As part of our continuing efforts to make everyone in the world go see “Under the Skin,” which opens this Friday, earlier in the week we featured a rundown of director Jonathan Glazer‘s top ten commercials. But, advertising is not the only string to his bow (though no doubt the most lucrative), Glazer is also a well-known music video director, who, while not quite as prolific in this area, still boasts more than a couple of touchstones in his short videography. What’s also notable about his promos is that within them, like with his commercial work, you can trace the evolution of the stylistic elements that Glazer would bring to his features, from the crisp lines and bold colors of the poolside terrace in “Sexy Beast,” to the somber, chilly palette of “Birth,” to the imagery of “Under the Skin” that ranges from gritty to sleek to surreal. It’s a treat to watch a director as visually confident as Glazer work in a longer format, but it’s also a treat to look through his back catalogue to see that confidence grow and mature.
Glazer has in fact directed eleven videos, though one of them, the alternate video for Jamiroquai‘s “Cosmic Girl” we simply can’t find online, so, craving your indulgence for that omission, here are ten of Glazer’s music videos, ranked from our least to our most favorite. By the way, if you’re in Brooklyn, you can see many of these videos tonight with a screening of “Birth” at BAMcinematek.
10. Nick Cave “Into my Arms“
So, yes, this is pretty stunning in terms of its high-contrast black and white portrait photography which was perhaps a reaction to the bubble gum colors of “Karmacoma”, but it’s still an outsider for us in terms of Glazer’s filmography for being just a little uninspired, relative to some of his other outings. And while the imagery at any one moment is beautifully composed, we have to say we find the succession of miserable faces, no matter how gorgeously captured to be rather enervating. Still, it’s the kind of promo that could well be the best thing some lesser director would ever do, so we’re not going to trash it that much, but the monochromatic, despairing approach does feel a bit like overkill when accompanied by Cave’s already lugubrious voice, and misses some of the hopefulness of the lyrics.
9. Massive Attack “Karmacoma“
Of all the gushing quotes splashed across the latest trailer for “Under the Skin” (our two included) we have to believe that the most gratifying for Glazer may be that from LA Weekly which suggests that in him we may have found “an heir to Kubrick.” Glazer’s ongoing love affair with the director crops up time and again in his work, and was fully in evidence here in his first major video, and the first of two collaborations with the wondrous Massive Attack. However, while “The Shining” influence is writ large, down the hotel hallways and creepy twin girls, it does feel a little sophomoric in its broad day-glo palette and self-consciously oddball characters and situations.
8. Dead Weather “Treat Me Like Your Mother”
Glazer’s most recent foray into promo territory was for this scuzzy track from quasi-supergroup Dead Weather and features Jack White and The Kills‘ Alison Mosshart striding through a suburban wasteland firing machine guns at each other while squawking out their lyrics. It’s kinda fun, but then again also so extremely, self-consciously badass that it almost tips over into self-parody. But not quite, and in any case, the dynamism and the grungy daylight look, all lens flare and whipping hair is pretty great to look at, and something different again from Glazer
7. Blur “The Universal”
Just in case we were in any doubt who Glazer’s favorite director is, here’s a whole promo dedicated to Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Tapping into the skewed Britishness of that film and linking it to the all-conquering Britpop movement of the ’90s seems like an obvious choice in retrospect, but was actually quite a leap, and helped Blur be seen to be more than just the fresh-faced cheeky chappies of Parklife. Though the band’s collective photogenic-ness didn’t hurt either. How much Glazer and the band interpret Kubrick’s countercultural masterpiece and how much they shamelessly rip it off is up for debate, (this was still 1995, “Karmacoma”-era Glazer) though there are nods to David Lynch in there as well, but while it feels more like mimicry than many other clips on this list, it’s still fun and has enough attention to side details (the gay kiss that happens just before the cut, the hands-over-the-faces, the people in the elevator) to make it a rewarding watch anyway.
6. Massive Attack “Live With Me”
For the second of his collaborations with Massive Attack, Glazer delivered a much more restrained, un-stylized promo which shows just how much he’d grown in the intervening decade as a storyteller. Featuring an unnerving, tragic portrait of willful alcoholic self-obliteration, the interesting thing here is that there doesn’t seem to be any stylistic filter on, and instead this young woman’s binge is presented in a much more realistic, and therefore effective, way, (before the tiny, well “well what does it matter” uplift of the very ending). It’s the resolutely deglamorized, painful counterpoint to something like the Prodigy‘s “Smack my Bitch Up” video—all minor key sadness and ordinary, still-just-about-functioning fucked-upness. Also: amazing song.
