The Review/Feature/

The New Narrative of Music Videos

How the next generation of Canadian auteurs found themselves through an old medium

Jun 24, 2016 @ 12:00am

Shifting away from its traditional role as a promotional tool, music videos develop new purpose as a hotbed of artistic experimentation and creative storytelling that finds inspiration in both classic cinema and virtual reality. To celebrate the unique VR music videos screening June 24 to 26 at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of POP 01, we highlight the new class of Canadian music video auteurs.

In a series of vivid scenes shot on gorgeous 35mm and 65mm film, the members of a Mexican family in Los Angeles escape the mundanities of the present by delving deep into their dreams and memories of the mother whose disappeared from their lives. In a starker vignette, two straggly young addicts veer between states of joy and misery, the latter signaled by the sound of their retching. In yet another, a weathered emblem of early-last-century American grandeur — think Daniel Plainview with a worse haircut — experiences strange visions of a burning world.

All three works exhibit a breadth and depth of storytelling and a degree of cinematic boldness moviegoers may associate with the best short films or features. The fact that they’re music videos — namely, Emily Kai Bock’s Prism Prize winner for Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife,” Kevan Funk’s clip for Odesza’s “All We Need” and Scott Cudmore and Michael Leblanc’s stunning promo for Timber Timbre’s “Grand Canyon” — has become a whole lot less surprising in recent years.

This kind of startling, audacious and often narrative-oriented work was once relatively rare. Considering it’s a medium that typically prioritized the sight of singers emoting straight to camera, cross-cut with images of glasses shattering in slow-motion or models writhing on the hoods of sports cars. That remained the case even through the 1990s salad days of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, two mavericks whose rise to music video auteur status was enabled by an industry that still provided sizable production budgets. That was right until the ravages of the digital age made such expenditures obsolete.

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Don’t worry — there are still straight-up, performance-oriented videos being made today, ones in which Joe Jonas rubs against ladies in club hallways. But what’s changed is that the insanely high degree of inventiveness and inspiration can be found right across the spectrum, from ubiquitous pop sensations like Beyonce’s “visual album” Lemonade and Paul Thomas Anderson’s big-screen companion piece to Radiohead’s “Daydreaming” to DIY marvels by artists who’ve yet to reach three-digit view counts.

POP 01, the first of this summer’s three pop-up exhibition of virtual-reality experiences at TIFF Bell Lightbox (running only this weekend from June 24 to 26), proves that things can get even wilder when immersive-minded filmmakers team up with the right musicians. Created by Montreal’s Felix and Paul Studios, the music video for Patrick Watson’s “Strangers” plants viewers amid the clutter of gear and cables in the Montreal musician’s studio. You can watch as he leaves a cigarette in his ashtray to perform an outtake from his 2015 album Love Songs for Robots, emphasizing the immediacy and intimacy possible in the new medium.

A double-header of VR videos for Toronto MC Jazz Cartier pushes in other directions. Whereas “Red Alert” situates the viewer alongside Cartier in a miniature action thriller (complete with highway SUV chase), “100 Roses” does something potentially more radical by surrounding the viewer with multiple incarnations of the rapper. The effect is like being bombarded by a clone army of high-energy MCs.

“Jazz is so animated in his performance style onstage,” says Jon Riera, who co-created the clips with Connor Illsely, his partner in the Toronto VR production team Combo Bravo, in conjunction with the video production house Mad Ruk Entertainment. (Riera and Illsely will participate in a roundtable on Saturday, June 25 with guests that include The Fader’s Joseph Patel, video artist Karen Vanderborght and members of VR collective’s Marshmallow Laser Feast and New Tropics.)

“You see him and he really controls a room. So we thought, ‘Let’s put him right in your face.’”And though Illsely had seen one VR example that used the multiple-performer tactic before, they wanted to be the ones to make it “as crazy as possible.”

As demonstrated by the music-driven VR works in POP 01, immersive and interactive video will expand those parameters yet further, whether that means creating whole new environments for musical experiences — as in the digital fairyland imagined for “A Grand Expanse,” a VR video for a track by Tiny Lungs and Martina Sorbara — or the audio-visual assault-and-battery of Jazz Cartier’s “100 Roses.”

A still from Jon Riera and Connor Illsely's 360 VR video for Jazz Cartier's "100 Roses," currently playing at POP 01.

Says Jon Riera of Combo Bravo, “Music video is an inherently good size for a VR experience. It’s a good length, it’s accessible and there’s a built-in audience. It’s a jumping-off point for a lot of things.”

Whether or not they’re ready to dive into the VR realm, music-video directors are enjoying a largely unprecedented degree of creative latitude. It’s telling that two years after Arcade Fire’s “Afterlife” first appeared, the idea of opening a video with two minutes of dialogue is hardly unusual. “The rules of what can happen have changed a lot,” says director Kevan Funk.

