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Category:    Home > Reviews > Music Videos > Rock > Industrial > Rap > Shorts > Work Of Mark Romanek (Directors Label)

The Work Of Mark Romanek (Directors Label/Volume Four)

 

Picture: B-     Sound: B     Extras: B+     Videos: A-

 

 

Palm Pictures release of The Directors Label series was such a critical and commercial success that they are adding four new volumes to the three already issued.  We begin with an installment on a director who has been influenced by Stanley Kubrick as much as any filmmaker (features, Music Videos, commercials) as any: Mark Romanek.  In this review, we will look at this amazing retrospective as stunning as any to date, which he tells Spike Jonze in an interview took over six years when it began at another company.

 

He has a distinct grasp of sexuality without being exploitive or allowing that aspect to call the usual kinds of attention to itself, they are always as well-lit as Kubrick’s films, have dense imagery that is often memorable and striking as any feature film today.  As we look at his amazing work, we’ll consider if he is an auteur and how his take on Kubrick works and even compares with other directors.  The clips here are:

 

 

99 Problems – This video from retired-Rap-king (and now music executive) Jay-Z doing one of his most controversial songs and certainly most controversial Videos.  Reflecting his own personal experience of a life-changing experience and how ugly the streets can get, including the twist of his own demise.  Shot in black and white, this is a great video to start off with, especially where the Kubrick aesthetic is concerned.  Most Hip Hop videos are not that great, while most of them try to duplicate the work of the very Kubrick-influenced Hype Williams (whose own video collection is reviewed elsewhere on this site with vital comparison information between the directors), which includes the lighting, depth, careful compositions and other signatures.  What is amazing here is Romanek is in William’s genre, but comes up with a more realistic, soulful result by ironically following his Rock N Roll aesthetic.  Instead of just doing Kubrick well with some personal additions as Williams, who adds Martin Scorsese elements, sometimes explicitly.  Romanek is also doing the New York School of Filmmaking style, but in a way that post-dates Scorsese, unlike Williams, who stays much closer to the 1970s aesthetic.

 

Faint (1.78 X 1) – Linkin Park could change their look all they want to make sure they do not look like weaker, lamer music acts they do not want to be associated with.  The extremes the lead singer alone has gone to in changing his hair is very telling of their need to define themselves.  Romanek decides just to show them from the back of the stage in silhouette and inadvertently makes one of the strongest videos they will ever make, showing just how basically great and energetic a band they really are.

 

Can’t Stop – This Red Hot Chili Pepper’s clip does an amusing thing by confining all their energy and personality to a purposely small and prefabricated set.  It is a favorite of theirs and even if it is not one of this writer’s, it is still one of their better ones.

 

Hurt (1.78 X 1) - A brilliant Video with the great Johnny Cash saying goodbye for the ages in a landmark music career that got less respect as the country betrayed itself and went conservative.  Another way to think of this is that he became more necessary for the now-regressive Country Music genre to ignore this man who built their house so they could do flashy, pointless music that was not good Country, Pop or Rock.  Thanks to this video, the power and essence of the man and legend is stunningly captured.  This is an all-time classic!

 

Cochise (director’s cut) – Audioslave’s first video for their first-ever single is almost like a mini-tribute to Scorsese’s The Last Waltz with its advisory for the Video to be played loud before it begins.  For this band, it is the beginning of their journey and with the great record, live performance and particular use of fireworks makes for the fell of a new era of Rock rising from the ashes of the original counterculture.  The great attitude is a plus.

 

Hella Good (director’s cut/2.35 X 1) – An exceptional song from the ever awesome No Doubt is accompanied by a Video more than worthy of the song.  Shot in scope and with black and white stocks, this industrial music is accompanied by a physically industrial location with boats in the harbor and a sense of industrial waste all around.  It indicates a post-apocalyptical feel and the band begin so great that they have the grace to survive it and even thrive in the face of it.  That is appealing; a great video for a great record.

