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From Guitars to the Stars

August 16, 2009

From the latest issue of Film & Festivals magazine:

For some successful feature film directors, the music video has provided a useful training ground. For creating a mood, a visual signature or crafting a short, soundtracked story, there is no better medium. The director doesn’t need to worry about getting a script together, auditioning (let’s just use the band, that’s what the fans want to look at) or even making much sense. Yet, if the director does a good job, the video will play back in listeners’ minds every time they catch a bit of the song – just think of Blur’s Coffee & TV (1999), with that adorable little milk carton on a mission to find the missing Graham Coxon. You see?

Working with an act that’s about to become big – or is already there – can also introduce an existing fan base to the director’s work. Cast your mind back to 1999 and Fatboy Slim’s single, Praise You, the one with the amateur dance troupe giving an impromptu show in an anonymous shopping mall. The song hit number one in the UK charts, and the video, directed by (and featuring) then-rising star Spike Jonze, deserved its three MTV Video Music Awards, and made its director hugely famous.

The added advantage of making a music video is that it can really help the director to get noticed by powerful people, for instance, when Drew Barrymore scouted out McG to direct Charlie’s Angels (2000). Similarly, Björk’s admiration of Michel Gondry’s videos for his formed-in-school band, Oui Oui, led him on the path to the successful career he now enjoys.

Here’s a look at five directors have made the leap from music videos to feature films:

Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry’s strength lies in his quirky visuals, and his beginnings in making videos for equally oddball Björk gave him ample opportunity to experiment. His video for her first solo single, 1993’s Human Behaviour (http://bit.ly/DiXPk), includes animated cuddly animals, clouds that look as though they’re made out of cotton wool and sudden moves between settings that are reminiscent of dreams. His three most famous feature films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), The Science of Sleep (2006) and Be Kind Rewind (2008), share this kind of hand-crafted look.

Some of Gondry’s other videos utilise effects that he is clearly fond of, as they crop up in his later, longer work. The video for Wyclef Jean’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ (1998; http://bit.ly/cr2wV) has a live-action cartoon feel, with Jean carrying around and singing to a model of Freddy Mercury, and a car that is much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. All three of Gondry’s features have similarly cute props and sets.

His films show that he is also fond of playing with impossible scenarios, such as doubles of characters popping up, and this effect can be seen in Kylie Minogue’s Come into my World (2002; http://bit.ly/11z44o) and The White Stripes’ The Hardest Button to Button (2003; http://bit.ly/nEUqU). Only music videos could have given Gondry the freedom to experiment with his visual language, without worrying about a storyline. In much of his feature work, he has left that side of things down to writer/producer Charlie Kaufman.

Spike Jonze

Like Gondry, Spike Jonze is also a Kaufman collaborator, and worked with Björk and Daft Punk, who seem to embrace unusual, memorable video-making. Jonze’s video for Björk’s 1995 single, It’s Oh So Quiet (http://bit.ly/sr9NN), reached number four in the UK and, thanks to continuous play of the video on MTV, hit number nine in the US charts. The video features surreal elements, such as Björk dancing with a post box, and then floating up into the sky towards the camera at the end, clearly signposting his interest in pushing the boundaries of realism, which can also be seen in Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002).

Jonze’s music videos also display a delight in choreography – Björk makes her way through town dancing with anyone she meets in the up tempo sections of Quiet; Fatboy Slim’s Praise You even has Jonze leading the dance troupe himself; and of course Fatboy Slim single, Weapon of Choice (2001; http://bit.ly/10uonN), featuring the extraordinary dancing talents of Christopher Walken, which won a Grammy for Best Short Form Video. Sadly, dancing hasn’t really come up in his films that much – maybe there’ll be some room for it in his next project, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are (to be released later this year; http://bit.ly/AoMRr)?

Anton Corbijn

Anton Corbijn started out as a music photographer in 1976, and his photos of Dutch music sensation Herman Brood helped propel both men towards fame. The photography garnered Corbijn an invite to start making music videos in 1983, and the stylised cinematography that defines the look of his feature film, Control (2007) can be seen in much of his work.

Corbijn’s videos for Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box (1993; http://bit.ly/EzJPg) and Mercury Rev’s Goddess on a Highway (1998; http://bit.ly/UWm8Z) show his photographer’s eye for setting the scene. In Box, a wizened Father Christmas climbs onto a cross and becomes Jesus, while Nirvana rock out under a discordant, vivid orange sky, the visual equivalent of their music. In Goddess, the video starts out sepia-toned, muted, but colour is suddenly introduced with the appearance of the gold-painted miniature Statues of Liberty as the chase gets underway.

Earlier than these videos, back in the ‘80s, Corbijn directed the video for Joy Division’s single, Atmosphere (1988; http://bit.ly/dUlcF), eight years after Ian Curtis’ death. The video is shot in black and white – like Control – set in bleak, slightly frightening landscapes peopled by strange people in hooded garments. He uses stills of Ian Curtis and the band, and the whole unsettling effect fits well with the typically downbeat, deep vocals of Curtis. This video, more than any other in Corbijn’s impressive back catalogue, is the stylistic precursor to Control.

David Fincher

David Fincher eschewed film school, instead starting out loading cameras and then working on the sets of two of the Indiana Jones movies. As befitting the director of Se7en (1995), Fight Club (1999) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), his music videos are often dramatic and strikingly lit.

Two of his videos for Madonna, Vogue (1990; http://bit.ly/fxsM2) and Express Yourself (1989; http://bit.ly/12evaK) have a film noir look, with the former shot in stark black and white, and the latter featuring blue neon lighting and Madonna made up to look like a ‘40s femme fatale. Similarly, his video for Aerosmith’s Janie’s Got a Gun (1989; http://bit.ly/QxkRy) opens with a crime scene (shades of Se7en) and the drama is enhanced by the black and white filming of Steven Tyler singing, lit up by rays of blinding white light.

Lighting and silhouette also dominates the video for George Michael’s Freedom ‘90 (1990; http://bit.ly/nKuWV), wherein various supermodels lip-sync to his voice and writhe around in darkened rooms illuminated by blue neon light coming through the window, a device that induces a feeling of claustrophobia, and proves useful in Fight Club.

Hammer & Tongs

This UK duo consists of director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, who began making music videos in the mid-90s, and now have two feature films to their name, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and Son of Rambow (2007).

Their most memorable work would have to be the video for Blur’s 1998 single, Coffee & TV (http://bit.ly/3XGdd), which follows a milk carton (‘Milky’, who was sold at auction in 1999) who sets off on a mission to find the missing Graham Coxon, and, on the way, encounters love, death and heaven. The milk carton puppet was made by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and his facial features and epic journey give a narrative backbone to an otherwise nice but repetitive song. Dealing with puppets and other such props would crop up again in Hitchhiker’s.

The twosome’s video for Travis’s Driftwood (1999; http://bit.ly/wbHIO) fits the gentle, nostalgic song perfectly, with a dreamy rendition of a school photo in progress. From watching this video, it is unsurprising to find that that Hammer & Tongs’s second feature, Son of Rambow, which draws heavily upon their ‘80s childhoods, was postponed by the offer of Hitchhiker’s; it was the film that they had wanted to make first. That feeling of longing to recreate the past permeates the Driftwood video; they only had to wait eight years to use that in a feature film, but they got there in the end.

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