Much like pop music itself, music videos occupy a tenuous place in the film world. Some reach the heights of true short movies that combine sound and performance, but more often, they're just another form of advertising. The Directors Label series represents an attempt to position music videos as an art form worthy of serious critical attention.
Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze and Michael Gondry introduced the DVD imprint in 2003 with their own collections, packing each separate disc with "director's cut" versions of popular clips, short art films, commentaries and other esoterica, including a 56-page color book. While those original editions were rightly hailed for their daring and beautifully packaged presentations, four new entries in the Directors Label -- which are being sold as separate discs and as a box set -- inadvertently reach the series' aesthetic limits.
Each of these directors -- Anton Corbijn, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer and Stephane Sednaoui -- reinterprets pop songs into wildly fantastical images. For U2's "Mysterious Ways," Sednaoui conjures a funhouse mirror effect, as the band dances through Morocco. In Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way," Romanek creates an electric orchestra building, the perfect stage for Kravitz's frenetic concert. And Richard Ashcroft's "A Song for the Lovers" is Glazer's bleak version of a tour mini-documentary, as Ashcroft sits alone in a starkly lit hotel room.
Out of the quartet, however, only Corbijn has a unique visual imprimatur rivaling Cunningham, Jonze or Gondry. Famous for his rock photography, Corbijn helped define the look of Depeche Mode and U2, which he brilliantly illustrates in his classic clips for the former's "Enjoy the Silence" (which may be one of the best music videos ever made), and U2's controversial "One," where the band members memorably dress up in drag. The Anton Corbijn DVD includes some unexpected gems, too, such as a crazily imaginative clip for obscure British synth band Propaganda that pays homage to German expressionism and Fritz Lang.
While Corbijn has indisputably distinguished himself in the music video world, Jonathan Glazer's clips seem like an adjunct to his forays into TV advertisements and feature films. His DVD collection contains only eight music videos (compared to 26 on Corbijn's), including a violent clip for UNKLE's "Rabbit in Your Headlights" that finds French actor Denis Lavant getting repeatedly hit by cars, and Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity," where the furniture and walls spew blood. Yet there are 11 commercials for companies such as Guinness beer and Barclay's (which stars a slumming Samuel L. Jackson). Thematically, each finds Glazer presenting masculinity in all its complexity, a meditation that extends through his first feature films, Sexy Beast and Birth.
Meanwhile, Romanek is the model video director, a workhorse perfectionist responsible for iconic clips such as Jay-Z's "99 Problems," Johnny Cash's "Hurt," No Doubt's "Hella Good," Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," and many others. The problem is that his work is slick and occasionally soulless, attaining a numbingly predictable style all too familiar to MTV viewers (or, since MTV doesn't show videos anymore, MTV2). Like other directors of his profession, he lifts from other sources -- '60s French science fiction films leads to David Bowie's "Jump, They Say" and Larry Clark's photography informs Fiona Apple's "Criminal" -- using them as visual signifiers without absorbing them into a fresh perspective. At least his collection has plenty of hits.
In contrast, Sednaoui's DVD only contains a handful of memorable clips, particularly Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" and Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Scar Tissue" and "Give It Away." Unexpectedly, the most interesting thing on the disc isn't the videos, but a poignantly homoerotic short film based on Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." For 10 minutes, Sednaoui uses the lyrics in Reed's song to inform a collage of stories, interspersing sections from each song into the beginning of each vignette. The short film, which extends well beyond "Walk on the Wild Side's" four-minute running time, suggests that the predominant video format that requires a summary of ideas within the time limit of a hit single, isn't always conducive to the director's artistic impulse.
Despite the varying qualities of its new editions, the Directors Label series remains an essential guide to charting the ambitions -- both failed and realized -- of the music video industry.
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