 

God Gave Me Everything (1.78 X 1) - From one of Mick Jagger’s solo excursions, this one guest stars Lenny Kravitz and its amusing gimmick of strapping the camera to Mick and all his guests individually.  It gives a unique glimpse of Jagger, not easy for one of the most exposed icons in modern music history, but it is also a send-up of his image by default.

 

Got ‘til It’s Gone – Janet Jackson’s wonderful cover of the Joni Mitchell classic gets this top rate treatment looking at the beauty of Black South Africans set in the recent past when explicit apartheid still existed.  Another gem for Romanek, as well as Jackson, whose record of great Music Videos continues to go as strong as any music artist around.  Beautiful work!

 

Criminal (1.66 X 1) - Fiona Apple’s controversial video in which she appears with barely clothed men as she strips her clothes off is at least a minor classic, due in part to its classy, clever, mature handling of the kind of sexuality that reminds us that sex is more than just intercourse.  Yes, Romanek could claim this to be his Lolita and it remains as potent as that classic.

 

Perfect Drug – An very underrated clip that reunited Trent Reznor and Romanek done to promote a single for the soundtrack to David Lynch’s increasingly eerie Lost Highway purposely lacks clips from the film and the results are a late-19th Century trip into darkness that reminds one more of The Hughes Brothers’ underrated From Hell as much as any Lynch work.  Reznor said he was out of it when he did the clip, but it is so otherworldly, this actually helps make it work better.

 

Devil’s Haircut (1.78 X 1) -  An uncanny tribute to John Schlesinger’s 1969 masterwork Midnight Cowboy has Beck playing Joe Buck, with a boom box substituting for the transistor radio.  Shades of Francois Truffaut are added in the freeze frame/zoom-ins, but the still frame is such a signature of great Hollywood classics of the 1960s and 1970s, it just adds to the authentic feel.  This is a great record with a great video, including its terrific twist ending.

 

El Scorcho (director’s cut/2.35 X 1) – This Weezer clip was originally butchered by the band itself when they thought it did not show them enough.  Now they know better and here is a clip that fuses their image with a beautiful succession of lights and patterns that went over the heads of the band at the time.  Solid record too.

 

Novocaine For The Soul – Still one of Romanek’s best was made for this early single by the underrated band The Eels (usually spelled all in lower case) in which the band is constantly floating around for the duration of the video as they perform it with their instruments.  Another great record and exceptional use of black and white cinematography.

 

Little Trouble Girl – I like Sonic Youth and this is a good song, but this is a rare Video that just does not gel, though its reference to 1950s-style outer space beings is amusing.

 

Scream (director’s cut) – Rivaled only by his work with Martin Scorsese on Bad, the video for this duet with Michael & Janet Jackson is the best video Michael ever did and certainly one of Janet’s best, set in a space-home-cum-dying mansion that the siblings inhabit.  One of the most expensive and elaborate productions still to this day, Romanek’s essentially does Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in black and white and makes it work much better than the needless list of films, TV series and other Videos that fail.  The money is on the screen.

 

Bedtime Story – This striking clip for the Madonna hit was part of a cycle of songs about the breakdown of language has her physical body as part of a organic computer system, with her portion of it about to enter a new state of wordless existence.  It is an underappreciated accomplishment for both artists.

 

Strange Currency – A different clip of R.E.M. in black and white in a clip about searching for a young girl that serves as a metaphor for the general angst of existential searching for one’s self.  It lives up to its name in visual language and atmosphere, haunted by the death of River Phoenix for reasons you will have to discover for yourself.

 

Cold Beverage – G. Love & Special Sauce is a Rock/Rap duo purposely making their music sound old-fashioned.  The Video matches this in its monochrome look and old-fashioned visual construction, down to its budget and use of props from the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Closer (director’s cut) – One of Romanek’s masterworks is here uncut and works much better in that form than the silly censoring it has suffered over the years.  The Nine Inch Nails classic featured images of sex, religion, age, death, authoritarianism, racism, oppression and sadomasochism that added up to one of the all-time classics in Music video history.  This director’s cut works far better than the lesser broadcast version.

