself, did all the hand drawn animation myself. From there it’s evolved from “Right, I know and feel comfortable with animation, but what I don’t know or feel comfortable with is working with actors”. Last year I undertook that challenge and went to acting classes, learnt about directing. I then started doing a puppeteering job with this guy called Keaton Henson about a suicidal puppet, and it ended with doing this music video for David Guetta, which is a drama-led piece. Being able to feel confident in directing actors, and getting what I feel was a performance I was happy with out of them was really beneficial. Against the work of a lot of other directors, they don’t really stand out as being anything special, but for me and my journey it’s a milestone; personally it could be seen as more of a milestone than the Moray McLaren one because that’s the territory I’m familiar with. Especially at the stage I’m at, I want to keep that learning and excitement going, and use these skills and synthesize them so that I can combine all these different elements together, do a technical piece that’s heartfelt.
With BUG, Adam Buxton’s really been flying the flag for music videos. How did you get involved with him in the first place?
We have a good relationship with Adam and the team at BUG. There’s a site called Promo News that David Knight runs and BUG is run by David and a producer called Phil Tidy. Adam started out as the host but has become an integral part of it with his films and how he reads through the YouTube comments. He needs to approve the videos that they show because it represents him so much; it’s almost like you’re round his house and he’s showing you his videos. David and Phil curate it and then Adam nitpicks from the things that have been pulled out.
And did they like your work in particular?
David was a really big fan of my Moray McLaren video, we got it into BUG straight away. That was amazing. Then BUG started to tour festivals like Reading and instead of doing what they do at the BFI which is the most recent videos, they’ll show a selection of their favourite videos, which included the Moray McLaren one. Adam’s been a real supporter. They’ve shown other films of mine. It was about two months ago they asked me to appear live on stage to be interviewed by Adam at the BFI. That went down well because I did my demonstration with the praxinoscope and at that same time they were preparing to do their Sky shows. The Sky execs were there, so they said “Let’s get David to go and be interviewed for the pilot”!
You’ve done a music video with Adam all about sushi. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Adam prolifically writes all these songs, he’s a little audio wizard. He wanted each song to have a new music video done for it, for each BUG TV show. The producer approached me, I got sent three different songs, and I picked the sushi one because I really liked the drum n’ bass ending. The song is about Adam going on a sushi bender, stuffing his face with small bits of rice and fish and Asahi beer. Adam’s always been a fan of my work wherever it’s shown ladylegs, and more provocative imagery – like some of the stuff in my advent calendar and my Metronomy video. Because the whole thing is this fantasy of him being on a sushi bender, I thought I’d combine ladylegs with fish and make something completely ridiculous that would never get commissioned in a million years. I wrote a script with no holds barred. I know the more ridiculous it was, the more Adam would want to make it. There’s a lady with fish coming out of her underpants onto Adam’s face. We’ve got a naked lady with sushi on her. We’ve got Adam going around the whole restaurant on the sushi conveyor belt. The whole thing’s really silly. We even had a dance routine which we never got to film, sadly. It’ll be out in October.
I wanted to talk about your video for Metronomy’s ‘The Bay’. It was shot in the ‘English Riviera’, and it has a very ‘Rio’, Duran-ish quality, but with lots more irony.
What they wanted was to paint the English riviera as being as stylish as the French riviera, and have as much cool as the West Coast of California, where there’s all these musicians that hang out and jam on the beach. I really tapped into the French Riviera thing; the video for Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’ was shot by the same person that shot ‘Rio’ for Duran Duran. There’s the judge from Strictly [Bruno Tonioli] in it. That was perfect as a reference point. So I said why don’t we do this… but with you guys. We’ve got helicopter shots and glamorous ladies, and the whole thing is a bit surreal, but if we say “Torquay is like this”, that could be pretty hilarious. But we’ve got to play it completely straight. Otherwise it becomes too jokey, that’s why it’s so deadpan.
