Hello, and welcome to Fincher Week at the Playlist. With the release of his frantically anticipated “Gone Girl” imminent, and the largely rave reviews (ours perhaps a little more muted, though still very positive) presumably doing little to quell your appetite, we’re dedicating our features this week to all things David Andrew Leo Fincher. So you’ll either be totally pumped and primed for whatever “Gone Girl” throws at you this weekend, or you’ll be so sick of him that you won’t go and we’ll save you $40. Win-win.
As you probably know, before Fincher was an Oscar-nominated, immensely respected auteur, he was a Grammy-winning, immensely respected music video director. And he’s now so recognized for his visual stylizations that we thought it might be fun to take a look back through his enormous back catalogue of music videos to see if we could spot elements of his nascent feature film talent. In fact, fun might be overstating it a bit (there are 55 videos in total and a disproportionate number of them are for Paula Abdul songs after all) but it certainly was instructive to mine these often quite mundane early works to find some nuggets of Finchery goodness.
Here, then, are David Fincher’s 55 music videos, ranked in reverse order from worst to best. As ever with this sort of thing, we tried to leave aside our feelings about the particular songs or bands and just concentrate on the filmmaking, but we can’t guarantee that some anti-Johnny Hates Jazz bias, or whatever, hasn’t unconsciously steered our rankings. Feel free to leap to their defense in the comments, and stay tuned throughout the week for more exhaustive Fincher coverage.
55. Loverboy “Love Will Rise Again” (1987)
Ok, I know we’re trying to be all objective and insightful about the filmmaking (which in this video is probably exactly par for the course for that period), but seriously, this is hilarious. Big hair, leather jackets, a sexy laydee struttin’ her sexy stuff… it’s safe to say this is not Fincher’s finest hour.
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54. Rick Springfield “Dance This World Away”
After his feature debut, “Beat of the Live Drum,” a concert doc for Rick Springfield, Fincher got onto the music video gravy train via Springfield. To be honest, his inexperience shows here, but so does his ambition, incorporating a fake children’s TV show, a proto-Lynchian ballroom through which a rockets blasts off, and a post-apocalyptic landscape/pile of office furniture.
53. The Motels “Shame” (1985)
An early example off Fincher’s fetish for Venetian blinds, unfortunately marred by that lilac color scheme that seemed the height of chic for ten minutes in the mid-eighties, creaky video effects as a billboard comes to life, and some really naff hats.
52. Loverboy “Notorious” (1987)
Back with Canadian Hair Rockers Loverboy, this with time less stadium footage, which is a good thing, but more motorbikes, miniskirts and hot chicks draped over sports cars, which is a bad thing, unless you’re going for maximum ’80s nostalgia/relief that it’s not the ’80s anymore.
51. Wire Train “Should She Cry” (1990)
Well, we’re out of the woods of the bad and into the sorta mediocre with this, one of three Wire Train videos Fincher did because Wire Train were a band that had more than at least three songs. We knew that. You can start to see a little Fincher visual grunge in the warm tones and scuzzy fabric backdrop, and it’s the first appearance on this list of an old-timey car, a motif that recurs all over the place.
50. Colin James Hay “Can I Hold You”
The first and least of many black and white performance videos which feature guys playing instruments in a big room. It’s not bad, but there are about fifteen more of these here, so no one will think less of you for skipping this one, unless you’re a massive Men at Work fan.
49. Jermaine Stewart “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” (1986)
Ok, this is pretty astoundingly 80s, and probably best watched while high, but there are some glimmers of experimentation here, like when the camera seems to revolve around the singer while his outfits change, that make this video interesting. But it’s possible we’ve watched so many 80s videos now that our baseline is all out of whack.
48. The Motels “Shock” (1985)
At a pinch, you could draw a line from this cheap early effort and “Panic Room,” as an increasingly battered lead singer runs from room to room in an empty mansion only to discover the rest of the band in the basement. Shock!
47. Jody Watley “Real Love”
From the school of “shoot a load of footage of your attractive singer in different outfits, on different film stocks and with different backgrounds and cut it all together.” Still, not bad looking for all that, and stylistically a dry run for “Freedom 90” were it not for the unfortunate use of type on screen which looks pretty cheap now.
46. Stabilizers “One Simple Thing”
Another otherwise ordinary early-period B/W effort elevated by an unusual angle on the lead singer so the buildings stretch up into the sky behind him. It’s a nice example of simplicity, but with a touch of experimentation within the limits of budget and format.
45. Martha Davis “Tell It To The Moon” (1988)
A combination of black and white and color footage with photomontage and other restrained effects results in a video that’s a little slicker than the others Fincher did for Davis’ main band The Motels, mainly due to an avoidance of special effects.
