If you were born roughly between the years 1970 and 1993, then there’s a good chance that the music video has been your life’s most formative unit of artistic expression. Maybe not your favorite—or the one you’d primarily self-identify as being a fan of—but likely the one you were most exposed to during those mushy, messy adolescent years when your adult personality was still coming into focus.
This is pretty strange if you consider the fact that music videos didn’t really exist until 1981 (when MTV launched) and ceased being totally relevant some time around 2006 (hello, Twitter). But for just over 20 years, music videos were the lingua franca of youth, connecting young viewers from all over the planet to the alien worlds of music, celebrity and—you guessed it—film.
Those of us who watched MTV in the ‘80s and ‘90s did so constantly, seeing many of the same videos again and again and again until they all but fused with our DNA. I don’t remember the name of my elementary school, but the image of a shirtless Slash playing “November Rain” outside a tiny white church in the desert will be fixed in my memory until the day I die—and probably beyond.
Music videos are (were?) also the quintessential Director’s medium: a visually-oriented wonderland where character and narrative takes a permanent back seat to atmosphere and style. Not surprisingly, music videos also birthed some of the biggest and most innovative names in contemporary art house and independent cinema, from David Fincher to Michel Gondry to Sofia Coppola.
So while everyone else is on the hunt for that ever-elusive “song of the summer” the Must-List decided to ask our Film Independent staff to give us their music video picks—from nostalgic favorites, to formally inventive film craft, to era-defining slices of cultural kitsch. So say it together: I want my M(ust-List)TV!
“Got Til It’s Gone” (Janet Jackson feat. Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell, dir. Mark Romanek)
I honestly feel weird writing about this video as a white guy, especially one who studied abroad in South Africa and was repeatedly approached by (South African) people asking me for directions in Afrikaans (I also went on Birthright so, you know, whatever). But I’m going to try. Because this—in my humble opinion—is the most beautiful, powerful, politically important music video ever made. First of all: the song is gorgeous. Second of all: Janet Jackson is gorgeous. Third of all (and back to the important, powerful, political stuff): the video was inspired by DRUM magazine, a legendary South African lifestyle weekly that peaked in the ‘50s and ‘60s. DRUM offered a vibrant slice of township life under apartheid, specifically tailored to a black audience. It was fun. It was exciting. It was sophisticated. It was stunningly photographed. And it was inherently political, almost by definition. Director Mark Romanek’s decision to tell the story of the song through the story of DRUM could have just been a statement about race and class and power, and that would have been enough. But the fact that the video somehow becomes more than that—that its style somehow becomes the logical conclusion of its substance—speaks to Romanek’s touch, Jackson’s talent, and, ultimately, the brilliance of DRUM itself. Also, Q-Tip is in this. Also also, Joni Mitchell never lies.
-Will Slocombe, Senior Event Producer
“Tightrope” (Jannelle Monáe feat. Big Boi, dir. Wendy Morgan)
To dare to live a passionate, creative and free life is to risk loneliness and even suffering. That seems to be the thematic underpinning of the surrealist, Wendy Morgan directed “emotional picture” that is the music video for futurist R&B star Janelle Monáe’s 2010 track “Tightrope”. Released in March of that year (a month after the actual single itself) “Tightrope” features cloaked figures with mirrored faces who seem to have glided directly out of the Maya Deren experimental classic Meshes of the Afternoon. The clip even offers a nod to the Haitian voodoo death spirit “Baron Samedi”—see the man tipping his hat to Monáe’s character toward the end.
-Namee Baijal, Global Media Makers Industry Coordinator
“Lucas with the Lid Off” (Lucas, dir. Michel Gondry)
My pick is a video that no one talks about, from a singer that everyone’s forgotten: Lucas. The music video for his song “Lucas With the Lid Off” was the first time I encountered the work of Michel Gondry, and it’s astonishing. The concept is standard ‘90s music video: singing to camera in a variety of locations—in a diner, on the subway, in a cinema—but it’s the execution that makes this a masterpiece. The entire 4-minute video was shot in one take (with no post-production) on a huge set that pivoted on a gimbal and rotated on three axes. No matter how many times you watch this you’ll always spot a new detail, and you’ll never figure out precisely how they did it. Plus the song is really catchy too.