“It’s gone from being a struggle to do anything outside the box,” says Cudmore, “to directors getting pushed to work and think outside it. It’s crazy how much work I see that blows me away. I see at least one video a week that is insanely exciting from a cinematic standpoint, in terms of images, ideas, techniques and things that I’ve never ever seen before. I don’t see that as often, even in narrative filmmaking.”

Cudmore’s new video for “It’s Okay I Promise” by future-funk upstart Harrison is brazen proof not just of filmmakers’ eagerness to explode conventions, but of a musician’s willingness to provide the detonators.

“The artists have really encouraged it,” says Cudmore, who once enlisted a room of schoolchildren to shout the lyrics of Fucked Up’s “Queen of Hearts.” “If they like the treatment or the filmmaker’s previous work, a lot more artists are saying, ‘I just want you to go do your thing.’”

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The new video situates Harrison and guest MC Clairmont the Second in a fourth-wall-busting series of scenes that juxtapose vividly stylized shots with apparent rehearsal footage of the performers and undisguised glimpses of Cudmore’s crew. It all culminates in a mystifying Tree of Life-style interlude of dreamy outerspace vistas and a tracking shot follows Clairmont past a photo shoot with a lingerie model, out of the building and into an impromptu dance sequence with Harrison in a Beer Store parking lot.

“The Harrison video was pretty out there,” he adds. “The song starts and stops, it’s got narrative and documentary elements. But the more I pushed the boundaries and fucked around with it, the more excited he got.”

The American duo known as Daniels — a.k.a. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinart — shared a similar anecdote in a New York Times feature about the origins of their video for Lil Jon and DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What.”

“We were like, this is the stupidest song we’ve ever been sent,” said Scheinert in the piece. “Let’s pitch the stupidest video we’ve ever pitched.” But the pitch flew and the astonishing result — a non-stop WTF barrage of TV-humping, uncontrollable bosoms and raging pant-tents — was one of the most acclaimed videos of 2014 and still about as gonzo as the genre’s ever gone.

With the release of Swiss Army Man — a similarly deranged comedy starring Paul Dano as a shipwreck survivor and Daniel Radcliffe as the nameless corpse he discovers (one won’t stop farting) — Daniels became the latest music-video darlings to make the jump to features. Canada’s go-to auteur for Drake and Justin Bieber Director X recently did the same thing with last year’s drama Across the Line. Other Canadian videomakers have received a massive boost in profile, thanks to the Prism Prize, which was established two years ago to celebrate the nation’s best achievements in the field. (Eva Michon’s Rumspringa-themed video for Death From Above 1979’s “Virgins” received the Audience Award at the award's fourth gala at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in May.)

The music video renaissance may be especially surprising to people who expected it to die, along with much of the business that birthed it. Its thrived in spite of the almost complete disappearance of videos from former youth-centric TV totems like MTV and MuchMusic. Thanks to YouTube and Vimeo, such work is actually more readily seen and disseminated faster than ever.

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“A lot of people may think that because music videos aren’t on TV any more, they’re not really a thing,” says Prism Prize founder Louis Calabro. “But c’mon, TV is not even a thing anymore.”

He suggests that the music video was ahead of the curve as early adopters of the internet distribution model. Adds Calabro, “By putting this stuff online and having it available to share so easily, it really allows the best videos to move.”

Indeed, the speed of the whole process — from pitching to production to mass dissemination — is unlike that of any other mode of filmmaking. As Emily Kai Bock explains, “You write a treatment, they greenlight it and then the next week, you’re shooting something that came into your head seven days prior. For a director, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I got this cool idea and we’re gonna shoot it and see if it works and then it’ll be on Pitchfork’s front page.’ That’s so crazy.” Raising funds and finding an audience are typically enormous challenges for filmmakers. Bock notes that matters of financing, exposure and distribution are all bundled “in one little package” for music videos.

A renewed interest in the craft has led viewers towards who is making the videos, rather than who recorded the track. Of course, the music video world has always functioned as a kind of cinematic R&D department, a place where emergent filmmakers can try out ideas, build up profiles and create signature styles. That’s still very much the case, but the industry isn’t just a school from which a budding auteur graduates and never returns.

“It was always said that filmmakers started in music video and went on to make films,” says Calabro. “But in the last couple years, you’re seeing people like P.T. Anderson and Xavier Dolan going back and making these really high-profile videos for huge artists. That’s a vote of confidence for the form — it’s become this really creative space for these directors to go back and try something new.” Xavier Dolan’s video for Adele’s single “Hello,” not only awarded the director a Juno, but was the first music video to reach over one billion views on YouTube and be shot in IMAX.

Where it once smacked of slumming in a genre that wanted some of cinema’s class — think of Scorsese and Michael Jackson’s “Bad” — now established directors go cred-collecting in the reverse direction. Maybe that’s because the music video — now largely freed from its strictly commercial purposes — may be blossoming into the restlessly inventive art form it was always meant to be. After all, many examples from the pre-MTV/MuchMusic era – whether it’s D.A. Pennebaker’s iconic clip for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or former Monkee Mike Nesmith’s pre-pre-pre-Lemonade video album Elephant Parts — chart out a very different trajectory for the medium than the one that led to “Cherry Pie.”