44. The Hooters “Johnny B”
While it looks a whole lot better than this po-faced rock-ballad dirge deserves, and serves up a familiar 80s mix of long haired men, long-legged women and some sort of potentially fatal intrigue, we have absolutely no idea what’s going on here.
43. The Outfield “No Surrender” (1987)
A great deal more successful in the U.S. than in their native U.K., where they were wanted for crimes against denim, Fincher’s first video for The Outfield is one of those that’s much better when the band aren’t on screen. Still, classic cars and venetian blinds abound.
42. Foreigner “Say You Will”
Ah, the 80s, when all women were apparently high class hookers on sale for rich old men. Nice early examples of some other iconography that feels very Fincher now, like white porcelain coffee cups and zippos. And the reflection-in-the-eye effects are pretty well achieved for the time.
41. Steve Winwood “Holding On” (1988)
Old timey cars, old-timey typewriters, men wearing suspenders and fedoras, kids skipping through fire hydrants: it all looks great. It’s just a shame it feels so completely unsuited to the track.
40. Martha Davis “Don’t Tell Me The Time” (1987)
Not hugely inspired, but restrained and tasteful, here’s Fincher experimenting with black and white (or rather sepia) accented with color as he would do elsewhere.
39. Mark Knopfler “Storybook Story”
Creatively a little hemmed in, no doubt, by having to include footage from a film (“The Princess Bride” features this track over its end credits), Fincher can’t do a lot except make this look unimpeachably slick, which he does.
38. Eddie Money “Endless Nights”
Taxing the white sheet budget to the max. here’s a classic take of unrequited tenement love, which is exactly as non-memorably unobjectionable as the song.
37. The Outfield “Everytime You Cry”
These guys again, only this time it’s an uncharacteristic live performance video for Fincher, shot in gorgeous color that almost feels 70s-inflected, while a huge moon rises in the sky. Pretty great, especially the writhing crowd shots, until the moon cries video-effect tears, which is a bit much.
36. Rick Springfield “Celebrate Youth”
Here’s Fincher experimenting with color on a black and white image all the way back at the beginning of his career, and mostly getting away with it, unlike some other experiments with visual effects that didn’t work out so well. Kind of like the little girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List” except it’s a scarf and not the Holocaust.
35. Paula Abdul “The Way That You Love Me” (1988)
Bringing Fincher’s fetish for nice stuff to the fore again, all classic cars and glowy photography that makes his female star look great.
34. Billy Idol “L.A. Woman”
If Fincher frequently ripped off Tony Scott in the early portion of his video career, he passes the baton to Michael Bay who is practically now synonymous with the shot that Fincher gives us here of the underside of a plane roaring over the Hollywood sign. Bay could also have lifted this video’s teal and orange color scheme, though teal-and-orange feels like it’s bigger than any one man. Quite enjoyable early ’90s nonsense, until the cop-out ending to the sexy shenanigans which turned out to have been a game.
33. Paula Abdul “Forever Your Girl” (1989)
Leaving aside the creepy moments where the kids are dressed up as Robert Palmer‘s red-lipped vixens, this spot has a lot of charm, plus a teensy weensy Elijah Wood. And the high-contrast grainy black and white footage he uses of Abdul herself brings some welcome visual edge to prevent the clip from getting too cutesy.
32. Jody Watley “Most Of All” (1988)
A pretty stylish black and white effort, again using those ubiquitous billowing white curtains, but set against some striking, semi-surrealist backdrops. Just a shame he lapses again into the lyrics-on-screen thing which drags the video down.
31.Michael Jackson “Who Is It?”
Wearing its Tony Scott influence on its sleeve, this slick package for the King of Pop might have placed higher were it not just sooo ludicrous: It’s about a high-class escort (natch) who’s really pining for Jackson, and who is so sexy that apparently at one point she makes a wheelchair-bound man walk.
30. The Outfield “All The Love In The World” (1986)
Who knew these guys were so prolific? Anyway, here Fincher finds a more interesting way to solve the problem of how to unite performance and storyline by having our hero/lead singer essentially stalk the young woman through various TV screens.
29. Roy Orbison “She’s A Mystery To Me” (1989)
Here Fincher gives full rein to his love of noir and classic Hollywood, working in billowing curtains, monograms, lipstick on glasses, a femme fatale, and even creepy dolls: there are shades of everything from “Casablanca” to “Rebecca” to Jackie Collins.
28. Wire Train “She Comes On” (1987)
A sweaty, energetic black and white performance video, in a style that people still copy to this day, though it’s surprisingly fresh feeling here.
