Michael Bay is an auteur. He’s a director with a unique visual style all his own and a grasp of cinematic language (by the balls) unlike anyone else in the business. In fact, he may be the cinematic auteur who most accurately represents our day and age in the film industry. Notice the use of the word “may” in that last sentence– all we’re sayin’ is, an argument could be made for the much maligned (in certain circles) director’s relevance within a current climate that prizes bombast and spectacle. And there’s no one else who does bombast and spectacle better than Michael Bay (no arguments there, thank you very much). And he does so with such a unique style there there is never any doubt that you’re watching a Michael Bay film. Sure, watching his films is more like shotgunning a light domestic brew straight to the brain rather than sipping a fine vintage wine, but isn’t there a time and place for shotgunning beers? For sheer orgasmic visuals, there is no equal to Bay in the business. Period. Did not a single shiver go up your spine when Scorponok spiraled out of the desert sand in the first “Transformers” trailer, clicking and whirling with the heft of real machinery? Or when Martin Lawrence intoned “shit just got real,” cameras spinning around him, in “Bad Boys II”? If not, you have no cinematic soul. Or cinematic boner, whatever.
Finally, Bay gets to take a break from Autobots and Decepticons and this week brings us his passion project, the American Dream on steroids (literally) flick “Pain and Gain,” a balls to the wall take on the rags to riches tale, based on a true story. It looks to be as ludicrously bombastic and shiny as one of The Rock’s pectoral muscles. So, in a word, awesome. We thought in honor of this film, we’d take a spin through the medium where Bay got his start, in the world of commercials and music videos. These short form takes allow Bay to be as unrestrained as possible in some ways, going completely over the top in terms of visual style and editing, almost every spot oozing with pure, testosterone-fueled id. But many of them also show what an intrepid visual storyteller Bay is, communicating complex ideas through his bonkers cinematography in 60 seconds or less. It’s pure distilled Bay, doing what he does best. Enjoy our favorite picks below, and let us know in the comments which of your favorite Michael Bay ads and videos make it onto your top 10 list.
Popular on IndieWire
Meat Loaf “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”
The thing starts with a helicopter vs. motorcycle race. WHERE CAN WE GO FROM HERE? Oh, just to a spooky old castle where Meat Loaf is dressed as a Quasimodo type character and rocking some fierce acrylics. THIS IS IN THE FIRST MINUTE. OF EIGHT MINUTES. A motorcycle crashes through the wall, a chandelier crashes to the floor, and we are thrown into a flashback where Beast Meat Loaf meets his beauty by a pond (model Dana Patrick). There are literally hundreds of candles and a magical chair. An unexplained witchy lesbian sex scene. Outside, police cars and a manhunt in lens flare-y glory, light streaming through the forest. A levitating couch where Dana Patrick lip syncs the female part. Her song turns Beast Meat Loaf into Regular Meat Loaf and they drive away into a sunset, on a motorcycle, natch. Upon rewatching this, why hasn’t Bay been offered any period fantasy pieces?! Give the man “Snow White and the Huntsman 2” for God’s sake. A “Game of Thrones” episode, maybe? Not enough helicopters for his taste, probably. What is there to say about “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”? The video is epic, ridiculous, and sublime.
Aerosmith, “Falling in Love is Hard on the Knees”
The cheekily titled debut single from Aerosmith‘s controversial Nine Lives album (yes, at one point Aerosmith was capable of things like “controversy”) is either a testament to the towering brilliance of all things Bay or a criminal work of gaudy excessiveness that detractors can point to and say, “See, that’s everything that’s wrong with him as a filmmaker and a man, in less than four minutes.” Personally, we lean towards the former – it’s a kind of Michael Bay thesis project, full of cascading lights whose origin is never identified, supermodels (in this case a lithe young Angie Everhart), a bright neon sign (that reads, simply: “LOVE”), some weird bondage fetish stuff, implied fellatio (supplied by the aforementioned lithe young Angie Everhart) and more smoke than a nineteenth century coal factory. But somehow all of these disparate elements work, brilliantly, even within the course of the truncated running time, in which images flash from one to the next so quickly you’ll wonder if you’ve momentarily developed an epileptic condition. It’s just as flashy as an average David Fincher video but without the soul and wicked playfulness. Bay is more garish but, sorry, he’s just as good.