My favourite bit is when bassist Gbenga Adelekan just straps his bass on from out of nowhere when he’s sat in the back seat of the car…
I was really happy with that, that was a last minute decision! I was looking at the four of them sat in the car and I felt that it missed something. Because it was Torquay, and there’s a bit of a drinking to excess on a Friday night/girls in miniskirts kind of vibe, there’ll be a lot of kids with pimped-up Peugeots, with bass thumping from their cars going around town. So we thought if you were hearing these noises from a car, which instrument would you physically be playing? It’s gotta be the bass!
Do you have any particular music video heroes that you look to?
Yeah, I doubt I’d be here in Blink if it wasn’t for my admiration for Dougal Wilson. I fell in love with his work when I saw LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Tribulations’. I found out his name and his other work, and found him on MySpace, when MySpace was big and then just got talking to him, and found out that he was a really cool, down-to-earth, supportive guy. Then when it came to sending my reel to production companies, Blink was top of the list. There’s a lot of big directors that a lot of people with my aesthetic reference as people that opened up their eyes to the possibility of music videos. The obvious ones being Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. When those Directors Label DVDs came out I was 18, they were doing the rounds at Freshers’ Week at Uni and so that opened my eyes to how creative you could be with contemporary artists.
There’s that, and now it’s evolved into the people that I admire are contemporaries. There’s a close-knit group of directors where the guard has been put down. We’re a lot more sharing. My age group of directors have come from the background of learning After Effects because people have put tutorials up on YouTube, and that whole mentality of being open and sharing is beneficial and makes the whole industry a lot less daunting. People that I really admire are the DANIELS, who have really blown up over the past year, we’ve become really good friends. Even though they live in L.A., whenever they come over to England we hang out. I admire them, and draw inspiration from their energy, enthusiasm and their lust for just doing something.
You’re in a community where you’re driving each other on…
That’s it, we get excited for each other. We have whole evenings of sitting down together and sharing our treatments that never got made. That’s really nice! To go, “Oh, you wrote all those and only three of them got made? That makes me feel better because I wrote exactly the same amount and only three got made.” It can be disheartening sometimes.
To what extent has this notion of a “digital revolution”, Vimeo, YouTube etc., facilitated the vibe you’re talking about?
Oh, massively. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for YouTube. It started in my second year of university, and it was really weird because people couldn’t get their heads around it. The internet was slow and video was pixellated, people were watching it at 240p. Essentially, what helped was that I did a video for Metronomy when I was at uni, and they’re a Brighton band so I knew one of their girlfriends. I asked if I could use it for one of my university projects and they said sure, just don’t put it out as an official video. That got seen by their management, which is Stephen Bass who’s the head of Moshi Moshi records so he commissioned my first music videos from that and there’s no way he would have seen that work if I couldn’t have put it out on YouTube. There is now this community, especially on Vimeo, where it’s very sharing and very open and in comments people are complimentary but in a constructive rather than a gushing way; they’re all from video makers. I get messages every now and then from people saying “if you ever need help with post-production or editing, I’d love to help!”.
There’s a cliche that music video directors are looking for a calling card to get in the feature film industry. Is that something you’d like to do in the future?
Yeah. When I started to get excited about music videos, I was always obsessive about music growing up, so it was this perfect combination of doing what I loved with visuals. I saw it as an end goal. I didn’t know about the huge lack of money that there is in music videos. It’s impossible to earn a living from music videos at the moment, and whenever I say that it seems whiny or as if I’m putting money in front of creativity which of course I don’t. It’s just a practicality; you’ve got to put a roof over your head. The majority of music videos that I create, I don’t get paid. I’ll put the money into the job to make it the best that I can, or there is no option but to do that when it’s really low budget. In essence, music videos by their very nature have got to be a calling card for something else, whether that’s commercials or else. That’s one of the things that’s really shaped music videos recently.
So there are a lot of passion projects happening?
Yes, many people are doing things as passion projects, and there are less and less videos where people are happy to go “so the band stands there, and we’ll put a light on them, and we’ll shoot around them”. When you’re not getting paid, you’re just burning your time and your money for someone who’ll be quite ungrateful for you doing it. There’s been a massive shift to music videos being more filmic, and that’s one of the reasons why. But also because music videos live a lot more online, they go viral and people want to watch something that takes them on a journey or makes them laugh, or it’s stupid. There are less and less restrictions. It’s more important to get your video spread virally than it is to get it on MTV now, so the TV-safe element is not there anymore. In terms of the “calling card”, to make something bigger, a feature film, that certainly makes sense.
