Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Center: Danielle Haim, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alana Haim (Photo: Presley Ann/Getty Images); background, top left and bottom right: “Little Of Your Love”; top right: “I’m In It”; bottom left: "Valentine" (Screenshots)

HAIM has given Paul Thomas Anderson an unlikely second career

Center: Danielle Haim, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alana Haim (Photo: Presley Ann/Getty Images); background, top left and bottom right: “Little Of Your Love”; top right: “I’m In It”; bottom left: "Valentine" (Screenshots)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Music videos have never been more accessible than they are right now. They’ve also arguably never been less relevant, at least not since their earliest days. In the ’80s, videos offered a new way for listeners to experience their favorite artists. In the ’90s, a clever video could propel an alternative rock band or hip-hop act onto sales charts (or at least get them an unwitting guest spot on Beavis & Butt-Head). Even as recently as the mid-2000s, bands like OK Go were parlaying viral videos into bigger followings than they might have otherwise managed.

But while some big-name artists dutifully continue to clock in buzzy clips—or even release “visual albums”—the sheer scale of streaming video has diminished the role of music videos in many non-superstar careers. Plenty of artists put all or most of their new releases on YouTube as an audio-only feed, to capture streams that now feed into Billboard charts; some drop a new single with a simple lyric video to provide a cursory accompaniment; others go back and assemble a genuine music video later, if the song proves popular enough. Music-related clips can now get traction via TikTok, but the quick-hit (and often crowdsourced) nature of that platform—plus the outbreak of a global pandemic—have resulted in videos that feel increasingly off-the-cuff and homemade. Even if they blow up, like “Old Town Road,” the artist’s original images may be just a jumping-off point, if that, to inspire remixes and memes. No wonder music videos have been rebranded as “visuals,” an adjective-to-noun conversion honoring the fact that plenty of them are just placeholders because you gotta put something on that YouTube screen.

It’s noteworthy, then, that the rock band HAIM (also the surname of founding sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana) has made music videos so central to its image-making, particularly during the promotional cycles for the group’s two most recent albums, 2017’s Something To Tell You and 2020’s Women In Music Pt. III. The upping of HAIM’s video game has coincided with their decision to employ moonlighting filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson as sort of an in-house videographer; the methodical auteur behind There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights directed or co-directed six of their last nine videos, with Paper Towns director Jake Schreier helming the other three.

The earliest pre-PTA HAIM videos are recognizable cousins of their later work; there’s some coordinated (and sometimes charmingly non-coordinated) dancing in “Forever” and “If I Could Change Your Mind.” But the videos accompanying singles from the band’s debut album also tend to feature mish-mashes of familiar concepts: home video footage; performances in locations that are supposed to be unlikely, assuming you haven’t seen other music videos; cutaways to slow-motion shots of “regular” people who aren’t in the band. “The Wire” is pure shtick, with the Haim sisters successively breaking the hearts of three devastated boyfriends. It would have fit right in on a later-period episode of 120 Minutes.

By comparison, their subsequent videos with Anderson seem conceptually negligible—at first. Their initial collaboration was “Valentine,” a live, behind-the-scenes short film, the first few minutes of which were shortened into a video for a live version of “Right Now.” The full film and the shorter video both consist of Anderson filming the Haim sisters live in the studio without much visible adornment. “Right Now” is captured mostly in a continuous take as they perform the song and switch instruments as needed. There are more cuts in the video for “Little Of Your Love,” but the basic idea, or lack thereof, is similar: Anderson’s camera catches them each singing and dance-walking in turn as they strut and shimmy around a nondescript club full of other dancers, the three occasionally lining up for something more coordinated. Contrasted with the occasional organized dancing, the lip syncing is casual: In closer shots, the singers mouth along with the words, then drop the conceit as needed.

In later videos, Anderson and the band head back outdoors, favoring lateral camera moves that follow the Haims as they make their way through bustling Los Angeles-area streets. In “Summer Girl” their walk starts with layered, winter-ready clothing, which they gradually shed as the video continues. As with the lip syncing, strict continuity is ignored; additional layers reappear in cuts, prolonging the undressing process. “Now I’m In It” pushes further away from reality, as Danielle moves through a waitress job, looking vaguely zombified, before she collapses onto a stretcher and her sisters bring her to a car wash for an unusual cleansing. Across the videos, the setups aren’t identical. At the same time, given the recognizable gait of Danielle’s walk, the fact that two different clips feature a Haim sister singing from inside a glass ticket booth, and the general Los Angeles magic-hour vibes, assembling tropes for a Haim spoof video would be nearly as easy as it is to make a hacky compendium of Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino touchstones.

These tropes do belong chiefly to Haim. While he’s become a close collaborator with the band, attributing too much of this creative vision to Anderson would probably be a mistake. “I Want You Back,” which tracks HAIM down an empty Los Angeles street as the band does some tiny-moves dance-walking, is arguably their ur-video, distilling their casual-cool appeal while fitting comfortably into the aesthetics of their more recent clips—and that was one of Schreier’s, not Anderson’s. These visuals are unavoidably on-brand for a group that splits the difference between girl-group uniformity and “authentic” California individuality, shot through a filter of self-aware yet still Instagram-friendly stylishness.

