Last week, Netflix released a 15 minute IMAX short film/music video Anima, starring Thom Yorke and featuring three songs from his new album of the same name. Directed by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson and shot by the great Darius Khondji, it’s something to behold. It’s also pretty significant that Netflix has commissioned what is essentially a music video by a filmmaker known more for his artistic value than commercial draw. To celebrate the release of Anima, here are some examples (by no means a definitive list) of great music videos directed by auteurs. Music videos, while not bound so much by narrative, are an opportunity for top film directors to experiment visually, and in some cases create incredible images that might never make it to the screen elsewhere.
Thriller – John Landis
The most famous music video of all time. What else? John Landis, director-colossus of the late 70s and 80s, behind Animal House, Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London and Trading Places, directs this zombie-fuelled music video for the King of Pop. A gleefully metafictional comedy horror, Jackson and his girlfriend play out classic horror tropes in layers of movies-within-movies and nightmares, including a werewolf transformation and a zombie awakening. The zombies are pretty good dancers though.*
Bad – Martin Scorsese
Already the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, Scorsese decided to collaborate with Jackson in 1987 with the longform ‘Bad’. It stars Michael Jackson alongside a young Wesley Snipes. It’s really a short film at 18 minutes long, and has a lot of dialogue with fluid scene cuts and narrative progression enveloping the actual song. Scorsese’s trademark camera movements are at play, initially in a blue washed monochrome, and then suddenly jumps into high saturation colour as Jackson switches from good school boy to “bad” boy.*
Karma Police – Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer is probably the one director on this list who might not be considered by everyone to be an auteur. But Sexy Beast and Under the Skin form an incredibly important part of British cinema, and have a pretty distinctive style while doing so. Radiohead used Glazer to direct ‘Karma Police’ in 1997, and he chose a desolate road in Middle America to shoot a fidgety yet eyes-glazed-over Thom Yorke to chase a man running in front of the car, only for a gas leak to enable the man to set the car on fire. It has strong imagery and pretty amazing cinematography, almost exclusively with a point-of-view camera in the driver’s seat of the car.
Try – Paul Thomas Anderson
This Michael Penn music video is one very long take down an even longer (like ridiculously long) corridor. Paul Thomas Anderson utilises the Spike Lee staple “double dolly” shot, seen most recently at the end of BlacKkKlansman. Here the camera is dollying, but Penn himself is also on a dolly, so that it seems he is floating across the floor. What’s cool about this one in particular is that PTA pulls the rug from under us and breaks the fourth wall, actually revealing Penn to be on the dolly. The corridor keeps going on thanks to changes of direction and clever camera movement, and Penn travels through different scenes along different parts of the corridor. It comes together in an impressive one-take music video that in intricacy almost rivals the opening shot of Boogie Nights. Plus it’s got a cameo a pretty good cameo by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a soundie, but unfortunately not as Scotty J.
Across the Universe – Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson has directed some magnificent music videos. Another honourable mention might be Fiona Apple’s ‘Fast As You Can‘, where PTA seemingly changes the lens multiple times mid-shot as a train comes racing into a subway station. His best one, though, has to be the Fiona Apple cover of ‘Across the Universe’. A stylish black and white single take (or two) follows Fiona as a 50s set diner (from Pleasantville) is ransacked around her. It’s beautifully staged and executed as the camera seems mesmerised by Apple and forgets about the carnage around her. It’s pretty hard to figure out how she’s singing (and spinning) in time while everything being destroyed behind and in front of her is in slow motion, but that’s the cost of watching a master have the freedom of a big budget music video to play with. Spot the cameo from PTA regular John C. Reilly.
Weapon of Choice – Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze has done a lot of music videos and adverts through his prolific career, and even has a WatchMojo video dedicated to his top ten music videos. Here is one that really shows his directorial skill, and shares similarities in its crazy weirdness to his feature films like Being John Malkovich. It stars Christopher Walken as a bored concierge who decides to dance (and fly) in the middle of the night in the Marriott Hotel in LA. Because, you know, it’s Christopher Walken, and he’s actually a professionally trained dancer. It won 6 MTV awards as well as being ranked ‘Best Video of All Time’ in 2002 by VH1.
Six Days – Wong Kar-wai
One of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic directors alive, and certainly one of the most influential, Wong Kar-wai’s style seems perfect for the music video medium. Parts of Wong’s films, like the Dinah Washington/Toy Airplane scene in Chungking Express, the final scene in Happy Together, and just about the whole of In The Mood For Love, use music as centrepieces of their scenes, almost as key to the story as the characters themselves. What would Chungking Express be without ‘California Dreaming’, or Happy Together without…, well, ‘Happy Together’? Here Wong teams up with regular DoP Christoper Doyle to shoot this video for DJ Prayer in 2002. It’s even filled with references to the number 426, a nod to Wong’s upcoming film at the time, and sort-of-sequel to ITMFL, 2046. It kind of feels like a Wong Kar-wai showreel, as he throws in all his staples; hyper stylish martial arts, people looking in lots of mirrors and a woman lying on a bed sensually (although presumably in a lot of pain as she gets a tattoo). It also features his signature style of quick cuts, fast, off-axis camera movement, step-printed slow-motion and neon-drenched lighting.
‘Vogue’ (Madonna) – David Fincher
‘I Just Don’t Know What To With Myself’ (The White Stripes) – Sofia Coppola
‘Come Into My World’ (Kylie Minogue) – Michel Gondry
‘Paper Bag’ (Fiona Apple) – Paul Thomas Anderson
‘Here With Me’ (The Killers) – Tim Burton
*By including ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ in this list, we’re considering the work of the directors and their cultural impact, and it is not an endorsement of the musician’s proclivities.