So it’s a testing ground for directors in essence?
Yes, and it’s a very good testing ground: you’re on a project for three or four weeks and then it’s done. You write the script, you win the job, you shoot it, you do the post production, and it’s pretty much done within a month. It’s a fast-paced testing ground working with – at some point – big crews and a good amount of money for the amount of screen time that you’re actually producing for. If it’s a 30k music video for a 3 minute piece of movie then you’re looking at 10 grand a minute which is pretty good. You can test out those ideas which you’d only ever be able to achieve with the same amount of creative freedom on a feature film set, because you certainly can’t test that much when you’re on commercials. Someone is paying you to do the job you know you can pull off.
Music videos, in all sorts of ways, are a testing ground. If there’s a bad music video but you can tell they’re pushing for something different, it’s not worthy of slating because you tell they’re using music videos properly. That unsettles a lot of music video commissioners to hear that, but I truly believe that’s one of the most wonderful things about the medium. It gives you that breathing space to be ambitious; it can create results that no other way of making film has created. You’re doing something that doesn’t have to tie into a narrative, it lives in its own little world.
You can view more of David Wilson’s work on his website. The BUG TV show will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic in October.
PPH is delighted to welcome BFI curator Dylan Cave to discuss a hip hop rarity that’s finally available on DVD.
Most hip hop heads have archival tendencies.Think of DJ Shadow trawling through his stacks of forgotten wax, surrounded by floor to ceiling towers of historical documents in Doug Pray’s seminal DJ doc, Scratch (2001). Or the way that hip hop producers such as DJ Premier, Kanye West, Dre or J-Dilla became curators on wax, chopping rap quotables into hooks, flipping samples, and moulding their vast hip hop knowledge into something new. A quick dip into sites like Producers I Know confirms that all over globe bedroom beatsmiths and serato scratchers continue to sniff out that elusive perfect beat.
Occasionally, however, the odd reel of 16mm celluloid takes the beat digger off his or her scent. Five Day Weekend’s DVD release of Big Fun in the Big Town is a perfect example. A documentary about New York hip hop filmed in the summer of 1986, Big Fun in the Big Town has been, until now, little known outside of The Netherlands, where it first aired 25 years ago. Made by Dutch filmmaker Bram Van Splunteren – a music journalist who, at the time, was also fresh out of film school – the documentary plunges you straight into the vibrancy and excitement of NYC’s mid-1980s hip hop scene.
“The aim was to show as much of New York and the neighbourhoods where this all started,” the director told me, “to show where this music came from.” Working for Dutch national broadcaster, VPRO, Van Splunteren had a radio show that played alternative guitar-based rock to a college-campus demographic. But after he hosted a hip hop event he discovered a previously unknown part of his audience who were attracted by the occasional rap tunes that he included in his playlist. “All these kids turned up wearing velour tracksuits. They were totally not the audience we thought we were playing for.” The Netherlands’ burgeoning hip hop culture intrigued the young filmmaker, so he pitched to make Big Fun in the Big Town as one part of a series of six music documentaries that covered different music genres – everything from Nick Cave to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Iggy Pop – and it was given the green light.
What Van Splunteren managed to capture was hip hop at a particular moment in its evolution: the dawn of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of hip hop. The list of hip hop greats to appear in the documentary’s modest 40 minute running time is breathtaking: Marley Marl, Mr Magic, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie, MC Shan, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Schoolly D, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J. These are the big rap stars of the day, yet significantly, Van Splunteren records each with an unforced naturalism rarely found in today’s PR-dominated interviews. “I’ve always filmed bands at the beginning of their career. It’s the most interesting point when they’re at the peak of their creativity and they’re not so spoiled by the media.”
