08 April 2009

Three Directors to Know

Ever since “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles was played on MTV in 1981, the birth of a new generation of musicians was born. No longer was it enough to produce amazingly recorded music and kick ass live performances, there had to be a visual component to the promotion of music. This would affect almost all aspects of the music industry. For instance, choices of singles would be revolutionized, because not all songs are accessible for filming. The image of musicians became even more important: the days of the guy or gal next door was over – everyone had to have an identifiable look. Remember the singer from Flock of Seagulls? And as image became more important, so did the marketability of that image. Post 1990, how many musicians have graced MTV or Much Music whose image run contrary to the mainstream? Though videos opened up a new world for musicians, of course there would be obstacles for many. Many bands could not and still cannot afford to make the "right" video, or perhaps their look is not something that is marketable (holding true to punk and post punk values), or even perhaps they do not produce the kind of music that would make good on the three-and-a-half-minute-format of MTV. Regardless, videos are here to stay, and the most obvious indication of this is that YouTube won the Best Website category at the NME Shockwave Awards this year. But before we create this brouhaha over these musicians with great videos and faff about looking at YouTube for hours, we should take a moment and take a hard look at three directors in the music industry. It is their vision, their singular signatures, which have helped turn videos from little, low quality snippets to true works of art.

Though I am sure there are thousands of people out there who can run circles around me in terms of discussing video/film directing, that is not really what I want to discuss. There is an entire technical aspect from story boarding, pre-production, filming, and post-production that I have no desire to unravel. What I am trying to do, however, is point out that what has become a mainstay in our world is not just the product of musicians, but heavily indebted to directors. Think about all the bands that only had one major hit, simply because of a great video (A-ha’s “Take On Me” comes right to mind). Directors have a direct effect on how we listen, view, and think about music. If anything, I want to increase that dialogue, and look at the style and contribution of three amazing video directors that have made me laugh, cry, and dumb-founded me over and over again: Anton Corbijn, Sophie Muller, and Tim Pope.

Anton Corbijn

Born in the Netherlands (20 May 1955), Corbijn is a renowned photographer and director. His two most known videos are Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” – speak about working with bands across a wide spectrum. (He would return to the themes of “Enjoy the Silence” with Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”) With twelve books published immortalizing his photography, Corbijn recently ventured into motion pictures (“Control” 2007) with a film on Joy Division, gaining rave reviews at Cannes. But I think it is the fact that he understands photography, the concept of capturing meaning in one still, that makes him an incredible music director. Just take a look at “Heart-Shaped Box” (link from the Universal Music Group YouTube Channel). There are continual moments that seem to capture the idea of photography in the video, almost as if the camera was panning on a photographable moment. Each symbolic image is captured in a still like moment, while the band is constantly filmed as if in a gallery of pictures.

This is a technique he has used right from the beginning: check out the Art of Noise video for “Beat Box” (actually his second video, from ZTTE Records YouTube Channel).

The entire video seems to be wrapped about photographical moments, though there is nothing else to bond this video together. Yet, it is the ability to move from a photographic moment to another that creates the illusion that this is a complete, fluidic video. But what I have always found most impressive about his work is how he creates the image of the musicians he works with – this is especially true of Depeche Mode (unfortunately no official links or embeds are available). But from “Walking in My Shoes” to “Suffer Well,” Corbijn’s eye has created an image that DM cannot escape – somewhere between pop-goth, with a tinge of fetish, and a somewhat disturbing aura at times. Their image has been solidified to the point that the director for their most recent single/video “Wrong” (Patrick Daughters) had no choice but to work with elements of the disturbing in the video.

Even while working with Metallica for “Mama Said,” the opening visual theme is a photographer coming in and out of focus to take a picture. Much like his other work, fluidity is achieved by photographical moments linked together in sequence. The point I am trying to make is that Corbijn is not some clueless schlub with a camera recording underground or internationally renowned artists; he approaches everything from the point of photography. His videos give life to the concept of stills in video, while being able to capitalize on key moments for visual effects. There is not a moment in the video, not a split second, that isn’t intentional. Things do not just come together; they are meshed by his singular vision.

Sophie Muller

Born in Los Angeles, CA (31 January 1962), Muller really sticks out in the world of directors. Though women have made many strides in film and music, their traditional roles are still seen as actresses and performers/musicians. The world has not completely validated the plethora of women who work as directors and producers of music, though that is starting to change; Sophie Muller is one of the few who have risen to the top and has gotten the recognition she deserves. A Grammy Award winner for her full-length “Diva” video album (Annie Lennox) and an MTV Video Award for “Why” from the collection, Muller has the ability to enter the world of the song and draw out the perfect video for it. Whether producing an aesthetic video of performances or a short narrative, she allows the music to speak for itself, while amplifying its meaning with visuals. Perhaps her most known video is No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” (link from Universal Music Group YouTube Channel); she captures both aesthetic performance and narrative, wrapped around a continuing motif of the Garden of Eden – innocence corrupted by biting the fruit, the symbol for fame.