-Paul Cowling, Associate Director of Film Education
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”/“Duquesne Whistle”/“The Night We Called it a Day” (Bob Dylan, dir. Nash Edgerton)
Sometimes a musician meets his or her filmmaker and great things happen. Neil Young has Jonathan Demme, Taylor Swift has Joseph Kahn and Bob Dylan has Nash Edgerton. The Dylan/Edgerton pairing is strange and great. So far they’ve made four videos: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” “Duquesne Whistle,” “The Night We Called It a Day” and “Must Be Santa.” Edgerton marries songs that (on the surface, at least) are benign, sweet numbers to shockingly violent imagery. In “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” we spend the entire song watching a man and woman savagely beat and stab each other. They’re evenly matched, and it’s never clear who is going to kill whom. The video ends in a passionate kiss between the bloodied and perhaps dying pair. In “Duquesne Whistle,” a sweet looking guy tries to give a rose to a woman he sees (or stalks) on the street. For his troubles, he’s sprayed with mace, roughed up by cops and has his legs broken by a guy wielding not one, but two baseball bats. “The Night We Called It a Day” is a straight-up film noir, starring Dylan and Robert Davi (License to Kill) as two men in love with the same woman (Tracy Phillips). Needless to say, someone is clubbed with a fireplace poker, someone else is shot and love does not exactly win out. With the exception of “Must Be Santa” (about which the less said the better) this is great music combined with great filmmaking.
-Josh Welsh, Film Independent President
“Genius of Love” (Tom Tom Club, prod. Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel)
Okay class, what does the director of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia have in common with… Mariah Carey? Answer: they both have (quite significant) ties to the one-of-a-kind ‘80s classic “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club. The song title and band name may not immediately ring a bell, but trust me: you’ve heard the tune. But! Have you seen its crazy, colorful, animated music video? Well, surprise! It was directed by Jonathan Demme, thus connecting the famed Something Wild director to pop diva Mariah Carey, who used the song as the basis for the most successful single of her career, “Fantasy”. But by no means was “Genius of Love” Demme’s only foray into the world of popular music. He directed videos and documentaries for icons such as New Order, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Talking Heads (the group from which Tom Tom Club was borne.) Your homework: go listen to the dozens of other songs that have sampled “Genius of Love” since its release in 1981.
-Cooper Hopkins, Website & Database Manager
“Yonkers” (Tyler the Creator, dir. Tyler the Creator)
Raw. That, in a word, is Tyler the Creator’s “Yonkers.” A masterstroke of minimalism, Tyler’s self-directed music video does its damage in viscera. He swallows a cockroach. He vomits. He wipes up a bloody nose. As the clip begins, all eyes are on Tyler, sitting alone in front of a white infinity wall. Starting from a pose reminiscent of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, Tyler sets the rules fast: “I’m a paradox,” he rasps. The tilt-shift lens makes that real: the perspective restless, uneasy and aggressive. A formalist middle finger, Tyler earned his stripes on his terms, rocking long socks, snapbacks… and whole lot of rage.
-Daniel Larios, Film Independent blogger
“Money for Nothing” (Dire Straits, dir. Steve Barron)
I wonder: did Dire Strait’s computer-animated clip for 1985’s Aussie cocaine-swagger classic “Money for Nothing” ever, at any point, feel like the present? No doubt at the time the sight of of the video’s digital protagonists (two clunky, slow moving appliance technicians—shades of both Super Mario Brothers and Robert De Niro in Brazil, surely) would have been breathtaking, pointing the way toward a computerized cinematic language years before Toy Story was but a glimmering 8-bit pixel in John Lasseter’s eye. Now of course the crudeness of the animation seems laughably, charmingly dated: as much a signifier of the 1980s as Max Headroom or DeLorean covered in melted Miami Vice Betamax tapes. But when would “Money for Nothing” have felt current? Maybe never. Maybe in 1993. Fact is, we’ll never know. But we do know one thing for certain: we’ve got to move these microwave ovens. Custom kitchen, deliver-ay-yay.
-Matt Warren, Digital Content Manager
“Here It Goes Again” (OK Go, dir. Trish Sie)
I spent most of High School glued to the TV watching TRL and dreaming of being a VJ. VH1’s Pop-Up Video had me obsessing over music videos made in the ‘80s, when video directors were quirky, playful and innovative. So at this year’s LA Film Festival, I tried desperately to control my fangirldom when we asked Trish Sie to speak to students in the Future Filmmaker program. Trish directed OK Go’s “Here It Goes Again” which broke the internet practically before there was an internet to break, proving that you don’t need multiple locations, fancy lighting and concert footage to produce a clip that truly delights and excites people—just a handful of treadmills and totally charming choreography.
-Lex McNaughton, Film Education Coordinator
So hopefully you enjoyed this detour through our own personal Buzz Bin. Which, remember the Buzz Bin? No? Thanks for making us feel old. Now, please excuse us while we shop for Beavis and Butt-head merch on eBay.