Interviewed in the film outside the original Def Jam offices, rapper DMC illustrates Van Splunteren’s point. After an impromptu rendition of ‘My Adidas’ he states: “When we first started we didn’t put on fancy costumes because Run DMC is no gimmicks. What we wear on stage is just what all the youth wear. Dressing this way lets them know ‘he’s just like me’”. It’s a sentiment that taps into the innocence and democracy that rap music had at the time.
At one point the director visits LL Cool J at his grandmother’s house where the rapper opens up about his style and approach to hip hop as they stroll through a sunny Queens avenue. Along with these raw, honest encounters with the rap stars of the day, the film hones in on the music’s street origins, bringing to life the way that hip hop culture defined New York’s youth at the time. As high school music teacher Dennis Bell says in the film, “Kids have no place to take music any more. In the Bronx they figured out a new form of music that didn’t take any lessons. And that is using poetry and a rhythm.
In fact, Big Fun in the Big Town’s greatest asset is that it really nails the moment when hip hop is old enough to have confidence, yet young enough to develop its hopes, ambitions, winning formulas and occasional dead ends. Fans will have fun spotting those elements of hip hop history that are already firmly in place by 1986 and those that are yet to emerge. Suliaman El Hadi of The Last Poets is interviewed complaining about the music’s lack of political ambition. “Hip hop is one big ego trip”, he observes, going on to bemoan the form up for its “nursery rhymes” that don’t address poverty or issues of powerlessness and economic deprivation. Watching this scene you realise that one of hip hop’s major moments – the arrival of Public Enemy – is still to come and it’s this palpable sense of anticipation of what hip hop has yet to offer that really excites.
The film has its finger on the pulse with cuts such as Roxanne Shanté & Biz Markie’s ‘Def Fresh Crew’, BDP’s ‘South Bronx’ and MC Shan’s ‘The Bridge’ but there is so much more down the line: Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full, PE’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, NWA, the Native Tongues…and that’s just the 1980s. As such, Big Fun in the Big Town finds an immediate place in the annals of hip hop documentaries; charting the development of the genre like the next big instalment following Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style (1982) and Dick Fontaine’s Beat This: A Hip Hop History (1984).
Big Fun in the Big Town is available now on DVD from Five Day Weekend.
As part of Music Video Week here on PPH, we’ve asked our contributors to nominate their Top 3 music vids of all time along with a few words to explain their choices. Here are Sophia Satchell-Baeza‘s choices. She can be followed on Twitter @SophiaSB1.
It starts with a Japanese, Jackson Pollock-inspired tableaux of people covered in paint, dressed as animals, with coloured chalk caked onto ratty hair. Japanese painted fans are moved slowly, fingers click; it’s all a little bit weird. Directed by Daniel Brereton, ‘Forever Dolphin Love’ (also the name of this New Zealand band’s 2011 album) is ten minutes and eight seconds of mad psychedelic beauty. Angeleen060357 on Youtube seems to agree, commenting: “this is a motherfocking [sic] lsd shit”. Part dolphin love story, part art installation, it tells the story of a man who falls in love with a dolphin in a pink nightgown, and then follows her around a rather grey and miserable looking Elephant and Castle and into a forest. As you do. He appears to be getting nearer to her until he taps her on the shoulder and their eyes meet. She walks away, the camera panning backwards as she disappears into the forest. I DON’T CARE IF SOME YOUTUBE PEOPLE THINK THIS IS PRETENTIOUS BULLSHIT! I think it’s lovely, and every time I watch it, at roughly around 4 minutes, I feel a little sad, stop for a bit, then keep on watching.
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2. ‘Violet’ – Hole (Mark Seliger, Fred Woodward, 1995)
This is like an Angela Carter novel crossed with a slightly psychotic looking Courtney Love, a bunch of rats and some cosmic-apocalyptic drug imagery (“And the sky was made of amethyst”). There are naked ladies, ballerinas, a creepy old man, ‘Leda and the Swan’ mythical undertones, awesome lingerie (clearly a necessary ingredient to my favourite music videos: Duran Duran’s ‘The Chauffeur‘ was also in with a shout), old pianos, and brothel madams. It’s one of the many reasons why Hole are inexplicably underrated.