27. Gypsy Kings “Bamboleo” (1987)
A little confusingly, Fincher apparently helmed two videos for “Bamboleo,” and as far as we can ascertain, this is the first. It’s an atypically sundrenched spot that we’d suspect isn’t actually Fincher’s were it not for the heavy golden hue to the cinematography, and his calling card —the classic car that pulls up in the beginning.
26. Paula Abdul “Cold Hearted”
For all his talents as a visual artist and a dab hand with effects and film stocks and graphic images, Fincher’s also a brilliant director of dance. And the choreography in this Paula Abdul scene is great and shows off a load of semi-naked dancers writhing over a scaffold to great advantage.
25. Gypsy Kings “Bamboleo” (1989)
So here’s the other version of “Bamboleo” Fincher allegedly directed, and it’s another highly atypical video from him; the use of bright block colors as backdrops is not something he’s famous for. Still he’s got a real flair for shooting musicians.
24. The Wallflowers “6th Avenue Heartache”
A good looking “La Jetee“-style photomontage that makes the most of the considerable telegenic-ness of Jakob Dylan and his various hats. It was a kid of a palette cleaner between “Se7en” and “The Game” but it shows how confident Fincher had become.
23. Billy Idol “Cradle Of Love” (1990)
We’ve probably been a little unfairly harsh on the earlier portion of Fincher’s music video career, just because so many of those clips have aged poorly due to changing fashions and outmoded effects. But we’ll make up for it by showing a little love for this daft spot where a geeky rich “square” (he’s wearing glasses and listening to classical music) has his night, and presumably life, turned upside down by a free spirited young nymphette who plays Idol’s tape in his stereo. Idol performs via the pop art on the walls, and there is perhaps no single image that more perfectly captures early 90s music videos than the stiletto heel landing in the designer fish tank.
22. Madonna “Oh Father” (1989)
One of four Madonna collaborations and the first of two Fincher vids, alongside Aerosmith‘s “Janie’s Got a Gun“) to deal with parental abuse. This might be the lesser of the two, but it’s still pretty good to look at and manages to work in some truly creepy moments, like the corpse of the mother with her stitched-together lips.
21. Nenah Cherry “Heart” (1990)
Sometimes you just need to let your performer do her thing and get out of the way, and that’s what Fincher mostly does here, setting up the great Nenah Cherry in a circusy/stage show set with a lightbulb microphone into which she can yell her insults about the “Cabbage patch creature” who’s “a phony who just wants his alimony .”
20. Ry Cooder “Get Rhythm” (1988)
Harry Dean Stanton in a black and white “Key Largo“-inflected promo, What more could you need?
19. Johnny Hates Jazz “Shattered Dreams”
Despite my weird compulsive loathing of this song, I gotta admit this is a pretty interesting video, experimenting with scale in a way that Fincher would then reverse for his Rolling Stones clip. Here a tiny singer nestles in the woman’s collarbone or in the palm of her hand and again, the effects are pretty good for the time.
18. Johnny Hates Jazz “Heart Of Gold” (1988)
Another successful effects-based promo from that year for this band. This time Fincher overlays picture-in-picture to give an interestingly kaleidoscopic effect.
17. Rick Springfield “Bop ‘Til You Drop”(1984)
A lot’s been said about Tony Scott’s influence on early Fincher videos, and indeed on the medium of the music video in general, but this one feels like it owes a debt to brother Ridley —mostly to his famous dystopian Apple commercial “1984.” Kind of a fun yarn with Springfield as a messiah-type who frees enslaved humanity from evil aliens, it’s one of the more OTT, and therefore least typical, of Fincher’s video outings.
16. Bourgeois Tagg “I Don’t Mind At All”
A glossier version of Johnny Hates Jazz‘s “Heart of Gold” spot in which the picture-in-pictures look like they’re floating on panes of glass. It’s 26 years old, but very little betrays that.
15. Patty Smyth “Downtown Train” (1987)
It may not be the best cover of this peerless Tom Waits song, but nobody told the gloriously gritty black and white images. Fincher uses everything in the black and white toolbox here, from strobes to shadow effects to directional lighting, but it’s at the opposite end of the crisp glamor of “Vogue” and the like, delivering grimy texture.
14.A Perfect Circle “Judith”
It’s “just” a performance video, but this later-period music promo for Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan’s second most famous band is really Fincher, stylistically closer to “Se7en” than anything else he’s done in its use of scratchy film, jittery camerawork and a trademark grimy, grungy palette.
