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The Work Of Director Mark Romanek

Palm Pictures // 2005 // 150 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // September 26th, 2005

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All Rise...

You can have it all: Mark Romanek's empire of amazing music videos is showcased in this stellar installment of the long-running DVD series, according to Judge Bill Gibron.

The Charge

You get me closer to God!

The Case

At one time, just having the ability to make something called a music video was an outright anomaly. That anything artistic or interesting would come of it was never even an issue. Videos were promotional clips, a chance to see a performer outside the typical concert setting while still getting some music for your money. Certainly there were attempts to spice up the setting, or paint the musician in a different light than they normally were seen in, but for the most part, a video was filmed lip-syncing, a bigger budget version of what Dick Clark offered every week on American Bandstand.

When MTV came along, none of that really changed, initially. Videos were still seen as vehicles for record sales, and making them was an increasingly common need for many respectable rock bands. While the new artists embraced the format and strived to be different, the dinosaurs sailed through on lame performance pieces before quickly proving the lyrical adage "video killed the radio star" correct. It was around the late '80s when bands started realizing that, by giving into a more cinematic style of production, even the most appearance-hampered act could make a memorable clip.

It was out of this aesthetic switchover that the true music video director was born, and it is this same sentiment that sees the release of seven (and counting…) DVDs by Palm Pictures celebrating the classic clips and the individuals behind them. The focus of Volume 4 is Mark Romanek, a Chicago-born, film school-educated auteur who went from working with obscure indie acts (like Robyn Hitchcock) to helming one of the most expensive videos of all time (Michael and Janet Jackson's "Scream"). He's also responsible for two of the genre's recognized royalty (Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" and Johnny Cash's "Hurt").

Though it doesn't collect everything the man has ever made, and does appear to stray a little too far into the blatantly commercial arena of his work, Mark Romanek is a singular filmmaker in a realm of the ridiculous and the rote. As Romanek says several times over the course of this DVD (each video is presented with commentary), he is an iconographer. He is out to make the most of both the music offered and the visuals he can create. He wants to combine the two into powerful snapshots of lasting resonance. That he succeeds almost all the time is only part of his gift. That he never seems to repeat himself, and constantly challenges both the format and those who would perform in it is equally impressive.

While a group of comedians joke about it on the disc (as part of the bonus materials), there really is something similar to a "Romanekian" moviemaking style. Imagery is crucial to this director, and he will shoot hours of footage just to get the right moments to combine. His premise is usually based in photography and lighting, maximizing both to their fullest effect. Heavily influenced by Kubrick and the movies of the '60s and '70s, Romanek wants to create specific worlds, backdrops, and locales that comment on and contextualize artists and their songs.

That is why, throughout the 25 videos here, you will see images such as Janet Jackson in a South African apartheid setting (for "Got Til It's Gone"), Beck wandering around an empty New York City ("Devil's Haircut"), or R.E.M. scouring an abandoned industrial park (for the song "Strange Currencies"). Sometimes, the backdrop can be more metaphysical than real (the fireworks war for Audioslave's "Cochise" or the fan-frenzy light parade for Linkin Park's "Faint"). He is also inspired by art, both recognizable (Madonna's "Bedtime Story") and arcane (Erwin Wurm's "sculptures" as the inspiration for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Can't Stop" clip).

If it is possible to pick the best films/videos here (as almost every one in the package is excellent in its own particular way), here are five reasons why even a casual fan of the format should pick up this set. Each mini-movie here illustrates Romanek's power behind the lens, and his overwhelming way with imagination and invention. In reverse order, we begin with:

#5—kd lang—"Constant Craving": Here's a combination of concepts you never thought would co-exist together; genre-jumping lesbian crooner and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Romanek always wanted to make a film version of the classic absurdist masterpiece, but with the Beckett estate resistant, the director does the next best thing. While lang acts as kind of a chronicler of the production, Romanek gives us a fake French setting and a very Parisian interpretation of Godot's goofy glory. Somehow, the divergent elements here work together to create an oddball celebration of the non-traditional and the individualistic.

#4—Nine Inch Nails—"Perfect Drug": For their second collaboration, Romanek and Reznor tapped Edward Gorey and a pure Victorian veil of menace for what looks like outtakes from a very spooky synthetic horror film. With a quasi-linear narrative (Trent appears haunted by visions of a dead young girl) married to a real surplus of sensational imagery, this clip transcends its industrial percussion pomp to deliver a thoughtful and elegant look at loss and obsession. Amazingly, Reznor dislikes the clip (not for what it represents, but for the memories from the time when it was made), and that inner anguish is burnished all over the screen.

