Sight, Sound & Meaning: A Glimpse into the History of Music Films

By Juan Ramirez

More often than not, image and music exist on separate planes in cinema. Though movies have soundtracks and music videos give visual expression to what is otherwise left for the ear, there are only rare instances – without mentioning musicals, which are more of an adaptation of theatrical sentiment than an indigenously cinematic form – where the audio and the video are so inherently linked that they demand to be considered a whole. These cross-disciplinary experiments are marked by the palpable vitality that can come only from artists in full control of their vision.

Or, in The Beatles’ case, the vitality that comes from an anything-goes mentality on a drug-fueled, improvised road trip. Already known for their (as well as their agents’) brand that went beyond sound to include a whole ethos and “look,” the British megaband was a pioneer in music videos and films. Though made almost entirely for promotional purposes, one long-form example stands out, even among the more formally-recognized vehicles, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour, a made-for-television comedy that might be called surreal were it not almost insufferably childish, nevertheless leaves an impression on the music film genre for the marked connectedness between song and image. It’s not a musical, per se, but the circus-like, psychedelic visuals augment the ridiculousness of the songs (which include campy classics “I am the Walrus” and “Hello Goodbye”) so well, they deliver a complete semiotic package: these are the Beatles and this is the mental world they’re currently inhabiting.

Inspired by Paul McCartney’s penchant for making home videos, the film never goes for “seriousness” but plain cinematic documentation of something akin to an artist’s’ mentality. Much in the same countercultural, DIY vein but on a wholly different plane of intention and ideology is the experimental work of Kenneth Anger, an American iconoclast who moved in the ‘60’s rising occult scene. Ever the all-encompassing artiste, Anger enlisted the help of Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page and Bobby Beausoleil (who composed behind bars after assisting a Manson family murder) to score his film Lucifer Rising and its short accompaniment, Invocation of My Demon Brother, which starred none other than the Church of Satan’s founder, Anton LaVey.

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While the scores written for Lucifer (Beausoleil stepped in after Page fought with Anger) are more standard rock and roll fare, Jagger’s synthesizer score serves as Invocation’s maddeningly hypnotic center around which the piece is edited. Without it, the piece would be entirely different, not only in terms of emotional impact, but in representing an apex collaboration of two artists diving into magick, an underworld few mainstream artists have entered. What emerges from this hermetically-sealed piece is a perfect capsule of a time and place – namely, the culturally-fluxed San Francisco, which gave rise to the Summer of Love and many a counterculture myth.

Though Jagger soon left his occult associations in the Haight-Ashbury, The Rolling Stones would continue to make deeply felt marks in the music film genre. The Maysles’ iconic 1970 release, Gimme Shelter, stands as both a document of an emerging subculture, a recording of a popular concert and criminal evidence used in court when a cameraman caught a security guard (and, of course, member of Hell’s Angels) stab an overhyped fan who tried to rush the stage. It’s impossible to extricate the film’s implications from the then-popular belief that “rock and roll was the Devil.”

Likewise, their unreleased documentary, Cocksucker Blues, which was was filmed in cinéma verité style partly by allowing anyone to pick up a camera and record, shows the band indulging in cocaine, parties and groupies. It is an invaluable look into a form of cult celebrity – the rock god – that no longer exists, as well as of a music scene forever associated with decadence and fervent rebellion. With the Stones’ films, sight and sound combined to capture a zeitgeist the likes of which have never really been witnessed since – a time when music, rebellion, increasingly accessible film equipment and youthful spirit were intensely focused.

Focus, however, is the most accurate way to describe the energy harnessed by director Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads’ frontman, David Byrne in 1984 for their seminal concert film Stop Making Sense. A culmination of the new age band’s aesthetic, influences and music, Demme astutely stepped aside to let the film serve as what drummer Chris Frantz calls the way we in the band would like to see it.” Featuring minimal camerawork or other cinematic adornments, watching these 88 minutes is electric – the band seems to have tapped into some higher power and channeled their musical prowess through a camera. In stark contrast to the MTV era’s quick cuts, elaborate staging or flashy theatricality, the band commands full attention on a dimly-lit stage; this is music as performance as film as art – pure expression free of artifice.

The key message for a film artist to take away from Stop Making Sense is to allow the material to speak for itself, to have the visual aspect reflect the song’s contents. This school of thought would influence many of the video artists who built their reputations through inspired music videos in the ‘90s. Working with music acts like Fatboy Slim, Weezer and the Beastie Boys – all of whom were as concerned with their presentation and delivery as with the music – young directors interested in exploiting the possibilities afforded by the medium’s short running times, high visibility and built-in emotion: each music video could act as a mini-arthouse film, an experiment through music capable of reaching a wide audience without pandering to it.

Jonathan Glazer’s spinning room for Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” and Mark Romanek’s seedy, anorectic model den in Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” are exercises in visualizing the music on its own terms. What emerges from these collaborations are a dizzyingly satisfying effect where music and image become inextricable – it is impossible to listen to Bjork’s “All is Full of Love” and not envision the sexually-charged robotic encounter at the heart of its Chris Cunningham-helmed video. Firmly at the intersection of boundary-pushing vision and unabashed commerciality, music videos ushered in an era of works that simultaneously serve as spiritual descendants of the short, chamber-piece films Anger was producing mid-century.

Cynics and casual viewers might be forgiven for not granting short films from the likes of Kanye West and Beyoncé the attention and merit they deserve. Living in a hyper-scrutinized celebrity culture hinders a healthy detachment of the ego from the art – a somewhat baffling desire given that those two go hand in hand. Kanye’s 2010 Runaway is bombastic, self-indulgent and not nearly as profound as it considers itself to be. It’s also gorgeously shot and innovative in its marriage of Old World sensibility, pop iconography and “luxury rap” – all of which are unpacked and expanded upon. It is an ostentatious statement from a figure known for being just that.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a vital and searingly topical assertion of black womanhood can also be seen as an over-glammed promotional tool – which it is. Regardless of its commercial quality and brand-building objectives, it is a declaration of the self in a world that favors easy allegories and compliance. Both of these projects are heavy (and sometimes heavy-handed) in their imagery and barely ever betray their stars’ narcissism, but if Kenneth Anger can get away with describing his debut short, Fireworks, in as vague of terms as “all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July,” then these contemporary artists should be afforded the same privilege.

Music films are fascinating because they are inspired and inspiring – what is cryptic and evocative gives way to inspiration, as the beauty of not fully understanding someone’s work of art is responding to it in a personal way. With so much to unpack and take into account, we are forced to think for ourselves and consider what both unites and separates the visual from the sonic, filling in that sublime gap with the emotional responses solicited by the works.

 

 

 

 

Juan Ramirez is a candidate for a degree in Media and Screen Studies from Northeastern University. He regularly contributes to The Huntington News as a correspondent and as a bi-weekly Arts & Entertainment columnist and can often be found manically attempting to convert friends and passersby into fellow film enthusiasts, to varying degrees of success.

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