Wilson Phillips, “You Won’t See Me Cry”
Michael Bay knows his film history, after all he’s a Wesleyan University alum, and favorite student of its Film Studies Department head Jeanine Basinger (she does a commentary track on the “Pearl Harbor” DVD). Which is why it makes sense that the video for Wilson Phillips’ “You Won’t See Me Cry” is a direct reference to German Expressionist classic vampire film “Nosferatu” (check out the shaky silent film effect in the first few shots). He seems to cast the three girls as three Frau Hutters mooning at the window for their husband to return (though we don’t remember Hutter wearing snug tank tops or playing jazzy sax solos in the original…). It’s one of his most successful videos because he sticks with a concept and style, with only a few random WTF moments of color photography, raining inside and billowing curtains. It’s restrained Bay, and it serves the song well.
Lionel Richie, “Do It To Me”
So, we fully acknowledge that this song is so cheesy it is the musical equivalent of the plastic nacho cheese that comes on movie theater nachos, and its video is so ‘90s it practically parodies every ‘90s video trope. Bay throws everything he has at this video for Richie’s smooth jam: German Expressionist-esque set design, a parquet floor, black and white mixed with color photography, lace, candles, rippling water, lightning, blowing leaves, and a veritable textile factory’s worth of billowing sheets. One of his favorite visual devices, the sheets billow and heave around women in high-waisted lacy half-thongs (the 90s!) who slither and writhe about in ecstasy (or something). This is the “Cabin in the Woods” of billowing sheets — both loving celebration and gleeful deconstruction. The video even opens with a shot of a woman’s face projected onto a billowing sheet, and then she dances around sexily in front of this projection. Honestly, if you can make it through the whole thing in one go, you are stronger than us, but if we’re celebrating visual excess here (and we are), no one does it better than Bay.
Divinyls, “I Touch Myself”
While the recent death of Australian pop rock band The Divinyls’ lead singer Chrissy Amphlett from breast cancer does slightly put a damper on the celebration of this video, it’s still wholly brilliant and an essential piece of Bay’s videography. While amazingly simple, it also showcases a number of visual tics/fetishes that would come to define Bay’s work – a constantly moving camera, a jagged cut to black-and-white (something he utilized as late as the last “Transformers” movie), checkered floors, supermodels strutting around for no good reason. If anything, “I Touch Myself” is notable for how long each shot is – even though they don’t last longer than ten seconds or so each, in Bay time this is forever. Also, Bay’s decision to do this video runs in stark opposition to criticisms that his work is overtly sexist. Sexy, maybe. But sexist? Nah.
Got Milk? Aaron Burr Ad
This installment was the very first Got Milk? ad shot for the wildly popular advertising campaign for … milk. Who knew the Dairy Farmers of America had such a huge advertising budget? This cleverly conceived spot features actor Sean Whalen as a young history nerd, making himself a peanut butter sandwich snack while listening to the radio in his shrine to Revolutionary American history. The $10,000 question is “Who shot Alexander Hamilton?” and the phone rings on his desk when he is mid-peanut buttery bite. Unfortunately, the DJ just can’t understand him, and he’s fresh out of milk. It’s a clever concept, and shot with distinct Baysian style– every insert and close up of the Hamilton paraphernalia a smooth tracking shot or rack focus, and of course, the opening shot is a loving Steadicam sbot over a bright blue vintage car. It’s an extremely visceral ad, with the sound of our nerd’s pounding heart ratcheting up the tension (classic Bay ad trope). As he struggles through a giant bite of Wonderbread and Jiff, you thirst for milk yourself. Much like the Priest Vending Machine Got Milk? ad, Bay makes the question “got milk?” as dire and dramatic for the audience as possible. This clip also won a Grand Prix Clio Award (like the Oscars of advertising, remember that “Mad Men” episode?) for Commercial of the Year.
Nike Jordan Vs. Barkley Ad
Michael Bay has a really interesting relationship with what could be described as “urban culture” – his directorial feature “Bad Boys” featured two marginally well-known black comics recast as strapping action heroes, becoming a surprise smash along the way. It showed that the director had no problem adapting his stye for a comedic sensibility you might not expect from Bay. This is exemplified by a Nike ad that Bay directed that Charles Barkley against Michael Jordan for sneaker supremacy. (For some reason it also features cameos from sex therapist Dr. Joyce Brothers and Greg “Shock G” Jacobs from jokey hip hop band Digital Underground.) Bay’s penchant for gentle surrealism is pushed to the limits– Barkley enters the main body of the commercial by having his talk shoe desk fall into a luxurious swimming pool. From there it escalates to a series of volleys between the superstars that sounds more like schoolyard boasting than anything actually competitive. Which is actually a good metaphor for Bay’s entire filmography – anytime anyone gives him shit for being mean-spirited or misogynistic, he’s just goofing around.
