Sunday 22 April 2018

The second coming of the music video

Beyonce in a scene from her Lemonade video
Beyonce in a scene from her Lemonade video
John Meagher

John Meagher

Five days before Radiohead unveiled their eagerly awaited ninth album, A Moon Shaped Pool, they returned with a comeback single that truly got fans' pulses racing. 'Burn the Witch', our first taste of their latest direction, didn't disappoint. If Thom Yorke and friends were trying to create a sense of menace with those frantic, pizzicato strings and ominous, ultra-paranoid lyrics, they certainly succeeded.

With the exception of that 'unsuccessful' Bond theme for Spectre, it was their first new song in five years and one of the things that has made it resonate so powerfully is the striking video they made to promote it. A stop-motion animated film, in the same vein as the influential 1960s BBC series Camberwick Green, it was clearly inspired by cult 1973 British movie The Wicker Man, particularly that end scene where Edward Woodward's pious policeman meets a most horrific death.

It wouldn't be too outlandish either to suggest that a pair of other period British horror films, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw, were in the minds of Thom Yorke et al when they were dreaming up the idea.

Director Chris Hopewell and his team had just 14 days to turn the project around from original concept to the final cut that was posted on Radiohead's social media accounts on May 3. It was viewed more than 10 million times in a matter of days on YouTube alone and this most English of music videos will have helped get many more people excited about the prospect of A Moon Shaped Hole (reviewed left).

And it offers a reminder that far from a dying art, the music video is arguably in the best possible health of its comparatively young life. When both Prince and David Bowie died much was made of how they were among those who truly understood the power of a compelling video - and both duly delivered to the then nascent MTV in the early 1980s. Bowie's 'Ashes to Ashes' and Prince's 'When Doves Cry' exemplified the best that the medium could be: far more than just a promotional wrapping, a great video could be a work of art in its own right.

Of course, MTV as we knew it then has long gone - unless you're an avid fan of the specialist video channels buried among those obscure stations most of us can't be bothered with. MTV long ago morphed into an organ devoted to the self-serving stars of reality TV and scripted drama.

Now, acts don't need such a conduit to get their videos out there. Like Radiohead, they can air them when they choose on social media and they soon pop up everywhere else. Despite the talk about how streaming will be the future of music consumption for the foreseeable future, a huge number of people reach for YouTube first. Often, the simple act of Googling a song will bring you straight to a YouTube video. So much for Spotify, et al.

'Burn the Witch' wasn't the only video Radiohead debuted last week. A few days later, they unveiled a striking film for the album's second track, 'Daydreaming'. Made by the Oscar-winning director Paul Thomas Anderson, it features a morose looking Yorke walking through doors - and is a much more engaging six minutes than such a bald description implies.

Anderson and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood enjoy a superb working relationship, with Greenwood having scored each of Anderson's films since the Daniel Day Lewis vehicle, There Will Be Blood. Anderson, for his part, has - in the downtime between making major film work - directed several videos for other musicians, including Fiona Apple and Joanna Newsom.

Anderson has yet to work with Beyoncé, but surely it's just a matter of time. Few contemporary musicians have embraced the music video quite as enthusiastically as Queen B - and hardly surprising considering how her sexually charged film for 'Crazy in Love' helped reinvent her from Destiny's Child goodie-two-shoes to 21st Century icon.

The Texan places such importance on the video as medium that her acclaimed latest album Lemonade is available as a 'visual album'. It's up there on husband Jay Z's steaming service, Tidal, right now and, in fact, it was this audiovisual project that introduced the world to Lemonade for the first time when it was broadcast in the US on HBO immediately before the album debuted on Tidal.

Beyoncé worked with no less than seven directors to bring her ideas to fruition. While even the most ardent member of the 'Beyhive' is unlikely to be enamoured by all of its 60-minute run time, there are some very striking moments, including the segment for the politicised 'Formation', which debuted as a video in its own right earlier this year.

Two of the directors are acknowledged masters of the craft. Jonas Akerlund has worked with everybody from Lady Gaga to Maroon 5 since announcing himself to the world with Madonna's 'Ray of Light' video while Mark Romanek's body of work includes one of the all-time great videos for Johnny Cash's 'Hurt' as well as Taylor Swift's ubiquitous 'Shake it Off'. The latter also knows a thing of two about making feature films, having coaxed a marvellous performance from the late Robin Williams in One Hour Photo.

It's the second album in succession where Beyoncé has commissioned a video for every single track and much of that material has been used to provide visuals for her world tours, the latest of which is doing the rounds in the US.

There's a wonderful alchemy when a huge global hit is served by a really compelling video and there's hardly a better recent example than Cameron Duddy's smartly choreographed film for Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars' 'Uptown Funk'. It's been viewed more than 1.5 billion times on YouTube. That's some strike rate.

Of course, some fine examples will only be seen by a relatively small number of people and that's likely to be the case with a beautifully shot new Irish video by veteran filmmaker Alan Gilsenan which sees the WB Yeats poem 'Sixteen Dead Men' put to song.

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