Sing a Song of Seeing

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It took full-size movies more than a decade to catch up with the dramatic potential of rock 'n' roll. Two films were instrumental in breaking the barrier: Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969), with its hippie rock, and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), in which the urban raunch of the Rolling Stones and the Ronettes was used the same way Luchino Visconti used opera.

Movie musicals are the other historical touchstones: the grand ballroom turns of Astaire and the sidewalk acrobatics of Gene Kelly in essence. But in fact, and in direct lineage, nothing connects the video present with the movie past so directly as three films made in England. There were the two kinetic musicals that Richard Lester directed for the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), and Performance, the definitive rock-'n'-roll nightmare of 1970, wherein Co-Directors Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell had a pop star, played by Mick Jagger, swap identities with a hood. Jagger's centerpiece number was a malevolent and mystical barrage of imagery that could be every rock-video director's tapsource and textbook. The movie did not seem so much to impact as simply to implode. The effects can still be seen, 24 hours a day, on MTV.


Now these words from David Mallet, who has directed several hundred videos for the likes of Bowie, the Boomtown Rats and Roxy Music: "If someone from outer space arrived and you played him a record, he might say, 'I can hear it, but why can't I see it?' " You can rest easy now, Spaceman.

Any space case could see that at this tender point in their gestation, videos are a hyper hybrid of commercials, cartoons, concerts and selected short subjects. Record executives look for the high road but follow the hard line. "Rock video is terrific," says Gil Friesen, president of A & M Records, "but it is the music itself that creates the excitement, whether the music goes out over MTV or radio. Music is the ultimate power." John Kalodner of Geffen Records agrees: "Rock video isn't the art form. Rock video markets the art form."

The videomakers tend, with suitable modifications for ego, to go along with this sort of businesslike evaluation. Simon Fields, head of the Los Angeles branch of London's Limelight Productions, has produced more than 300 videos, and says, "We have to remember we are making a sales tool. These are little commercials. It is our job to make an artist look good." Even so, the skill of the videomakers often seems secondary to the music they visualize. Says Mallet: "You can make a good video of a bad record, and it doesn't do a thing. And you can make a bad video of a good record, and the record will sell anyway. A corollary is that it's very difficult to make a good video of a bad record. For some reason, if the record doesn't hang together, the pictures won't either."

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