#3—Jay-Z—"99 Problems": As a final act of defiance for the retiring rap star, Romanek gives us a "life in one day" glimpse of Jay-Z's journey from ghetto dependent to defendant. Dignified, determined, and practically pulsating with the heat and beat of the street, this is a remarkable clip for a genre known more for bling and biz-nitches than somber social statements. Yet "99 Problems" touches on racism, racial profiling, inner city strife, black on black crime, and the humiliation of incarceration as reflections of Jay's jaundiced lyrics. Romanek really outdoes himself here, creating something both visually stunning and thought provoking.

#2—Nine Inch Nails—"Closer": Certainly it seems cliché to constantly pick this clip as an example of great music video making, but "Closer" combines the elements that Romanek strives for in perfect sound and vision synchronicity. Capitalizing on Trent Reznor's Goth guy glamour, and setting his "story" within a weird alien world of sex and surrealism, the end result feels like a snuff film from the turn of the century. There are several borderline offensive images here, but Romanek and Reznor use them in ways that are profound, not puerile. A true benchmark that wouldn't be beaten until the #1 video came along.

#1—Johnny Cash—"Hurt": It's hard to imagine a more obtuse combination. The man in black, old and frail, covering a song by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, with all of it captured by Romanek's heavily romanticized camerawork. The kicker here is the inclusion of material from Cash's personal archive (including footage of the film he made in 1973, Gospel Road: The Story of Jesus) as well as visuals from his flooded and disheveled House of Cash museum. Taking the concept of one's life flashing before their eyes literally, Romanek delivers a devastating elegy to mortality and one artist's amazing humanity.

For those interested, here is a breakdown of all 25 videos:

• Jay-Z—"99 Problems" (Director's Cut)
• Linkin Park—"Faint"
• Red Hot Chili Peppers—"Can't Stop"
• Johnny Cash—"Hurt"
• Audioslave—"Cochise" (Director's Cut)
• No Doubt—"Hella Good" (Director's Cut)
• Mick Jagger—"God Gave Me Everything I Want"
• Janet Jackson—"Got 'Til It's Gone"
• Fiona Apple—"Criminal"
• Nine Inch Nails—"Perfect Drug"
• Beck—"Devil's Haircut"
• Weezer—"El Scorcho" (Director's Cut)
• Eels—"Novocaine for the Soul"
• Sonic Youth—"Little Trouble Girl"
• Michael and Janet Jackson—"Scream"
• Madonna—"Bedtime Story"
• R.E.M.—"Strange Currencies"
• G. Love and Special Sauce—"Cold Beverage"
• Nine Inch Nails—"Closer" (Director's Cut)
• David Bowie—"Jump They Say"
• Madonna—"Rain"
• Lenny Kravitz—"Are You Gonna Go My Way?"
• Keith Richards—"Wicked as It Seems" (Director's Cut)
• En Vogue—"Free Your Mind"
• kd lang—"Constant Craving"

Additionally, the DVD contains three documentaries, each one a fascinating glimpse into the collaboration process between Romanek and the artists who employ him. The Work of Director Mark Romanek is a little bit of a cheat, in that the interview material is mostly culled from the commentary tracks offered (along with the director, almost every musician featured here adds their two cents to the tracks—with some noted exceptions). Still, the behind the scenes glimpses of "videos in the making" are well worth it. Additionally, a look at the "99 Problems" documentary has Jay-Z and Rick Rubin each opening up about the impact of the clip and Romanek's approach. As said before, Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, and Robin Williams take genial pot shots at the filmmaker in Romanekian. Really just a chance to riff on certain videos, all three are in rare, risible form.

Discounting the commentaries, and the wonderfully illustrated booklet that comes along with the set, there are no other bonus features here to speak of. From a purely technical standpoint however, the sound and vision are flawless. Ever music video is presented in the MTV-friendly 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio, and if there was another way to view these films (i.e. a letterbox format or some manner of widescreen composition), Romanek is not questioning (or commenting on) the decision. Besides, the videos look so good here—clean, crisp, and full of exquisite detail—that the transfer transcends any other limitations. The sound is also sensational, with the Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix really flexing the speaker specifics.

Music is such a personal, mysterious thing that when we get a chance to learn how it is conceived and visualized, we are naturally attracted to the discussion. As much a testament to director Mark Romanek as the artists he's worked with, The Director Series Volume 4 makes for fascinating viewing. It proves that, even in the realm of commercial hucksterism, beauty and grandeur can be created and nurtured…and it's always engaging to learn how it's done.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Special Commendations

• Golden Gavel 2005 Nominee

Perp Profile

Studio: Palm Pictures
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 150 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Performance

Distinguishing Marks

• The Work of Director Mark Romanek -- 30-minute Documentary
• Romanekian -- a Comical Discussion of Romanek's Work
• Making of 99 Problems Featurette
• Commentaries by director and/or artist on each individual video

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