Movie Review
Directors Label DVDs

pALM Pictures’ first set of music DVDs, released almost two years ago, became surprisingly hot items over time, worming their way into the collections of casual music video fans as well as film buffs and music video obsessives (the two dozen or so of us that exist, anyway). And this was, of course, for very good reason—the three DVDs, highlighting the works of directors Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham, featured some of the very best and most influential work the music video medium had ever seen, and were as entertaining as they were enlightening as they were, well, pretty. What’s more, there was an exquisite amount of thought put into the packaging and preparation of each, and so all three were stocked full of insightful commentary, interesting non-video shorts and gorgeous liner notes, worthy of any of the best music CD hits compilations.

A follow-up series was both inevitable and absolutely necessary. Though Jonze, Gondry, and Cunningham are responsible for a jaw-droppingly large chunk of the acknowledged canonical music videos between the three of them, the set was by no means the final word on the music video auteur. And as evidence against this, we here have four new DVDs of directors Anton Corbijn, Jonathan Glazer, Mark Romanek, and Stephane Sednaoui. Like the three directors in the first series, these four directors each have their own unique film style, and the work of each could be easily identified even out of the context of the DVD. However, the greater and more important issue here is that of consistency—as a combination of the impeccable video selection and the general quality control of the directors, the first series had barely a dud of a video among them, remaining endlessly re-viewable in their entirety. Does the work of Corbijn, Glazer, Romanek and Sednaoui hold up similarly?

Well, if we’re talking about across-the-board success, then I’m afraid the answer would have to be no, but it’d be better to take this on a case by case basis. The first director in the set is Anton Corbijn, a stylistic marvel of a director with a penchant for a sort of smoky, detached cool in his look. Corbijn often shoots in black and white, and is far less conceptual in his videos than the directors of the first set. His set starts out with dark, shadowy videos for Propaganda (the chilling “Dr. Mabuse”) and David Sylvian (“Red Guitar”), clearly the work of a director finding his footing. His video for Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Seven Seas,” featuring the band performing on a stage against a constantly shifting backdrop, is a hoot, and pre-dates The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” by almost a decade.

Still, Corbijn doesn’t really hit his stride until his first collaborations with Depeche Mode, a band with which he’d continue to collaborate with through the 80s and 90s and even into the first years of the 00s. In Depeche Mode, Corbijn found the perfect soundtrack and models for his videos, with the Mode’s threatening and often bare but highly sexually charged music and their impressively straight-faced camp and narcissistic appearance breathtakingly complementing Anton’s grainy and desolate but highly alluring near-iconography. “Behind the Wheel” sets the template, but “Enjoy the Silence,” the first vibrantly colored Corbijn video on the set, is the stunner. Featuring gorgeously panoramic shots of lead singer Dave Gahan dressed as a king traipsing through the snowy mountains and vast plains of anonymous locales, occasionally setting up the lawn chair he carries with him to survey his kingdom in peace, it is cut in contrast with shots of the band in black & white, photographed looking like the coolest band on the planet. “Enjoy the Silence” is Corbijn’s masterpiece, and most likely one of the best videos ever filmed.

From there, the Corbijn set hits its obvious peak. His faithful elegy to Ian Curtis in Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” provides some of the set’s most stunning imagery, and the thematically charged video for U2’s “One” (featuring Bono’s father and the band in drag, among other things) provides some of the greatest thematic resonance. Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” their most well-known video outside of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” will most likely be the main draw of the set for most people, and not unjustly so—the art direction set a new precedent in music videos, with the video’s approach of shooting the video in color, converting to black-and-white and then coloring it frame by frame giving it a sort of unearthly feel. Fit with Kurt Cobain acting at a fever pitch and Krist Novescelic wearing tight lavender pants, it’s easily the finest video encapsulation of Nirvana.

Unfortunately, from here, the Corbijn DVD gets a little bit rough. See, the problem with Anton’s sort of style-over-substance approach to videos is that his films only end up being about as cool as the music that soundtracks them. So while this works to the advantage of bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and Depeche Mode, it works less well with artists like Joni Mitchell, Mercury Rev, and Herbert Gronemeyer, who inexplicably appears twice on the compilation. Corbijn’s musical selections get fairly sloppy by the end of the disc, with not one but two videos from Metallica’s much-hated Load album and the much less welcome re-appearance of U2 on their mediocre “Electrical Storm” single from a few years back. Especially distressing about this is the amount of videos Corbijn had in reserve—clips from bands like The Art of Noise, Front 242 and At the Drive-In, all of which would have been more welcome than many of the videos on the disc. Not to mention the surfeit of Depeche Mode clips left off—not just forgettable clips for second-tier singles like “Useless” and “World in My Eyes,” but image-defining videos for classic hits like “Never Let Me Down Again” and (unforgivably) “Personal Jesus.”

