Aaliyah: More Than a Woman

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It was a small moment. But it was the moment when Paul Hunter realized Aaliyah was cool.

Oh, he liked her when he first met her back in 1996. He had met her through her uncle, the head of Blackground, who had arranged a meeting between the two in a New York studio. She seemed smart and shy and fun, and so Hunter agreed to work with her at some point.

That point came when they shot a video for one of her songs, "One in a Million," in Los Angeles in 1996. Everything was going well, the project was on schedule, and it was time to move to another location. So the crew packed up and stuffed themselves into a car — and Aaliyah stuffed herself right in there with them. "I thought she was really cool," said Hunter. "She was this young superstar and we need to go to the next location and she just rides over with the crew. She didn't call for a limo or anything. It was really cute. She was just a regular girl in that respect, y'know?'

Before Aaliyah broke into films she was breaking the mold in music videos. In the mid-'90s, around the time that she was making her "One in a Million" video, it seemed as if the video form was dead. Finished. Stick a fork in it. The form seemed to lack the power to surprise or even to entertain. Musicians were making videos because they had to, because MTV was the new radio, because perhaps they had a couple of hours to kill after a gig on Saturday. Increasingly, at that time, videos were a thing to ridicule and even MTV itself was in on the mocking. MTV's since-cancelled series Beavis and Butt-head made fun of videos; VH-1's Pop-Up Videos seemed to say, with its very format, that videos weren't interesting enough to watch anymore unless there was supplementary information to keep you from turning the channel to the Food Network.

One move that helped save videos: name checks. In the early '90s, MTV started putting director's names on the video credits; that meant filmmakers would get the credit — or blame — for what they did. If you made a heavy metal video full of half-naked supermodels, your mom was gonna call you. If you made a brilliant video with references to German Expressionism and "The Seventh Seal," perhaps Hollywood was going to call you. So the word began to spread. Videos could lead to feature films. And, not too mysteriously, the quality of films began to go up.

Around this time a new wave of video wizards appeared on the scene: there was Hype Williams, who directed videos by Missy Elliott ("The Rain — Supa Dupa Fly") and Mary J. Blige ("Everything"). There was the elegantly creepy work of Floria Sigismondi who directed videos for shock-rocker Marilyn Manson (one featured him shaving his own armpit) and trip-hopper Tricky. And there was also prankster auteur Spike Jonze, the man behind Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet" (a video that explodes into a technicolor musical), the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" (a take-off on '70s TV cop shows), and Weezer's "Buddy Holly" (a good-natured "Happy Days" sendup). Jonze also showed that videos could indeed lead to the big screen: After helming some MTV clips, he went on to direct the Oscar-nominated film "Being John Malkovich."

Paul Hunter was one of the brightest video talents to come out of that wave. Hunter, who grew up in Queens, originally wanted to be a painter. "That's what probably stimulated my interest in color now," he said when I wrote a story about him in TIME in 1997. "I wanted to be a Basquiat or Keith Haring." He embarked on a career as a still photographer but decided to study film at California State University at Northridge after visiting a movie set when his brother, an aspiring actor, got a part in an indie film. Hunter later dropped out: "I learned that I had to go out and hustle if I was going to make it, [that] I was going to have to go out and make films by whatever means I could."

Hunter's music videos have a lush look and a strong sense of style. His video of Puff Daddy's "All About the Benjamins" make s the song come alive with its rushing, forceful images. Hunter's directorial approach, mixing style and substance, was an excellent match for Aaliyah . From Day One, says Hunter, Aaliyah wanted her videos to stand out from clips by other R&B singers. "You can watch programming all day and see a certain type of video by female artists," says Hunter. "Then when one of hers comes on it's something special, something different to look at. That's what she was about."

Aaliyah 's videos, for the most part, are about mood, not about storylines. They are usually lushly shot and infused with sexual tension, though not in overt and obvious ways. There are small shocks in her videos, but not graphic ones; she usually dances in her clips, but the sequences never look heavily choreographed. In general, Aaliyah 's videos tend to have a languid, liquid feel. They flow past the eye — rivers of color and skin and light. While most videos on MTV tend to leave the viewer amped up and hyped up and full of energy, Aaliyah 's videos feel like slow, firm back massages. While watching the tension just seems to drain out of your body, leaving you with gentle melodies and insistent rhythms.

Aaliyah was able to draw on her experiences in videos for her last movie, the film adaptation of the Anne Rice movie, "The Queen of the Damned." In that film, which is due out in February of 2002, Aaliyah plays Akasha, an ancient —but eternally youthful — vampire.

Aaliyah's last role will shock some of her fans because it's such a contrast to her "sweet but street" image. "The Queen of the Damned" was filmed in and around Melbourne, Australia. The first scene Aaliyah shot was a striking one. Her character goes into a vampire bar, flirts outrageously with some of the patrons, ends up ripping one poor guy's heart out, and then goes on to incinerate the rest of the clientele. Afterwards, Aaliyah's character struts away, happy and satisfied with the mayhem she has just brought about. "It's a very cool scene," says "Queen of the Damned" director Michael Rymer. "What I remember about that day is all the extras and the crew saying 'That girl's amazing.' "

The last scene Aaliyah filmed for "The Queen of the Damned" has, since her passing, taken on an unexpected emotional dimension. In the scene, Aaliyah's character appears in statue form. The makeup artists spent three hours painting her with alabaster to gave her the appearance of something made of stone. The cast and crew gasped when Aaliyah came onto the set, looking like some mythic creature. Even her eyes were covered with alabaster contacts (which, according to Rymer had been extremely painful to wear). Without a word, as silent as the statue she was playing, Aaliyah took her place on the set. Later, with the addition of special effects, her stone body would seem to crumble into the dust. The last scene Aaliyah shot for "The Queen of the Damned" was a death scene.

Says Rymer: "She does have a death scene. It's very beautiful. It is sort of eerie to watch now. There is certainly a poignancy about it that was added to it by the events of real life."

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Copyright 2001 by Pocket Books, a division of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved