Are the Best Music Videos Actually Movies?
From David Bowie to Britney Spears, musicians have long been elevating their music videos to a cinematic art form.
Screengrab via YouTube.
Music videos, for whatever reason, have a long history of attempting to not be music videos. Whether it’s homages to classic early 2000s comedies, like Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next,” or sprawling “visual albums” like Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, video directors love to imbue their works with “cinematic” elements almost as much as viewers love to watch them. As a genre, the movie-in-a-music video (or music-video-as-movie) has remained a staple of the format for decades.
A popular subgenre of this format occurs when music videos try to make their artists into movie stars, employing the trademarks of certain genre films or mimicking the environment of a film set. This latter trope especially was everywhere in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and while I partially blame movies like Mulholland Drive for making this seem like a Meta and Cool thing to do, what it really boiled down to was the very specific celebrity culture of the time—the need for rock stars to be movie stars and vice versa. (It seems nobody was happy with their lot in that moment; remember those “What I Really Want To Do is Direct” T-shirts?).
It’s hard to pinpoint the first example of music videos imitating the movies. The early videos of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s had more in common from the scrappy, DIY glamour of live theater; as pre-MTV promotional videos were usually created just to fill space on televised variety shows, they were often designed, costumed, and shot to resemble filmed performances on a soundstage. Add to that the low picture quality of analog television, low video budgets, and an affinity for silly visual effects, and you’ve got a medium that hardly resembled Hollywood at all.
In 1980, a year before the premiere of MTV, the video for David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” achieved a more ambitious visual style, largely due to….well, money, mostly. With a budget of around $500,000, it was the most expensive video ever made at the time, and it shows. “Ashes to Ashes” takes place across multiple, albeit abstract, interior and exterior settings; the costuming and makeup are more elaborate, especially for the background characters; the set pieces include pyrotechnics and a moving, full-scale bulldozer; and the expressionist lighting and effects carry more weight beyond, “Let’s spice this video up a bit.” Okay, it’s not a narrative work of art by any means, but “Ashes to Ashes” marked a turning point in how complex and deliberate a music video could be, inching it closer as a medium to film.
The real king of narrative/cinematic music videos, of course, was Michael Jackson. There’s far too much to discuss without devoting an entire essay to his videography, so here’s the obvious choice: Thriller. Jackson called up director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) for a reason! The only parts of the 13-minute Thriller short film that feel explicitly like a music video are 1) the song itself and 2) the central dance number, which would’ve made a fine video on its own but likely would’ve been labeled another “campy oddity” in Jackson’s career.
The real grandmommy of these videos, and one that explicitly tried to replicate a scene from the movies, is Madonna’s “Material Girl” (1985, directed by Mary Lambert). “Material Girl” recreates Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” performance from 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with narrative ellipses that imply that Madonna-Monroe is dating the film director (yikes?!?!?!). While it’s an impressive recreation of the Monroe dance sequence, it’s also a bit Much in the way that theater kids tend to be; it never feels like more than an imitation. Madonna’s cinephile interests ended up suiting her better in videos like “Vogue,” which pillaged the aesthetic of 1940s film noir (and, shamelessly, contemporary queer ball culture) and grafted it onto a music video framework.
Shifts in culture from the ‘80s to ‘90s meant the look and feel of music videos changed dramatically—out with new wave, in with grunge. But certain genres, such as movie imitations, were guaranteed crowd-pleasers when done right. The Spike Jonze-directed video for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (1994) is like simultaneously watching an SNL parody of a 1970s cop show and a film student's dead serious attempt at recreating the same thing. Later in the decade, the Foo Fighters took a stab (pun intended) at The Evil Dead with “Everlong” (1997, directed by Michel Gondry) and paid homage to Airplane! with “Learn to Fly” (1999, directed by Jesse Peretz).
Elsewhere, especially in pop videos, the narratives started to get more meta in their cinematic references. Meaning….they got goofier about them. Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” video, from 1999, is a classic example. Doofy physical comedy, a gratuitous catfight scene with *eyeroll* sound effects, a love interest played by Jerry O’Connell of the Kangaroo Jack fame—all make an appearance in the clip, directed by the now-disgraced Brett Ratner. Would you believe that the “Heartbreaker” video cost $2.5 million to make and is still one of the most expensive ever produced? Either Mariah demanded twice the salary for playing two parts (plausible) or each popcorn kernel at the movie theater cost five dollars (also plausible).
“Heartbreaker” does feature an animated film within the video, which is the reason why everyone is congregated at a movie theater. (Mariah watching Mariah, of course.) But the real filmic aspects of this video are the dual parts that Mariah is playing: the sweet, shy, pink and blue girl next door, and the sultry, brunette, man-eating Bianca. Two years before Mulholland Drive, baby. She Really Did That.
Arguably the best video to come out of the genre is Britney Spears’s “Lucky” (2000, directed by Dave Meyers), as bittersweet a meditation on fame and celebrity as it is a glitter-saturated pop fantasy. The 2000s idea of “glamour” is embodied in a fur-tufted pale pink gown that looks like a distant cousin to Bjork’s swan dress (and check out the the royal blue Cheesecake Factory interior design of that mansion set).
The eeriest part of “Lucky” is that, while we see Hollywood Britney clearly acting annoyed and exacerbated on set, we never see her crying or visibly depressed, as the song’s lyrics suggest. We only see Narrator Britney—invisible to the other characters—looking on forlornly, as though she’s the only one who can (or is allowed to) view that raw part of herself. It’s a masterclass in how to “get serious” in a video while still staying entirely on brand.
Nowadays, with a few exceptions like “thank u, next” and the occasional Fall Out Boy video (yep, they still make those!), the self-referential film video doesn’t appear quite as often as it did—perhaps because that classic version of pop stardom has grown less and less common in pop’s current gloomy moment. You’re more likely to find hip-hop videos that, in referencing and poking fun at the production of the music video itself, downplay the format’s very significance. (Young Thug not showing up for his own music video shoot? Lol, sure.) Unless you’ve got the resources of Beyoncé or Ariana Grande, what’s popular now is taking a tone of ironic detachment towards the music video rather than earnestly blowing it up to cinematic heights. You’ll see the Migos don ridiculous genre costumes like the ones in “Sabotage,” but you won’t see them sincerely acting out a car chase like the next action heroes.
But we can still enjoy these videos from when pop was (or appeared) more innocent, when a visual could have all the glitz and pizzazz of a Busby Berkeley number without seeming totally hokey at the time. And now we can appreciate videos that rise to the level of movies without appearing superficially “cinematic.” With or without Hollywood, music videos can exist as their own art form.