13. Aerosmith “Janie’s Got A Gun”
So 1990 was quite the year for Fincher, though it’s hard to believe that this and Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love” came the same year as “Vogue” and “Freedom 90.” Still, it may not be quite as iconic as those clips, but watch the storyline footage —the close-ups of bullets going onto chambers, the gumshoe-style investigator, the flashlights. It’s clear Fincher’s waiting for his chance to go noir in a feature. The performance sections are pretty ace too.
12. Steve Winwood “Roll With It”
Sometimes keeping it simple works, and this sepia New Orleansy promo with its raunchy dancing, sweat-slicked skin and hair and sensuous vibe is a straightforward, effective exercise in atmosphere.
11. Don Henley “The End Of The Innocence” (1989)
A beautiful if somber video, and appropriately so, given Henley’s sober delivery of this mournful ode to times past/slightly skeezy remembrance of a deflowering. Fincher mostly picks up on its more political resonances though (Oliver North on TV) and delivers an elegiac lament for the Americana of old.
10. Nine Inch Nails “Only”
With what’s become a frequent collaboration with Trent Reznor kicking off when a cover of “Closer” was used on the credits of “Se7en,” Fincher finally returned the favor in 2005 and directed this promo for Nine Inch Nails. It’s a particularly clinical piece from the director, technically impressive rather than particularly engaging in its own right.
9. Madonna “Bad Girl”
Anything that starts with Christopher Walken as a smitten Angel of Death hovering atop a lamppost will earn our attention. Indeed, Walken’s presence, along with the rich photography and fluid storytelling, makes this luxuriant promo probably the most “cinematic” on the list so far. But Madonna is very bad at smoking.
8. Paula Abdul “Straight Up”
A classic black and white dancy video featuring harsh, directional lighting and a graphically split background, this clip feels pretty timeless and has aged well. Though possibly I’m just battered into submission as this seems to have been on TV throughout my entire childhood.
7. Justin Timberlake feat Jay-Z “Suit & Tie” (2013)
Eight years after his last video (Nine Inch Nails’ “Only”) and fully established as one of the foremost and most Oscar-nominated American directors, Fincher came back to the format and didn’t disappoint with this stunning-looking clip. Again showcasing Fincher’s way with choreography, it’s also got a fab light show bit and even knits some rather Jonathan Glazer-esque moments of people jumping in slo-mo against black backgrounds that flash to white. Just a shame about the rather fey song that it’s all nominally in service of, and did we really need the women to be in their underwear?
6. The Rolling Stones “Love Is Strong”
So just before Fincher hit the feature jackpot with “Se7en” he released this massively successful and influential promo for The Rolling Stones. Again, the simplicity of the concept is key, and it’s all delivered with such wit and mischief that we nearly forget that it’s actually a horror movie. How else can you describe the possibility of a 90 ft Keith Richards?
5. Sting “Englishman In New York” (1998)
A lovely tribute to Quentin Crisp, about whom the song was written and who features in the video, this is also a criminally lovely black and white snapshot of New York that almost rivals “Manhattan” in the sheer force of its affection for the city.
4. Madonna “Express Yourself” (1989)
The following year may have been Fincher’s Annus Mirabilis as far as videos go, but it was this Madonna spot that really broke him into the upper echelons. From the striking dystopian, anti-capitalist imagery, to Madonna in a suit sporting a monocle, to the massive steampunky cogs and gears, to that ridiculously memorable shot of Madge spilling the saucer of milk over her shoulder, “Express Yourself” has boldness and flair and visual confidence to burn. No wonder it heralded his arrival in such a big way.
3. Iggy Pop “Home”
Maybe the least well-known of Fincher’s run of incredible videos from 1990, this Iggy Pop outing sees Fincher go back to black-and-white basics, but such is Pop’s sheer charisma that it’s all you need. A great, unadorned, authentic rock’n’roll vibe whether Iggy’s writhing around on a graffiti’d bench or waging his eternal war on shirts —oh, and that little kick of the foot at the end is the best.
2. George Michael “Freedom ’90”
Yeah, you may have heard of this one. A massive video for a massive hit, it manages to be both timeless, in the the way incredibly beautiful people are timeless, and totally of its time in its reflection of the early-90s obsession with the phenomenon of the supermodel. All wrapped up in what’s become pretty much an anthem of self-emancipation.
1. Madonna “Vogue” (1990)
The top spot could as easily have gone to “Freedom,” but I’m a fan of black and white, and Fincher’s mastery of it is unmistakable here. The sharp, directional lighting, the glowingly radiant skin tones, the sinuous grace of the bodies and costumes and of course the choreography that spawned an entire dance genre: it doesn’t get more iconic, more seminal, more Fincher, than “Vogue.”