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From Spike Jonze to Jonathan Glazer: How music videos became a breeding ground for indie cinema

@TomTaylorFO

In the early 1960s, after a brief stint working in advertising, Frank Zappa understood that modern music was half about image — and with that revelation, the full artistic gestalt that became his act was formed. By the time that MTV came around, the notion of a musician also needing to have an identifiable persona went up a few notches. 

It is hard to overstate the cultural revolution that MTV brought about. Suddenly kids were storming home from school to be bathed in a wash of pure unabated pop culture and the industry mutated along with the minds of those watching on. For a certain generation, many of our first memories of music are through their accompanying visuals. These strange bohemian faces that pop up on the television doing zombie dances or looking like a Rembrandt rendering are riveted onto our sensibilities and they opened the curtain to peer at the world of music that swirled beyond the alluring visuals.

Somewhere in amongst the muddle of dirty vapid consumerism and artistic development is the seeding for a lot of independent cinema and today’s equally mishmash movie industry. While the cynical surface view of MTV could retrospectively be seen as some highly westernised tool for cultural hegemony and the increasing commercialisation of music, there are videos of awesome innovation like ‘Sledgehammer’ for Peter Gabriel that disavowed this from the off with daring artistic experiments

While the whitewashed cash-cow element of the medium is definitely in the welter, there was also an odd cottage-industry feel to certain elements of MTV back in the day and a progressive edge to parts of it. One of which, was the simple way that art and culture in pretty much all of its guises flooded into living rooms every evening for a brief period before the TV remote household hierarchy took over. This inspired an entire generation, one of which was modern music video director Andrew Donoho.

When we spoke to him about the rise of MTV and how it influenced his future in filmmaking he said: “Like a lot of us, the filmmaking spark began with a VHS camera at home. As a teenager, I scoured the internet for every form of visual effects software to try and spice up DIY home movies and school projects.” Adding: “Music always inspires and enhances my own ideas to a massive degree. As early as my first short film, I would listen to playlists while writing, edit scenes to music, and directly marry characters or performances to songs. I felt comfortable starting in music videos because those habits directly correlated to a workflow that artists loved.”

At the dawn of MTV, many kids, much like Donoho, were picking up their parent’s old wedding video cameras and making a quick music video with their friends who were in a band. The same can be said for the likes of Spike Jonze, who entered the world of music videos, and, in a way, has never really left. In Jonze’s modern indie filmmaking, there is a self-evident link to the music video realm where he learnt his trade. The importance of the soundtrack for his films is always pronounced and the continual use of set pieces and unfurling aesthetics reveals his roots in the realm where sound, atmosphere and conveying something quickly are the three main goals. 

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A lot of this transition was forecast by the legendary director Francis Ford Coppola. While making his 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now, he declared: “To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some—just people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever, you know. And it will really become an art form. That’s my opinion.”

In the movie industry of today, the divide between “so-called professional” cinema and movies made by figurative “little fat girls in Ohio” is profound. Much like the dichotomy between the art and commercialism that existed on MTV, it has now been amplified in cinema as a whole, with the big budgets of gaudy Marvel movies screening alongside little DIY marvels made on a shoestring budget. 

Our sage of Coppola also shared his view on this. While reflecting on the current movie industry he mused that back in the day you used to have to graduate from the tightly controlled world of independent cinema whereby you basically had a setlist of explosions to hit, flesh to flash and lines to cram, and if you did well enough, you would graduate to the level where you were given creative dominion over a huge budget and you could essentially do what you want. Now, he says, it is the other way around — you start with free reign over a tiny budget in indie cinema and graduate to the world of big bucks held in tight fists. 

Michael Cimino’s disastrous Heaven’s Gate and the sensation of ‘runaway directors’ might have put a stop to auteurs with bottomless cash pits, but the emergence of MTV soon after offered up an alternative. The punk attitude of the late 1970s meant that if you had an idea you could try your hand at it. Kids with an artistic eye who might not have been to film school suddenly started making music videos anyway. And with that, the notion of not needing a wild budget to make a hit movie sparked a fuse.

A few years after MTV launched in 1981, music video graduates like Spike Lee began having an impact with films like Do the Right Thing. Achingly faithful documentaries like Seventeen took dogeared camcorders, put pop culture and life experience at the forefront and made something real for youth culture. The list of examples goes on and on and it continues to this day. 

Blockbuster movies might offer a dose of escapism, but indie films thrive on being dwarfed by them and take the small screen aesthetic of MTV. They craft something that puts contemporary culture at the forefront to reflect the zeitgeist just the Jonathan Glazer had done beforehand on ‘Karma Police’ or Richard Ayoade had with ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ before they carried the bespoke style into the modern auteur realm of independent filmmaking. 

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