What makes HAIM’s artistry compelling beyond its hooks, charisma, and clever synthesis of disparate sources (Women In Music has songs that sound, at various points, like Sheryl Crow, Lou Reed, Fleetwood Mac, and Savage Garden) is the band’s ability to conjure the emotions that elevate their Insta-friendly vibes, and resonate more deeply than 60 seconds of TikTok. Anderson knows how to indulge the surface pleasures of imagery, calling attention to their contrivances while still excavating the human feeling underneath it all, something he does especially well in his earlier films. Boogie Nights depicts a kind of parallel Hollywood in the ’70s porn industry that’s at once glamorous, scuzzy, and sad; Magnolia looks for cracks in those more mainstream entertainment-industry institutions, going behind the scenes of an old-timey game show and a misogynist magnet of a self-help seminar. Both movies are also directed with enormous showmanship that heightens their movie-ness without sacrificing their sensitivity.

Anderson’s HAIM videos don’t ratchet up to Magnolia levels of operatic intensity. Viewed in quick succession, though, it’s easy enough to identify a loose but effective visual continuity between them, just as Boogie Nights and Magnolia pair well despite a lack of shared-universe overlap. “Little Of Your Love” opens on a shot of Danielle walking down the street that could be taking place moments after the end of “I Want You Back.” The short sequence that opens “Now I’m In It,” where Danielle drinks at a bar before making a hasty exit, looks like a more distressed companion to a similar moment in “Summer Girl,” and the serene-looking dressing and undressing of that video gives way to a smeary parody of morning primping in “The Steps” (which was co-directed by Anderson and Danielle). If the endless layers of cool outfits in “Summer Girl” make the band members’ stylishness look Instagram-level aspirational, “The Steps” is more akin to one of Anderson’s glimpses behind the showbiz curtain, with its rock stars dribbling toothpaste down their faces, staring into bathroom mirrors, and tumbling into swimming pools. Like Boogie Nights, it’s glamorous, funny, and discomfiting all at once. It features signatures of their work while putting across a sense of defiance that’s not present in their other videos.

Strung together, the videos have enough visual compatibility and recurring images to feel like one long walk—and the Haim sisters are obviously really damn good at the cinematic art of looking cool while walking. (Just as obviously, bands looking cool in music videos is not a groundbreaking achievement.) Yet their work with Anderson also creates connective tissue across a variety of moods and tempos without overdosing on pure anguish. Quite the contrary: “Little Of Your Love” is a shot of sheer exuberance, and there’s still a degree of music-video whimsy in the clips for both “The Steps” and “Now I’m In It.” But Anderson’s close-ups of Danielle’s face capture a genuine sense of loneliness, even if they’d also make great profile pictures. Yet he continues to take breaks from visual splendor, returning to unadorned presentations of the band like he had in their first film together. The recent video for “Hallelujah” offers a variation on “Right Now,” capturing the Haims in a performance space, this time augmented with otherworldly touches like floating chairs and Haim-controlled lighting rigs in place of recording-studio trappings.

The push-pull between rock-star cool and more plaintive performance perfectly suits HAIM’s music: Just as some of the songs of Women In Music Pt. III adorn lyrics about depression and heartbreak with immediate melodic hooks, the videos are both aesthetically pleasing and evocative. They wink at the artifice of music video construction and indulge the recurring motifs of the band’s style while still expressing moods too complicated for a hashtag.

Although the Haim sisters have recalled their initial shock that Anderson reached out to them, the creative relationship doesn’t feel one-sided. As Anderson has moved from Boogie Nights and Magnolia to more obtuse (and no less excellent) period pieces like The Master and Phantom Thread, his music video work has allowed him to stay in touch with the youthful energy of his earlier films without a pandering “return to form” that casts aside the progress he’s made as a filmmaker. At times, it feels as if Anderson’s music videos are slowly assembling a musical that might not otherwise see the light of day—that the band’s talent may be drawing the filmmaker out of his own head. It may yet have a discernible effect on his day job; it’s been reported that Alana Haim will appear in Anderson’s next narrative film.

Unlike the implied mandate of a visual album that presumably must be seen in order to be fully understood, the collaboration between HAIM and PTA stays more or less in the realm of traditional music video. As with so many acts now stuck close to home, the band’s most recent, mid-pandemic clips have necessarily taken them back to basics: Coordinated dances and more cool walking are reasonably easy to shoot under the current circumstances. As enjoyable as the videos for “I Know Alone” and “Don’t Wanna” are, they’re not a strong case for greater immediacy or smaller productions benefiting HAIM’s audio-visual presentation. The band and filmmaker have made a now old-fashioned format their own, and fans may find that the images from the PTA videos stay lodged in their head longer than clips from other bands. It’s easy to call them iconic, and even easier to picture the group quietly brushing off the designation, or even actively rolling their eyes at it. That’s more or less what they’re already doing with the messiness of “The Steps” or the gentle ennui of “Now I’m In It.” With Anderson, a group of crazy-talented musicians have found a director who understands the weird, beautiful fragility of icons—and iconography.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!