Known for bringing the music of women to the forefront, her work on Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” (link from SonyBMG YouTube Channel) is astounding. The song was inspired by letters from a stalker, and the song is being sung from his point of view – an obsessed, crazed individual who is out at any cost to make love (rape) her. Though the video is a performance by McLachlan and her back-up band, it is wise to remember that within the video she is also being filmed, as portrayed by showing the camera, rolling tapes, and different textures in film. The same way the song is about being stalked and the voyeurism associated with it, what you are witnessing is the stalking and voyeurism through the eyes of a camera, the crazed man.

But Muller is as comfortable with the big boys as she is with the women. She directed Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong” (link from the EMI American Records YouTube Channel). This alternate version of the video has members of Radiohead panning in and out of focus, with that “Matrix” effect of changing speeds, while performing in dimly lit parking garage. Though the song is the most guitar-oriented from the “Amnesiac” album, Muller captures the esoteric nature of the electronic album visually. Not a narrative by any stretch of the imagination, the video gains fluidity by exercising the same kinds of experimentation that Radiohead was trying to achieve sonically. Then there is the video for “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon (from the Kings of Leon Youtube Channel). The lyrics start “Lay where you’re laying…” and we find the lead singer singing from his bed, translated not just as the narrator but the subject of his own narration. This theme reoccurs over and over throughout the video, as the band is performing. “This sex is on fire,” are the lyrics heard in the background over and over towards the end of the song, as Caleb Folowill (lead singer) is lying in bed breathing out black smoke from his mouth. The video is as straightforward and clean as the music of the Kings of Leon. Though highly aesthetic, what captures the viewer is not the imagery, but again the music. Muller succeeds again in putting music first, the vision of the band’s music and image, and amplifying it for an audience. And let’s not forget the Cure’s “The 13th,” a narrative of two drag queens fighting over Robert Smith.

Tim Pope

Born in London, UK (12 February 1956), Pope has a videography that includes everyone from David Bowie to Queen, from Bow Wow Wow to Everything but the Girl. Tim Pope has also directed film, most notably “The Crow: City of Angels” (1996), though it did not garnish rave reviews. But like the movie, what has always stuck me about his videos is the use of colors, and his distorted sense of humor. Take the Cure’s “Never Enough” (link from Universal Music Group YouTube Channel), Robert’s anguish of becoming an international success and the criticisms of mainstream media are all interwoven into a freak show – what else has the Cure been considered? They are not in a small room in this video; it is all about perspective: they are giants in a normal room. They have grown uncomfortable, to the point of trying to escape (the ball and chain, that is the contract, keeps Robert in check), with the size of the band. Captured in a hilarious freak show (with images from past songs like “Exploding Boys” and “Siamese Twins”), the video is a complete allegory for the Cure. From being signed to small label, Fiction Records (represented by the midget played by Chris Perry, CEO of Fiction at the time), to the play on color in Robert’s clothes (the colorful flower pattern of the cheery Robert, to the dark dressed and black make-up of the stereotypical, media Gothic image of Robert), Pope uses seemingly comical imagery, like the fat lady (does the song “A Man Inside My Mouth” about Robert’s dentist come to mind), to showcase the Cure’s career, feelings about the music industry, and frustrations at fame.

But on to color! From Queen’s “It’s a Hard Life” (no official link or embed available), in Victorian-masquerade splendor (this is Queen), to the interposing of dark, muted colors with some bright colors, Kaiser Chiefs “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” (link from Universal Music Group Youtube Channel), Pope uses color to convey mood. And even with the dancing skeletons (Pope is all about humor), he alternates between straight black and white to glow in the dark. Any Pope video will strike you with the juxtaposition of colors.

Recently emerging (2005) from a self-imposed hiatus of several years from video directing, he was awarded the CADS Lifetime Achievement Award. More so in the UK than in the USA, Pope has become as renowned as the musicians he works with. Even venturing into making some of his own music in the mid-80s (“I Want to Be a Tree”), Pope’s vision of music videos has less to do with narration than it does with mood. If there is one thing that he conveys in his videos is the emotions of the lyrics and soundsacpes, while depicting the absurdities of entertaining such ideas. There is nothing like poking fun at yourself. And rumor has it he may be working with Fat Bob again, over sixteen years since their last collaboration