18 December 2006

In Praise of Sophie Muller

Music videos are generally throw away objects not meant to resonate much beyond the immediate present and sell some units, or build a buzz around an artist.

But a few music video directors manage to create a style for themselves that carries over from decade to decade and from artist to artist.

Sophie Muller is one such person.

Browsing through her list of credits on her Wiki page is like a summary of some of the better videos of the past 20 years.

Through the miracle of YouTube and copyright infringement, I can share with you some highlights.

The video for Eurythmic's Beethoven, the non-musical intro speech from Annie is simply brilliant. For a first video credit, an impressive effort. Why Ms. Lennox didn't do more acting I'll never know. She would have been fantastic. Simple, surreal, compelling, and services the song well, all the things a video should be.

Next up, Sade's No Ordinary Love, the underwater theme suits this song perfectly. Her voice is so flowing and liquid, she's easily believable as a slightly sad siren. The scene shifts between that and a sad runaway bride. It doesn't have to make sense, it's a video dammit.

Have I ever mentioned I love me some Hope Sandoval? That's her with The Jesus and Mary Chain in the video for Sometimes Always. She and the lead singer were an item at the time, a bit of that shows through in this video. Again, Sophie finds a visual setting that serves the sound of the song. There's a western edge to the song, and the video is shot in what looks like Death Valley (or the Mojave, not sure). Simple, and simply beautiful.

No Doubt - Simple Kind of Life, another video that uses the tensions of a real life relationship to help sell the song and the visuals. This video would seem to be part of the process of Gwen becoming "Gwen" and overshadowing the rest of the band. Some interesting stuff going on from a technique standpoint, I especially like the shot towards the end where the camera stays focused on a spot and Gwen walks into focus. Different without being too showy.

Loretta Lynn & Jack White, Portland Oregon, another case of matching song to sight. Sophie has some particular things she likes to do that carry over from video to video, and she seems to like a real saturated look on her studio work, plus the low tracking shot cut with close ups. But it works, dunnit? For a moment I thought Jack and Loretta were going to make out though, ewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.

Lily Allen, Smile, I can't wait till this album is released in the United States. I eat this sort of stuff up with a spoon. But back to the video, again, she shoots a video that highlights some aspect of the sound. In this case, Lily's style is very London-centric, and the video is pure chavtastic. Brilliant stuff, that. This is a pretty snotty song (in a good way), and the video is equally snotty. Perfect.

So what does Sophie Muller do that's so good? She serves the artist, that's what. Each of these videos, though there are some common touches, are different enough from each other that you wouldn't have been surprised if they were made by different directors. Sophie lets the music speak for itself and the personality of the artists escape from the screen. With each of the videos you don't get the sense that you're seeing a manufactured and test-marketed pose, but rather a window into who these folks are in their everyday lives. Remarkable thing to accomplish on a budget while the main purpose is to push units.

I'm glad she hasn't tried to make the leap to making features. I don't think she'd be good at it. Most video artists who try to become directors lose something in the translation and end up making very disjointed and incoherent films that stretch 15 minute stories into 90 minute films (instead of compacting 15 minute stories into 4 minute videos as is their habit and talent). McG and Michel Gondry come to mind.

It's a special talent to be able to tell 15 minutes of story in 4 minutes of music video, something that shouldn't be scoffed at.

All the above was inpsired by Bill at So Quoted's post regarding Gwen Stefani and her Wind It Up video (above). Notice how in the No Doubt video way up above she seems scared of being in the spotlight, and now she's somewhere between Elvis and Madonna (but with a smirk). Interesting developments.

And I reviewed the album The Sweet Escape (mostly positively) about a week ago here. I kind of ignored the song Wind It Up in my review, mainly cause I find it to be the most annoying track on the album. I prefer to build up, rather than to tear down, I guess that's why my reviews aren't as compelling as they could be.

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