My novel The Impossible Fortress opens in 1987 with two boys watching music videos on MTV. While researching the book, I watched scores of old ’80s music videos, and I was surprised to learn that some of my favourites had established filmmakers behind the camera. And many more were helmed by relative newcomers who grew into important directors.
So here’s a list of ten interesting video/director pairings. One caveat: given the focus of my novel, I didn’t research anything beyond the 1980s. So there’s nothing here from Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Michael Bay, or anyone else directing music videos after 1989.
‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel
with animation by Nick Park/Aardman Studios
This video played in heavy rotation on MTV and before 1986 I had never seen anything like it – five minutes of singing, dancing, animation, pixilation, Claymation, and God knows what else, all blended seamlessly before computers made things easy. The highlight comes during the flute solo, when two headless roast chickens twirl and dance upon a miniature stage. The genius behind this twenty-second masterpiece of stop-motion animation is Nick Park, who would go on to fame as the director of the beloved Wallace and Gromit shorts (and I’m sure this is just a coincidence, but Park would return to the subject of poultry with his first big-budget feature, Chicken Run).
‘Touched by the Hand of God’ by New Order
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
We open with a young Bill Paxton (Aliens, The Terminator) running down the centre of a highway against oncoming traffic. He’s pursuing Rae Dawn Chong, and she’s so desperate to escape she wrecks her car. It’s all straight out of a Hollywood B-movie – which makes sense when you learn that the director is a young Kathryn Bigelow, who would go on to direct action movies like Point Break and the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (Bigelow is the only woman to ever receive an Academy Award for best directing). I can’t see any connection between the action scenes and the rest of the video, which features performance clips of New Order band members dressed in heavy-metal attire. My guess is that Bigelow was just eager to demonstrate she could direct B-movie action sequences as well as any guy.
‘Englishman in New York’ by Sting
directed by David Fincher
Before Gone Girl, The Social Network, Fight Club, and Seven, David Fincher was arguably the most successful and in-demand director working in music videos. During the 1980s, he directed videos for everyone from Aerosmith (‘Janie’s Got a Gun’) and Don Henley (‘The End of the Innocence’) to Rick Springfield, Foreigner, The Motels, Johnny Hates Jazz, Steve Winwood, The Gipsy Kings, the list goes on and on. With that kind of résumé it’s hard to pick any one video that’s representative of his style, but ‘Englishman in New York’ still looks gorgeous in black-and-white so I’m going with that.
‘Material Girl’ by Madonna
directed by Mary Lambert
Mary Lambert directed many of Madonna’s early videos – ‘Like a Virgin’, ‘Borderline’, ‘Like a Prayer’, ‘La Isla Bonita’ — but the one that really cemented Madonna’s reputation as a pop icon was ‘Material Girl’. Inspired by a scene in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the video features Madonna mimicking Marilyn Monroe’s performance of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’. There’s nothing here to suggest that Lambert would later enjoy a nice career working in horror films; she’s since directed an episode of Tales from the Crypt, a SyFy Channel movie called Mega Python vs. Gateroid, and (most famously) Stephen King’s adaptation of Pet Semetery.
‘The Perfect Kiss’ by New Order
directed by Jonathan Demme
By the time Jonathan Demme directed this video, he already had a few features under his belt, including the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense and a handful of exploitation films produced under the guidance of B-movie maestro Roger Corman. The video for ‘The Perfect Kiss’ was filmed in New Order’s practice room and features long, close-up takes of the band members playing their instruments. In a 1998 interview with the Guardian, Demme explained: “One of my favourite things in watching any performance on film is when there isn’t a lot of cutting going on and when you get a chance to become really absorbed in the artist in hand. The same way we do, hopefully, at a concert, when we get a chance to really trip in to something that’s happening on stage.” These ideas become especially interesting when you look forward to Demme’s most famous film, The Silence of the Lambs, featuring all those long unbroken close-ups of Clarice Starling interrogating Hannibal Lecter in his prison cell.
‘Dancing in the Dark’ by Bruce Springsteen
directed by Brian De Palma
In the original version of this video, Springsteen was literally dancing in the dark, alone on an empty stage with black walls and a black ceiling. It’s an awkward performance (you can find it on Google) so famed director Brian De Palma was hired to reshoot the video. By this point De Palma was already famous for directing thrillers like Carrie, Scarface, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out; he must have known that Springsteen was at his best in front of a real audience, because he filmed The Boss singing live at a concert in Minnesota. The result was a high-energy performance video that set the standard for all performance videos to come. And yes, that’s a young Courtney Cox in the final seconds of the video, being pulled out of the crowd to dance onstage!
‘Too Late for Goodbyes’ by Julian Lennon
directed by Sam Peckinpah
Talk about ending things on the wrong note. Sam Peckinpah had an extraordinary career. He spent years directing episodes of western TV shows like The Rifleman and Zane Grey Theater, then achieved cult-filmmaker status with violent films like The Wild Bunch, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Straw Dogs (this last one was so controversial, its video release was banned in the UK for many years). And yet Peckinpah’s final directing assignment, reportedly finished just two months before his death, was the music video for Julian Lennon’s innocuous pop hit ‘Too Late for Goodbyes’. If you asked me who directed this video, I would have guessed a thousand filmmakers before landing on Peckinpah.
‘Dancing with Myself’ by Billy idol
directed by Tobe Hooper
A businessman prepares to bludgeon his wife with a hammer. A decaying corpse sits across a table from a ventriloquist’s dummy. A dozen refugees from a Mad Max movie run flailing around a cheap-looking set, looking to Billy Idol for salvation (or Food? Water? Clean clothes? It’s really not clear.) ‘Dancing with Myself’ was filmed in 1982 and was one of the first videos to use a ‘real’ Hollywood director – Tobe Hooper, who shocked and stunned audiences worldwide with his ugly, grubby cult hit The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson
directed by John Landis
After Michael Jackson saw An American Werewolf in London, he reached out to director John Landis and said “I want you to turn me into a monster.” With these words, the most famous music video of all time was set into motion. Thriller was insanely ambitious, a thirteen-minute mini movie with scores of dancers, tons of make-up, a rapping Vincent Price, and groundbreaking special effects by Rick Baker. Thriller was MTV’s first world premiere video, and the first music video inducted into the National Film Register by the US Library of Congress. But the most remarkable thing about Thriller is that it’s just as good as you remember it; after more than thirty years I feel like it’s barely aged at all. Landis believes that more people have seen Thriller than anything else he’s ever directed – no small claim from the man who also directed The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Coming to America, and National Lampoon’s Animal House.
‘Bad’ by Michael Jackson
directed by Martin Scorsese
How could anyone top the insane success of Thriller? Clearly this was the intention of Bad – the video was 18 minutes, five minutes longer than its predecessor, and directed by none other than Martin Scorsese, already famous for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and flush with success from the Oscar-winning The Color of Money. The story (penned by novelist and Color of Money screenwriter Richard Price) opens with MJ at an all-white prep school, heading home to Brooklyn for winter break. He runs into some old friends (including one played by Wesley Snipes) who accuse him of selling out, and Jackson proves his toughness via an elaborately choreographed dance routine, complete with a back-up dancer on roller skates. Personally, I don’t think the video has aged as well as Thriller, but it’s worth a look just to see how much New York City has changed since the 1980s.
Jason Rekulak is the Publisher of Quirk Books, an independent press based in Philadelphia, and home to a dozen New York Times bestsellers. His debut novel The Impossible Fortress, a coming-of- age crime caper that explores the timeless and ever-confusing realities of male adolescence, is published by Faber & Faber. Read more.
Author portrait © Courtney Apple