The constructs that delineate a difference between short films and music videos has been fuelled by debate and value judgements by those after a perfect set of rules. Acclaimed director Derek Jarman didn’t seem too fussed about these connotations when creating his short films and music videos often blurring the line between the two and questioning whether the line even existed through explicit highlighting of form, shot through the lens of ethnographic sub-culture studies, initially focussing on the punk movement. Jarman’s music videos showcase a number of traits that the medium would come to embrace; a heightened sense of excessive style, verging on what could be deemed as camp and an embracing of independent sub-culture fashion as a criterion for cool. The interesting factor that brings these together is that these aren’t simply explorations into new territory for the sake of it but an osmosis of Jarman’s natural filmmaking aesthetics into the new medium.
Jarman’s work in the form seems to have come from various places and has found its way into a number of his feature films. The first very obvious step into the world of the pop video is his “Broken English” short for Marianne Faithfull’s supposed comeback album of 1979. It’s an amalgamation of album songs and visuals which range from a more typical music video style of showing the artist wandering about London dressed as a sanitised punk to the more political leanings of the director showing footage of police brutality and the war. However, the year before in Jarman’s punk cult classic Jubilee (1978), there are various segments in it that stand out as an obvious nod towards the music video before he worked with Faithfull.
As Amyl Nitrate appears to be relatively normal as character in a film full of deliberately provocative brush strokes, it’s a surprising moment when the character appears on stage singing an odd, almost new wave variation of Rule Britannia. It’s easy to see the progression of this leading to his work with Faithful that displays equal amounts of bravado and attitude; a natural combination from the production designer of Ken Russell’s The Devil’s (1973). In some ways though, the honing of this element in Faithfull’s video brought to the fore the idea of the music video as the package. In the same way that the video for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody leant itself as part of the package for sale, Broken English showcases three songs by Faithfull allowing the short to act as an album taster; the very basis that creates the more commercial end of music television and MTV, at least from this era.
The evolution and balance between his own cinematic aesthetics and his increasingly formalised music videos is one that has many ties and obvious crossovers. The rich and luscious visuals of Caravaggio (1986) and Edward II (1991) naturally translate to and from videos for It’s A Sin and Rent by the Pet Shop Boys (both 1987). The themes of Caravaggio itself seem to manifest in the video for It’s a Sin with period, religious inspired visuals allowing for an over the top and highly stylised effort that no doubt has influenced the likes of Madonna’s video for Like a Prayer (1989) and, more recently, Judas by Lady Gaga (2011).
At the other end of the spectrum, the androgynous, surreal experimentation of Jubilee (1978) fits well into videos for Ask, The Queen Is Dead and Panic by The Smiths (all 1986). These tend to favour more obvious alternative fashions, embracing the feminine qualities that music fandom brought out in its male fans. The Queen Is Dead in particular highlights the patchwork style that later Jarman films would tend to favour. Films like The Garden (1990) that use a mixture of celluloid, colour separation overlay and even stop motion share an aesthetic idealism and magpie approach to the music video which is strong on symbolism and visual collage.
Jarman may have defined many aspects of what is now typical in music videos but few directors can lay claim to have made what could be considered a feature length music video which can be found in his 1989 film War Requiem; a feature length visual feast with little dialogue, built around Benjamin Britten’s music (at least a feature length video in the context of the era. Before sound cinema though this could equally be applied to silent film in general). This proves that the fast evolving, effusive medium that is the music video was a perfect blank canvas for the innovative artist ready to cut lose the shackles of cinematic formalism and explore more creatively new ground.
FACT Liverpool have an upcoming exhibition on The Art Of The Pop Video which opens on the 14th of March.