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1. ‘Why Don’t You Love Me?’ – Beyonce (Melina Matsoukas, Bee-Z, 2010)
While teetering around in impossible heels and vintage lingerie, Beyonce (a.k.a. B. B. Homemaker), utters the immortal words: “I got beauty, I got class, I got brains and I got ass”. Something of a mantra to make up for the cultural/ socio-political abomination that was ‘Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)‘, Bee has clearly got the right idea here with her portrayal of B. B. Homemaker, a cultural mash-up and black reappropriation of three dated emblems of white womanhood : Betty Page, Rosie the Riveter, and the gin-sozzled housewife (part black Betty Draper, and very Charlie (Julianne Moore) in Tom Ford’s A Single Man). The styling combines Super 8 footage and a palette of 50’s colours and furnishings with some high-end pin up glamour – all martinis and fags and endless baking. The video and (fairly uninspiring) song seems to belong to the tradition of tragic songstresses of love like Dusty Springfield, Patsy Cline, Petula Clark and key girl groups like The Ronettes, who sang of love at whatever the cost (like bouffant-haired Dusty singing “No matter what you do, I only want to be with you”). Beyonce may play the pin-up dimwit, but her message is pretty damn clear in this beautifully realised video: if you don’t love me, you a FOOL!
‘Sixteen Saltines’ and ‘Hey Jane’ director AG Rojas in the shadows
Despite a tender age of 24, music video director AG Rojas has caught the eye prior to his much-commented upon video for Jack White’s recent single ‘Sixteen Saltines’. He was responsible for the divisive, fish-eye heavy breakout clip of the Odd Future crew – ‘Earl‘– which, like ‘Saltines’, took immense care in depicting teenagers up to no-good. The lo-fi aesthetics of that early effort are now long gone, as evidenced by his sublimely rendered treatment for the late Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘I’ll Take Care of You‘, which boasted a Million Dollar Baby-shot-by-James Gray vibe. His masterwork to date is the ten minute epic ‘Hey Jane’ for Spiritualized. Though not for the faint hearted, and a touch reliant on shock-tactics from the start, it has an intensity rare in short films, and even rarer in promo clips.
Still reeling from the delectable savagery of the ‘Sixteen Saltines’ video, I recently went on Twitter to nonchalantly compliment Rojas, comparing him in the process to Romain Gavras. Rojas replied, correcting me on my assumption that he was American (he’s not; born in Spain, he’s been living in L.A since he was seven) and thanking me for the kind words. I grabbed the opportunity to ask for an interview and a few emails later, here we are…
PPH (in bold): How did you come up with all the transgressive stunts performed in the ‘Sixteen Saltines’ video?
AG Rojas (in regular): I enjoy conjuring up images of youth involved in precarious situations. It’s not always based on something I lived through or influenced by any specific reference – just my corrupt imagination.
This year, it seems that the best, or at least most visually striking videos (M.I.A’s ‘Bad Girls‘, Woodkid’s work for Lana Del Rey and others) have been shot by European directors and all feature some kind of post-modern teenage nihilism. Is that just a coincidence or some kind of a scene, a style that you feel close to?
Well, I don’t think it’s an aesthetic or theme that is rare in music videos. For me, energy is always the most vital element for a music video. There are few things more vibrant and full of life, however dark or dormant, than youth.
The other reason I compared you to Gavras is that, in a way, ‘Sixteen Saltines’ reminded me of Justice’s video for ‘Stress‘. The whole “boredom make you do crazy things” concept as you put it on your site, and the ending with kids putting a car on fire (though in yours there’s a rock star in it). Is that a real conscious influence?
I think ‘Stress’ is obviously a huge influence on a lot of young music video directors. In my case, not necessarily because of the aesthetic or violence, but more so because it shows you how great a music video can be when a director is given complete (or, almost complete) creative control over the visuals, and takes advantage of this by creating something provocative.
What’s your influences film-wise and music video-wise? ‘Sixteen Saltines’ is a bit David Lynch meets Larry Clark, isn’t it?