5. Richard Ashcroft“Song for the Lovers”
With ex-Verve frontman Ashcroft boasting the kind of cheekbones from which you could hang a whole video, Glazer wisely keeps the charismatic singer front and center of this promo, while also working in a undercurrent of uneasiness, so skillfully you don’t really know where it’s come from. It becomes almost subversive in effect. In fact this is one of those promos that, even having watched it a few times, it still feels like we may have missed some massive part of it, like a goblin in the background, or dead body lying partially out of frame. But no, the genius here is that, using perfectly composed, deliciously controlled shots, Glazer creates this sense of the uncanny when all that’s actually happening is a guy is having breakfast in a hotel room. He even makes fun of the foreboding he’s instilled in the moment when we’re sure Ashcroft is staring at something terrible… and it turns out he’s taking a leak.
4. Radiohead “Karma Police”
The most creatively fruitful collaboration of Glazer’s music video career has been with Radiohead, for whom he directed this promo from OK Computer, which was the album that really signaled their arrival as one of the most interesting bands on the planet. It’s only a few years on from the Blur track above, but already we can see Glazer’s style has evolved into something that’s much closer to what we’d associated with the director now—you could trace a line from the lush reds and velvety blacks of the palette and the air of otherworldly menace here straight to “Under the Skin.” Delivering a slightly Kafkaesque story of a man pursued relentlessly down a nighttime road by a malevolent car, it’s a terrific interpretation of a terrific song, and one that practically begs to be read on multiple allegorical levels as well as in terms of what’s actually going on.
3. Jamiroquai “Virtual Insanity”
Perhaps the most overplayed music video of all time (seriously, there was a while when it felt literally omnipresent) even that degree of repetition can’t detract from what a terrific piece this is. Again delivering an effect that looks like simplicity itself but also feels impossible, weightless and physics-defying, it may not have the story resonance that some others on this list do, but the visual wit and flair Glazer brings to Jay Kay dancing around a room in which the walls, floors and furniture can move seemingly independently of each other with totally invisible joints, definitely sits it in the pantheon of the “style is content” category. Of course you can track down plenty of parodies, dissections and making-ofs nowadays to find out how they did it, but really, who cares—it’s supposed to look like magic, and it does.
2. UNKLE feat Thom Yorke “Rabbit in Your Headlights”
Almost a companion piece to the “Karma Police” promo above, and obviously also featuring Thom Yorke vocals, this UNKLE track also sees Glazer work with another frequent collaborator in Denis Lavant (we can’t wait till they actually make a movie together). In this prime example of the banal meeting the sublime, Lavant here is the the crazy tramp-like figure stumbling through a traffic tunnel and being hit with impunity by passing cars. But every time he gets knocked down, he gets up again, muttering to himself under his breath about who knows what, until, suddenly transcendent, he’s strong enough to withstand the impact of an oncoming car, and it crumples around his Christlike figure instead. It’s a terrific little film, augmented by well-used CG around the impacts that makes for some bruising watching, and it manages that trick that Glazer can pull off so well time and again: it is totally clear and deceptively simple in terms of what is going on, but its meaning is highly enigmatic and intriguing.
1. Radiohead “Street Spirit”
Nope, no surprises here (note: Glazer did not direct the video for “No Surprises”). With a black-and-white spot sitting atop the commercials list, and this one at number 1 here, you could be forgiven for accusing us of B/W bias. But here, as with Guinness ”Surfer” it’s less about the palette he employs (even though it’s particularly lovely) and more about how Glazer communicates the grace and fluidity of movement that really takes our breath away. Here toying with time so that within the same frame things happens in extreme slow motion at the same time as elsewhere they’re happening in real time, again this is an example of post-production manipulation that Glazer does so well—even when it’s the point of the exercise, as here, the technique is never foregrounded over the imagery and the emotional response it can evoke. It’s just one of the loveliest things we’ve ever seen, set to one of the saddest songs by one of our greatest bands, at exactly the point at which, according to Glazer “[Radiohead] found their own voices as an artist…[and] I felt like I got close to whatever mine was.” A turning point for both band and director then, it’s kind of perfection.
For more tales of music video directors who’ve turned their hand to features, go here, and for more Glazer, go watch Scarlett Johansson play an alien in Glasgow this weekend, and report back.