 

Jump They Say (2.35 X 1) – A David Bowie clips using Kubrick’s 2001 as a springboard for a confining corporate world as trap, with references to In Like Flint, La Jette and Godard.  It turns out the song is very personal and the synthesis of the two shows Music Video innovator Bowie knew what he was doing when he contacted Romanek to work with him.

 

Rain – The other Video Romanek has done for Madonna is less challenging, but still striking and holds up better than you would think, playing like a precursor of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation as Madonna is being directed by a fictitious Japanese filmmaker (played by real life music composer Ryuichi Sakamoto).  No conflicts here, just a beautifully crafted Video for a beautiful song.

 

Are You Gonna Go My Way – The early Lenny Kravitz triumph with the ceiling of pattern lights and his Rock/Soul piece worthy of the Jimi Hendrix and Prince legacies, this is the first of four clips to date the two have collaborated on.

 

Wicked As It Seems (director’s cut) – What was good for Mick Jagger was good enough for Keith Richards as this monochrome clip for his solo single is featured in its original cut.  This is a good record and fine use of black and white on Romanek’s part.

 

Free Your Mind – Though he may not consider it one of his best, the Video for the remarkable En Vogue hit is one of the great triumphs in the art form’s history.  Though it is part of a cycle of runway-based Music Videos of the time, the song’s stands against racism, misogyny, sexual freedom and freedom of expression has rarely been equaled.  The video manages to enhance and extend its potency and energy in visually powerful ways, including showing of the members of the group at the peak of their powers.  The editing is exceptional and the ladies’ strolls down the runway are the most significant for African American women in Music Video since Evelyn King walk in the park from Love Come Down, which says something.  A true tour-de-force!

 

Constant Craving – The song that broke K.D. Lang further into the mainstream against all the homophobia the media could muster up is a breakthrough for Romanek too, who found himself being put on the map by this surprise hit.  It is another fine use of black and white, too.

 

 

 

Technically, the image is terrific on just about all these clips, though where the video white is a tad off and detail is slightly thinner, that suggests a slight generation down from the master source.  Harris Savides was cinematographer on many of these clips, but John Schwartzman shot Strange Currency, while Lance Accord shot Cold Beverage (for example) and Romanek gets great results from all his cameramen.  All are 1.33 x 1 except where otherwise indicated and Robert Duffy edited most of these clips.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is often richer than in just about any case you are likely to encounter, with surrounds in some clips, for which you can experiment to hear which songs play back best which way.  This critic prefers two-channel in these cases.

 

Extras include a 56-page booklet with great photos, illustrations, and Spike Jonze interviewing Romanek, while the DVD has a featurette named after this DVD, a Making of 99 Problems featurette, a comical piece called Romanekian and at least one excellent audio commentary track for each Video.  Of the Videos not here, the few omissions include Robyn Hitchcock’s Madonna Of The Wasps, The The’s Sweet Bird Of Youth and The Wallflowers’ Sleepwalker, but this is an extremely well-rounded set

 

So is Romanek an auteur?  Though not discussed on this disc, we have covered his remarkable feature film debut, One Hour Photo.  Like his Videos, it shows a grasp of the current masters of feature filmmaking starting with Kubrick and Godard.  He knows how to get on with it beyond just duplicating or imitating his wide-ranging vocabulary of cinematic literacy.  He does this with a strength and conviction hardly any director today can equal.  His sense of Rock today in a sea of posers who record music disguised as Rock is amazing, which also speaks to his originality.  He is not doing pastiche either, so it is about putting strength of character and potency of images together like no other, picking up where Kubrick left off as much as Ridley Scott or David Fincher have.  In all this, I still think we have not seen a work from Romanek that allows him to let loose his greatest abilities.  That will take another feature film.

 

Until then, we can say he is an auteur, but will hold back on why for now until he uses that language to say something about the world around him with it.  The common denominator in all his work is creating totally enclosed works with the direct view one might attribute to some of Spielberg’s better work, but the question this vital DVD leaves with us is what will happen when he decides to let that loose?  Will he ever let that loose?  We can’t wait to see that, but until then, you must see The Work Of Mark Romanek.

 

 

-   Nicholas Sheffo


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