I pitched ‘Sixteen Saltines’ as Larry Clark meets Roy Andersson. In the same way I love Harmony Korine [of Gummo and Trash Humpers infamy] and Michael Haneke. It’s a balance of visual aggression and subtlety.
‘Earl’, the clip you directed for Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt, has reached the 10 million views mark and served as the orignal landmark of their aesthetic. How did you get in touch with the Odd Future crew before their overnight fame? It seems that in a recent interview for Pitchfork, you hinted that they took to much credit from it. Do you feel that way?
We all rolled in the same circles, and once I heard Earl’s music, I recognized something special there and wanted to capture that moment. I don’t think they take too much credit. The video wouldn’t exist without the track, and it wouldn’t have been as successful without Earl’s skill and complete commitment to my vision.
Your work tends to be quite narrative-driven, do you see your videos as short films rather than just promo shots for the artist? Do you have plans for a feature film in the future?
There are enough performance videos being made. There is room every once in a while for experimentation. I’ve always gravitated towards narrative filmmaking, and music videos are a great place to hone your skills as a storyteller.
The fight scene in the motel in ‘Hey Jane’ feels so real, it’s pretty hard to watch. How many takes did it take to achieve this rawness? What’s the meaning behind the kid dropping the gun and going back to play video games?
My DP Michael Ragen, our stunt coordinator and I discussed my treatment and what I had in mind. Then we refined it and made sure the energy and composition of the scene matched the intensity of the track. We did the take somewhere around 15 to 20 times. As for the video game, I’m obsessed with small practical details happening at the same time as extraordinary moments. It’s open to interpretation.
The photography in your recent videos is very cinematographic and gritty at the same time. How do you achieve that?
I’ve worked with Michael to really define our aesthetic and to always create images that are as cinematic and natural as possible.
What’s your background?
When I was seventeen I was accepted into the BFA Film Production program at Art Center College of Design. I dropped out a year and a half later and began directing music videos two years after that. After this, I began working for several production companies at various capacities – mostly as a researcher and writer. All the while I was directing, until I finally was signed to Caviar Content as a director.
And what do your have lined up for your next projects?
Commercials, short films, and hopefully features down the line. I have a short film, Crown, which is playing festivals and should be released in late summer.
You can watch the rest of AG Rojas’ work on his website.
As part of Music Video Week here on PPH, we’ve asked our contributors to nominate their Top 3 music vids of all time along with a few words to explain their choices. Here are Michael Mand‘s choices. He can be followed on Twitter @Grindermand.
3. ‘Tomorrow’ – Morrissey (Zack Snyder, 1992)
A particular pattern has emerged in cinema in recent years, as film directors increasingly come from the world of music video, underlining the impact that the form has had since the launch of MTV thirty years ago. The suitability of this as a proving ground is debatable – McG’s video for the Basement Jaxx track ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ is far superior to his execrable feature film output – but there have been some successes.
Zack Snyder dabbled in both music video and advertising before making his full length debut with 2004’s Dawn of the Deadremake and hitting pay dirt with 300, Watchmen and the forthcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel. His first foray into the music world came with Morrissey’s 1992 track, ‘Tomorrow’; the single, tracking shot following our hero as he wanders the backstreets of Nice, his band in pursuit, singing direct to camera. Eschewing the special effect wows and irrelevant storylines of much MTV fare, Snyder succeeds in capturing Morrissey at his charismatic peak, all film star looks and semi-repressed sexuality.
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2. ‘Star Guitar’ – The Chemical Brothers (Michel Gondry, 2001)
Perhaps the most successful director to have combined work in both the music video and feature film formats is France’s Michel Gondry, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gondry has a formidable track record in the music world, having directed many of Bjork’s innovative videos, as well as memorable clips for the likes of Daft Punk and The White Stripes but, for me, his finest achievement is his accompanying film for The Chemical Brothers’ 2001 single, ‘Star Guitar’.
