Film: Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video (link)
Director: Jamin Bricker
Writer: Saul Austerlitz
Narrator:Michael Charles Roman
“I wanted to write my book before the video vanished for good. As it turned out, that ended up not being a concern, because just as the music video appeared to be on the brink of extinction, the Internet took the video under its wing, and rescued it.”
– Saul Austerlitz
Those who view this film can’t help but lay their own personal timelines over it and judge its veracity according to the point in time at which they themselves came of age during the music video era, which, according to music critic Austerlitz, began as early as the rise of talkies (notably with the screening of The Jazz Singer), took off during the late seventies, and continued to be a going concern in pop culture right up until the form devolved into little more than a fixture of the commercial music industry.
My generation grew up with musicals, the Beatles, the Monkees, and rock operas, all of which formed highlights of our rather dull late-baby-boomer lives, and so we were really excited when the first underground music videos began appearing in artsy cafes. We were soon delighted to see this amazing new art hybrid, so clearly an authentic voice for the post-hippy generation, actually showcased on its own channels?MTV and Muchmusic, its Canadian equivalent. As we watched hundreds of videos during the 80’s we slowly went from ecstatic to disappointed, until eventually we hardly watched music videos at all. Some of us eagerly lapped up the reality television shows that replaced the videos on the music channels, but the rest of us figured out it was time to abdicate youth culture.
You may find yourself wishing this documentary followed a more chronological progression; all the jumping back and forth in time is rather dizzying. But the time travel is necessary to explain the development of the music video (or any art form, for that matter), which often takes the form of a vortex?repeating cycles while moving forward?as opposed to a straight line. The documentary is laid out in short modules with titles that introduce new developments in historical sequence and then leap back in time to look at where this new idea first emerged.
Watching the development of the music video is a little like watching the series of technological innovations that went into the development of, say, the computer mouse, except that this is art; even if It’s a technology-dependent pop culture art hybrid, a certain amount of artistic inspiration is a prerequisite. This means that even when the technology grows by leaps and bounds (as it did steadily in the videography world for the duration of the music video’s history) real artistic achievement depends on bursts of genius that just can’t last. These bursts of genius can inspire other artists, but not forever. As Saul Bellow pointed out, today’s inspiration eventually becomes tomorrow’s intellectual canned goods.
It’s really depressing to see how quickly and shamelessly the commercial music world exploited the medium from the get-go. Perhaps, for this reason, one feels uplifted when learning about the few creative geniuses who grabbed the bull by the horns and steered it in a whole new direction. Who used the music video format to create clever clips that were, at the same time, sage critiques of the star-maker machinery to which human creativity was no more than mill grist.
Although the videos promoted artists, the artists they promoted weren’t the geniuses who produced the videos. These geniuses were largely unknown except, perhaps, for Spike Jonze and Godley and Crème. And one could argue that these were only famous because they themselves had musical careers and appeared in videos.
The video as a creative medium lost steam in the nineties but was then revived in its commercial aspect around 2004, ripe with sex appeal and mindless hedonism. It sure did look like video was dead, especially when MTV replaced its central position in programming with reality TV. Another nail in the coffin was Red Hot Chili Peppers? “Danny California” a video retrospective of the music video itself, showcasing the form’s “stylistic voraciousness” as the narrator puts it. Such retrospectives are signals of demise.
The weakness of the music video was that it was limited by its context? everything that happened in these videos was strictly within the context of pop culture, with only occasional references to the greater world of art, politics, and universal human experience. Its attempt to grant dignity and universality to youthful angst ended up sabotaging itself, thus making it perfect fodder for business interests that wished to exploit it, turning it into nothing more than a piece of advertising for music that some suit wanted to sell you. The history of the video was thus a kind of tug-of-war between independent music producers and the recording industry. When the artists won, videos were low budget, clever, delightful, and significant. When the corporations won, music videos were all about sex, mindless hedonism, and consumer gluttony. The film’s title is gloriously apt, based on the famous Dire Straits song that all but bites the hand that feeds the stars of the commercial music industry.
So It’s refreshing that when, toward the end of the music video’s golden age, Mark Romanek did a video of an aging Johnny Cash singing “hurt”, the video rose above youth culture and referred to the human condition. The music video also influenced how films were made, the rapid sequences and innovative techniques winding their way into Hollywood blockbusters, and the animated shorts influencing Disney’s animated features. And then, of course, the internet made music videos indispensable, whether they’re any good or not; we see videos still around because it seems like you can’t play music on TV anymore without having a video with it?That’s how visually dependent we’ve become in the digital age.
Money for Nothing manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It stimulates my mind.
– It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It makes me want to be a better artist.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.