Only in Bay-land could an ad that ostensibly celebrates anti-intellectualism be this fucking smart. It’s not just the conceit, which oscillates between being brilliantly stupid and stupidly brilliant (two bickering beer-drinkers can’t decide on what to watch – a rodeo or a lawyer show – so they combine the two), it’s the entire production. The way that the fall idly twirls in the background of the dusty bar, suggesting movement even as the camera wooshes forward, lattices of light streaming in from the hyper-sunny outside world. The guys watching the TV don’t seem like real world tough guys, they are Bay’s accentuated version of what he thinks real world tough guys look like (mostly: denim and plaid). The actual “lawyer roundup” isn’t quite as exciting but there are some Bay hallmarks chugging along – a camera movement that doesn’t suggest visuals as much as the trajectory of sound (we come out of a speaker), plus a couple of micro-second cuts that only Bay could identify let alone implement. This add is, like the beer, light, bubbly and makes us dizzy.
Bugle Boy Color Denims Ad
This is one of the ads in which Bay demonstrates a certain sense of self-awareness (even if possibly conceived by the ad company) but it’s still a pretty funny take on the stereotype of Michael Bay, while also featuring Bugle Boy colored denim shorts overalls! For men! It’s also an ad that relies not on visual storytelling but the cognitive dissonance between the images of lithe models and the scrolling text underneath addressed to “all guys” asking them to let Bugle Boy know that just showing beautiful women is a great way to subliminally sell them colored denim shorts overalls. It’s a fun bit of meta-awareness about the ad industry itself, while Bay out-Bays himself on the ridiculous close ups and shots of beautiful ladies cavorting against his favorite backdrops– a beach, a gas station, a deserted highway (what a terrible place for a couch!), a kitchen, a bed, doing something with a cello? It makes no sense and they know it, but that’s the fun of it. Michael Bay self-awareness (intentional or not) is always a welcome sight.
Victoria’s Secret Gisele
It’s so hard to choose a single Michael Bay Victoria’s Secret ad. Because there are so damn many of them, and for sheer visual spectacle, they are all devastatingly simple, yet effective. He shoots these remarkable, impossible specimens of the female form in the same way that he shoots a luxury vehicle, lovingly showcasing every line and curve. This one happens to be one of the more bonkers installments in the series, a 30-second blast of pure male id, firing on every stereotypically masculine pleasure center. Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, the 2000s definition of feminine sexual bombast, stalks around a penthouse in black lingerie against a rap rock soundtrack, the edit almost too fast to comprehend, a fragmentation of female body parts and architectural lines. Then, random fire! Gratuitous helicopter searchlight! That’s it! Sometimes all you need for a concept is Gisele + fire = awesome.
This Levi’s commercial, for their “Wide Leg” line (ah, the nineties) starts off in a fairly subtle way– an attractive guy and an attractive girl are in an attractive art deco elevator, the kind that don’t exist anymore except for certain buildings in downtown Los Angeles where Ridley Scott filmed “Blade Runner.” The man starts to fixate on the woman’s expertly toned stomach and begins imagining their life together. Subtlety drops away like a snake sheds its skin; flashes of lightning-like light illuminate their whirlwind courtship, marriage, and the birth of their children (all while she, somewhat improbably, wears her Levi’s wide leg jeans). These are images so gilded with style that they would recur in later Bay confections – everything from the Aerosmith video to “Armageddon.” Bay is so free of self-awareness that he borrows from himself all the time, not because he’s cynical or lazy, but because he thinks these things are so fucking cool that he’s got to use them over and over again. And you know what? He’s right.
There are even more to choose from, including Tina Turner‘s airplane hanger-set video for “Love Thing,” (Bay never met an airplane hanger her didn’t fall in love with); the Audi ad with Dustin Hoffman and a young Lake Bell that is ostensibly a remake of “The Graduate,” and the “Invisible“ Levi’s ad, where two pairs of Levi’s get busy on a couch. One could argue that the entire “Transformers” series is one big massive ad for the dozens of brands that get prominent product placement. Like it or not, Bay has certainly made his distinct stamp on both the big and small screen, with a distinct through line lasting from his earliest days. Is there a video or ad by Bay you want to shout out? Anything here that surprised or impressed you? Let us know below. – Katie Walsh and Drew Taylor