Taking its title from the sample of David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ around which it is based, ‘Star Guitar’ is an aural account of a train journey, a journey brilliantly mirrored by Gondry in his ground breaking video. Gondry himself filmed the view from the train between Nimes and Valence, taking the trip ten times to gather footage at different times of day, before digitally enhancing the continuous shot to ensure that each musical and rhythmic element of the track is reflected in the passing scenery. The result is a wonderful example of a music video working alongside, rather than distracting from a piece of music.
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1. ‘Atmosphere’ – Joy Division (Anton Corbijn, 1988)
A filmmaker from an entirely different background is Dutchman Anton Corbijn, who made his name during the 1980s as a photographer for the New Musical Express. Corbijn’s iconic, black-and-white shots of Joy Division and their singer Ian Curtis won him particular acclaim and ultimately led to him directing the 2007 Curtis biopic, Control.
In between, Corbijn was charged with directing the video for the 1988 re-release of Joy Division’s classic ‘Atmosphere’. Drawing on the visual style of his original photographs, the director created a spine-tingling tribute to Curtis, complete with strange obelisks, barren American landscapes (which somehow reflected the post-industrial Manchester wasteland of JD’s roots) and hooded figures resembling Star Wars’ Jawas.
The atmosphere (pun intended) of the clip perfectly mirrored the gloomy grandeur of the music, while the closing shot of the ‘Jawas’ carrying a huge Corbijn portrait of Curtis along a desolate beach was perhaps the final act in the singer’s canonisation. Rarely has an outsider been so responsible for the visual definition of a band.
As part of Music Video Week here on PPH, we’ve asked our contributors to nominate their Top 3 music vids of all time along with a few words to explain their choices. Here are Cathy Landicho‘s choices. She can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.
3. ‘Sabotage’ – The Beastie Boys (Spike Jonze, 1994)
MCA’s pulsing, fuzzy bass line, insistent like a police siren, propels this song’s intensity; combine that with Ad-Rock’s throaty, aggressive vocal delivery, and you get a head-banging tune that could easily soundtrack a retro cop show. Spike Jonze’s stylish, funny, frenetic and affectionate video featuring the Beasties in multiple roles totally complements each beat – from the spinning shots accompanying the record scratches, to the hits timed to drumbeats, to the long fall that accompanies Ad-Rock’s wail of “Whhhhyyyy”. The video helps you mentally strut to the song, and motivates you to try sliding across the hood of the car. (Don’t lie – I know you tried it too.)
An obvious choice; a totally mesmerizing and unforgettable video. Even though this was on heavy rotation for a good chunk of 1996, I’d never flip the channel because you’d watch it again and again, trying to figure out how the hell it was filmed. Is the floor moving? Or the set? But the couch is moving too… and it looks like there’s so few cuts! And why is Jay Kay wearing that silly hat? It turns out that director Jonathan Glazer came up with the concept and executed it on a manageable budget, securing the camera to a set on wheels, moved by ten dudes’ choreographed pushes. In four shots! But besides all that, the point is that it’s nigh-on impossible to take your eyes off Jay Kay and his dancing. He made it look so damn easy. If you’ve watched the video as much I have, when you dance along to this song, somewhere in the back of your mind you’re imagining the floor moving with you.
Also, check out this interview with Jonathan Glazer explaining the video.
Jersey girl Lauryn Hill’s massive solo album spawned two great music videos that pay homage to NYC: ‘Everything is Everything’ and ‘Doo Wop’. The former’s concept of Manhattan as a rotating record on a turntable is nifty, but the latter’s thoughtful split screen vision contrasting 1967’s Washington Heights with 1998’s just suits the song perfectly. The London duo Big TV! (Monty Whitbloom and Andy Delaney) manages to join the split screens seamlessly through smart compositional choices, and the symmetry maintained throughout creates an impressive illusion. It’s great fun watching 1967 Lauryn Hill duet with 1998 Lauryn Hill, with competing backup singers (though the Pips-like 1967 ones win, hands down). The old-school-meets-new-school style of the song is served well by the numerous poignant juxtaposed images in the video, showcasing the changing times of black New Yorkers of both genders. But for all its nuanced content and technical achievements, I love this video because it makes me want to hop into the screen to join the block party and get my groove on.