The two bright spots on the rest of the disc occur courtesy of Henry Rollins and The Killers. Rollins’ “Liar,” perhaps his best known solo effort, is a riotous exercise in exaggeration and outright cruelty, and is given the over-the-top video to match, Rollins literally running back and forth from reality, role-playing as superhero and devil alike, and basically extroverting like it’s nobody’s business. The presence of The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” attempts to excuse the absence of “Personal Jesus” by working as a sort of sequel video, Corbijn’s return to the sort of spaghetti western feel of the Depeche Mode clip with a hilarious storyline chopped up in 21 Grams non-sequential fashion. It’s one of the best videos in MTV’s heavy rotation right now, and it makes for a fine ending to the distressingly uneven set.

As far as extras go, there’s not too much to work with in Corbijn’s set, aside from a generous amount of commentaries from the artists on the DVD, the best of which is probably New Order’s surprisingly light-hearted take on the “Atmosphere” clip. You get some semi-interesting MTV promos Corbijn directed starring Beck and Dave Grohl, a medley of Front 242 videos which show how much more interesting they would’ve been than most of the videos on the disc, and some Depeche Mode tour projections played during “It’s No Good.” Assuming you care enough about Travis to watch a homemade video of theirs or enough about “Electrical Storm” to watch a making of, there’s that too, but hopefully not too many of you are terribly enticed by that prospect.

Despite the inconsistency of Corbijn’s DVD, the big videos (“Heart-Shaped Box,” “Enjoy the Silence,” “One”) should be reason enough for most people to purchase this compilation. This could not be said, however, for director Stephane Sednaoui, who has surprisingly few canonical videos to his name. The only really big ones on his DVD—Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Give It Away”—haven’t even aged that well, so his DVD is likely to be the lowest-selling of the four (and got a lot of “huh?”s and arched eyebrows when it was revealed it would provide the fourth DVD of the set)..

This isn’t to say that it’s necessarily the weakest of the four, however. With the obvious exception of “Ironic” and one or two others, Sednaoui’s videos are even less conceptual than Corbijn’s, and despite having worked with a number of superstar acts (R.E.M., U2, Garbage, Black Crowes), his work just isn’t as much about image definition as Corbijn or Romanek, and therefore his videos are less well known. His style is as distinctive as any of the others on the DVD, though—Sendaoui’s world is one of shiny, sparkly images and color contrast that begs to be noticed, a sort of glammy glitz suited to the European and Europhilic artists he tends to work with.

Like Corbijn, Sendaoui tends to work with artists multiple times. Tricky gets top honors with three appearances (four if you count Massive Attack’s “Sly”), for “Hell is Around the Corner,” “Pumpkin” and “For Real.” The former’s narcoleptic vision of hell is chilling but predictably draggy, and the “For Real” premise is a bit slight, but “Pumpkin” is a highlight, a soul-sucking work of near-indescribable paranoia. U2 appears twice, for their good-but-not-great “Mysterious Ways” and the shockingly well-dated (both video and song, really) indie-dance excursion “Discotheque,” as does French club producer Mirwais, for his tastefully erotic clips for “Disco Science” and “I Can’t Wait.” However, the unsurprising star of the disc, as she was of the first three Director’s Label DVDs, is Bjork, whose “Big Time Sensaulity” (in which she cavorts around New York on the back of a truck) and “Possibly Maybe” (a particularly striking video even for Bjork, each shot a gorgeous snapshot) provide the arguable highpoints of the whole DVD.

Besides that, you’ve got a post-Godfather Pt. III, pre-“Elektrobank” Sofia Coppola staggering around New York as a streetwalker in Black Crowes’ “Sometimes Salvation,” R.E.M. glamming it up at their alleged sexiest in “Lotus,” and Shirley Manson literally demanding the camera’s attention in Garbage’s “Queer.” And yeah, “Ironic” is on here, and with some distance from the time of it being the biggest video in the world, it’s pretty easy to understand why it was so huge, even if the song still sucks. After some fairly interesting interviews with the artists (turns out “Possibly Maybe” was actually about Stephane—only Bjork would have her ex-boyfriend direct the video about their breakup), an NYU interview, and some pretty good short films (the best being a decidedly R-rated video for Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” featuring the man himself), you’re done.

The Sednaoui DVD is surprisingly good, considering the lack of classics in the tracklisting. It could have been even better, though—unnecessary early clips for NTM and “Seven Seconds” could and should have been replaced with later-period videos for Beck’s “Mixed Bizness” and Depeche Mode’s “Dream On,” and the clips for Garbage’s “Milk” and RHCP’s “Around the World” are at least as good as the other clips included by them, if not better. Least explicable are the exclusions of Madonna’s “Fever” (c’mon, it’s Madonna!), Fiona Apple’s great, VMA-winning “Sleep to Dream” and especially Smashing Pumpkins’ classic, career-making clip for “Today,” which aside from “Give It Away” and “Ironic” is probably Sednaoui’s biggest hit.