“If you go to a gallery and look at video art, there’s still that esoteric wall of references and art history and you don’t feel that welcome,” says Bock, who did a degree in painting and sculpture at Emily Carr before getting into videos. “With music, especially popular music, it’s already so embraced by the public. Even if you’re watching something really experimental and crazy, you feel like you’re not shut out. You can still feel confused and thrown but it’s much more welcoming and palatable as a viewer than what’s going on in video art or experimental or arthouse cinema.”

Director Emily Kai Bock, seen here with Prism Prize creator Louis Calabro, wins the second annual Prism Prize for Arcade Fire's "Afterlife."

She fondly recalls her exposure to the works of vid-auteurs like Glazer and Jonze as a 12-year-old watching MuchMusic. “Maybe that filmmaking language had already gone on in cinema in the ‘30s or ‘60s already, but to me, those videos were the access point and I didn’t have to be a film buff to enter.”

The possibilities for narrative within the video format have expanded greatly from the boy-meets-girl-after-emerging-from-comic-book or oh-no-she-caught-me-cheating-on-a-yacht models that were predominant in the ‘80s. That said, it’s important not to downplay the significance of predecessors, like John Landis’ groundbreaking video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1983 or David Bowie and Julien Temple’s 20-minute “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean" a year later. The making of Kevan Funk’s videos coincided with the creation of his short films. It’s not so weird that there’s a continuation between his music videos for Braids and films like Destroyer, the 2013 TIFF selection that became the basis for his forthcoming debut feature Hello Destroyer.

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“I would argue the videos are a total continuation,” he says. “I think making videos is great practice. It’s like storytelling that’s completely visual and you have to find ways to articulate that.”

Bock is also finishing her first dramatic short, A Funeral for Lightning. (Her short documentary about underground rappers in New York, Spit Gold Under an Empire, debuted at Sundance in 2013.) “It was weird not having the scaffolding,” she says of the shift to working without a readymade soundtrack. She wonders whether music videos give a director the illusion that film is so easy.

“You take beautiful music and put some nice visuals to it,” she says with a laugh. “Wow, people like it and you can have a career as a director. And then once it gets to narrative filmmaking, you’re like, ‘Whoa, it’s a whole other ballgame.’ Way harder!”

Yet, it was the lack of control over her art that soured Bock on making videos. However how much freedom filmmakers may be afforded, they remain beholden to the musicians and labels that enlist and finance their work. (Canadian funding bodies like MuchFACT have their own demands and stipulations and may not select your pitch.) Bock cites her work with Arcade Fire on “Afterlife” as an exception since the band gave her final cut.

Says Bock, “I basically met Win Butler for a coffee and told him the idea, and he was like, ‘Great.’ Then I sent him the cut and he said, ‘Cool.’ That was it. If I could make only videos like that, then I would! The budget was good and they were totally embracing and supportive and respectful. Those kinds of collaborations are hard to find.”

Whereas they were once considered money gigs during the 1980s and 1990s, making videos now means coping with tiny budgets, swift timelines and the risk that your vision may be trumped by other opinions and imperatives. Says Bock, “I have so many friends who send me video edits and I’ll be like, ‘This is amazing!’ Then I’ll ask them, ‘Whatever happened to that video?’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, the artist shelved it’, or ‘they took out the full intro.’ And I’m like, ‘The intro was the best part!’”

Adds Calabro: “I’ve been hearing that budgets are shrinking and it’s getting more and more difficult to execute the ideas that you want. It’d be really funny to look at all the videos that weren’t made because the idea prompted something like, ‘Well, no, we can’t do that.’

“I’ve heard from people who said, ‘We tried to hook up with this artist and we wanted to burn down a house and we weren’t allowed because of the budget.’

Though Cudmore burned down a house in his Wintersleep video [“Amerika”], so maybe it’s not too hard to burn down a house!”

In any case, directors are challenging what can or can’t be done with the form. In the process, they may be formulating tactics that are unique to the music video itself. Funk and Calabro both point to Tennyson’s “Like What” — a recent effort by Fantavious Fritz, the nom de cinema of Toronto’s Graham Foy — as a quintessential example. Foy created the video by playing the electronic track to a blind girl (introduced in the video’s opening moments), crafting visuals based on her descriptions of the images that the music inspired in her imagination.

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“Videos now have room for a different level of conceptual ambition, which is really exciting,” says Funk. “What Graham was able to do is really simple but super, super-beautiful.”

Adds Calabro: “These filmmakers are approaching these projects in a very creative way. They have narrative in mind, but also manipulating forms. So I feel like, ‘yeah, on one hand there are the people who just want to tell stories.’ And then there are others who know it’s an opportunity to tell a story in a new, weird way."