One director with no shortage of hits, however, is Mark Romanek. With the possible exception of Spike Jonze, Hype Williams, and Steve Barron, no video director has been as responsible for as many career-making, canonical and enormously popular videos as Romanek. Together his videos have won 17 VMAs, and have garnered six nominations for Best Video, including one in each of the last three ceremonies. A quick scan of his tracklisting (25 videos total) confirms this, with at least a dozen clips present that could rightly be considered classics and at least another half-dozen lesser known videos that are just as compelling.

Romanek is most likely the most diverse of the four directors on display here, but he still has a defined style of sharp, striking images that are a lot cleaner than Corbijn’s but significantly starker and darker than Sednaoui’s. Like all the directors on this set, Romanek has a fondness for black & white (there are at least 25 videos across the whole box in B&W;, as opposed to one and a half B&W; videos in all the first box), which makes for some of his best videos—the 2001 futurism of Michael & Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” the miserable dream-world of Eels’ “Novocaine for the Soul” and the grimy, post-apocalyptic waterworld of No Doubt’s “Hella Good” among them. His most notable B&W; excursion is still probably his much ballyhooed video for Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” the first video since The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” to get its own Kurt Loder intro of warning on MTV, ironically for the least memorable part of the video (Jay-Z gets shot, OMG). It’s one of Romanek’s finest, with each street-inspired image becoming instantly unforgettable and all of them adding up to reach Jay-Z’s admitted goal of “Hood as Art.”

That’s not to say that Romanek isn’t a wiz with color, as well. His two videos for Madonna, “Rain” and “Bedtime Stories,” are conceptually more than a little bit preposterous, but make for some gorgeous photography, some of the Material Girl’s best. He does his damndest to re-create South Africa for Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone,” and as Janet herself says, he does his homework, he turns En Vogue into the baddest runway models on the planet in “Free Your Mind” (though it’s doubtful they much needed the help, to be honest) and he makes Audioslave seem like an even bigger event than they actually were by announcing their arrival with a fireworks display of enough grandeur to actually make me care about the 4th of July. Best of all is “Criminal,” an intentionally poorly-lit video with a creepy, decidedly voyeuristic feel (Romanek admits he was going for a sort of “surveillance” look) and Fiona Apple at her waify sexiest, a video that defined her image more than she was probably comfortable with.

And unlike the other directors, most of whose “classic” work peters out in the mid-90s, Romanek has continued to make legendary music videos up until today. His recent videos for Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Can’t Stop) and Linkin Park (“Faint”) are some of his best, most accomplished work yet, and were about as popular as any of his 90s videos. And the consensus choice of Romanek’s best video came only a few years ago, though it now feels like it’s been with us for ages, with Johnny Cash’s “Hurt.” The video for “Hurt” recently topped a poll of pop stars, journalists and other industry folks for the best video of all-time, and not unjustly so—the emotional wallop that the video packs is almost totally unprecedented, and as Romanek says in the set’s great liner notes, he’s had to look at videos in a completely different way since filming it. At the very least, it got a septuagenarian onto MTV for possibly the first time in the channel’s history, and a rather cool one at that.

Even more exciting than Romanek’s run of great videos on the DVD is the bounty of extras that follows. Romanek is by far the most personable of the four directors on the set, and he does the utterly invaluable service of providing commentary for each and every one of the set’s 25 videos (a totally unprecedented move, on this set or the last). His comments give greater insight into the videos than any of the artists’ commentaries could, and he himself is an extremely compelling figure—though the fellow directors on this set and the last too often clearly see themselves as artistes, Romanek is a fairly humble, straightforward guy, all too inclined to share what he can with his audience. As for artist commentaries, there are those too, from Fiona Apple to Lenny Kravitz, as well interesting choices in Joni Mitchell for her guest appearance on “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” and Trent Reznor for Johnny Cash’s cover of his song as well as his own two videos on the set (“The Perfect Drug” and “Closer,” two of the set’s biggest draws). Still, after Romanek has already told you pretty much everything about the video that you need to know, the other commentaries can’t help but seem a bit superfluous.

A documentary about Romanek’s work (which has an unfortunate but inevitable amount of overlap with the video commentaries) and a short film of Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, and Robin Williams offering their intentionally uninformed and mostly irrelevant opinions on the DVD’s videos rounds out what is probably the strongest set of the four. Still, despite having the most great videos, Romanek’s collection is still far from perfect—his work is dragged down by mediocre videos for both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, a badly dated breakout video for K.D. Lang (you know the one), a so-so R.E.M. video for a so-so R.E.M. song (“Strange Currencies”) and worst of all, that plague of Phildelphia, G. Love and Motherfucking Special Sauce with their anti-classic 90s tune “Cold Beverages.” Also, while not a bad video per se, Romanek wastes a golden opportunity with his clip for Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl,” which puts the song against a muted backdrop of an alien girl lost in a big office building, only making use of about a hundredth of the song’s melodramatic potential.

In fact, the only DVD of the four with total video consistency is Jonathan Glazer. Of course, it’s a lot easier to be a consistent filmmaker when you only have nine videos to your name, eight of which are included here (doubtless few tears are shed for the loss of Jamiroquai’s “Cosmic Girl”). The lack of videos on Glazer’s set is reminiscent of the last box’s similarly sparse DVD for director Chris Cunningham, and the comparisons between the two do not end there, stretching to the two’s frequent use of nightmare imagery and overbearing paranoia. Actually, Glazer’s work feels more appropriate to the concept-heavy work of the directors of the first set than the style-focused directors on this set, but his set makes for a nice break from the rest in that regard.

As a result of his working only with British artists, Glazer has only produced one stateside hit of a video. However, that video, Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” was one of the best and most wildly popular of the 90s, sweeping the ’97 VMAs (the only Best Video winner on any of the DVDs thusfar) and likely remaining the one thing that 95% of Americans remember about the band. Besides that, you’re also likely to know the three videos featuring the Lazy-Eyed Wonder, Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and U.N.K.L.E.’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights”. These three are rightly considered some of the best video work of the last decade, forming a sort of trilogy of constant, hellish battle with reality, at first stuck in horrific, helpless slow motion while the rest of the world works in real time (“Street Spirit”), then constantly attempting to escape from the omnipresent stressors of life (“Karma Police”), and at last getting sick and tired of being pushed around and deciding to take a stand (“Rabbit in Your Headlights”).

Aside from those four acknowledged classics, you’ve got a pair of heavily Kubrick-inspired videos in Blur’s “The Unviersal” and Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma.” The first is a sort of piss take on A Clockwork Orange with Damon making for a delicious Little Alex, and the second is heavily inspired by The Shining (complete with evil twins and creepy hotel hallways), though it shows a bit more variety in its impressively cinematic concurrent subplots, none of which add up to much more than a badass looking movie that doesn’t make too much sense. Add in a nicely understated video of creeping alienation and solitude with Richard Ashcroft’s “A Song for the Lovers” and a nakedly emotional video for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Into My Arms,” and you’ve got the entirety of the music videos on the DVDs.

Unlike the Chris Cunningham DVD, which was even less generous with the extras than it was with the music videos, the Glazer disc almost makes up for the lack of clips with the bonus material. There’s almost a dozen Glazer commercials on the set (alcohol, sneakers, and cars), and a surprising number of them are actually pretty funny—Samuel L. Jackson even shows up for a couple, reminding us why The Man is such a travesty. Then you’ve got commentaries for all the videos (except the Radiohead ones, annoyingly), which provide a couple of fascinating insights courtesy of Denis Lavant (a.k.a. That Dude Who Keeps Getting Run Over in That U.N.K.L.E. Video) and Graham Coxon (who appears to be pissed off to have been called in for commentary, badmouthing both the music video art form and the Blur song itself).

Interestingly, Glazer’s set also places a large focus on his feature film work. Glazer is hardly the only director on either set to have dabbled in feature film, but the others saw fit to keep their work in the cinema separate, a tasteful choice that tactfully keeps the emphasis on the music video form. However, with a set as bare as Glazer’s, it’s not hard to be thankful for what you get in terms of extras, whatever they are, and here you have Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone (as well as Nicole Kidman and Danny Huston) offering some OK insight into the mind of Glazer, which is actually the closest we get to the man himself since, unlike Sednaoui and Romanek, he never shows up once on the DVD.

So despite the Glazer set’s high consistency, it’s hard to be totally satisfied, as one gets the feeling it’ll get harder and harder to feel the further we get away from that glorious, almost flawless first set of DVDs. Still, with the possible exception of the Corbijn set (just get the Depeche Mode DVD and scan MTV for an hour for The Killers clip), all of the four DVDs are still definitely worthy purchases, capable of hours of entertainment and elucidation on why the music video is still an important art form. And with the growing popularity of the series and DVDs (hopefully) still to come from such important directors as Garth Jennings, Shynola, Russell Mulcahy, Godley & Crème, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Farris, Matthew Rolston and countless others, the Director’s Label series should still be around for a long time to come.

By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2005-09-21
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