1. Sam Peckinpah directing Julian Lennon: “Too Late For Goodbyes” (1984)
By 1984, legendary director and world-class drunk Sam Peckinpah had practically boozed, brawled, and snorted his way out of the movie business. Tales of his infamous cocaine-fueled flameout on the set of 1978’s Convoy made him radioactive in Hollywood, and his 1983 Robert Ludlum adaptation The Osterman Weekend only fortified his reputation as a tantrum-throwing malcontent. So when Peckinpah was offered $10,000 to direct two music videos for famous rock offspring Julian Lennon, he set aside his aversion to doing TV (and ignorance of MTV) and accepted. If Peckinpah approached the project with some trepidation, it was nothing compared with Lennon’s camp. As David Weddle recounts in his Peckinpah biography If They Move… Kill ’Em, producer Martin Lewis wondered whether “Bloody Sam” would open his video for cute lil’ Julian with a slow-motion, Wild Bunch-style re-creation of John Lennon’s murder. He needn’t have worried: The performance-based video for “Too Late For Goodbyes” off of Lennon’s debut album Valotte ended up being as sweetly innocuous—and imminently forgettable—as the synth-driven faux-reggae pop tune it was selling. In other words, it looked nothing like a Sam Peckinpah film. Sadly, “Too Late For Goodbyes” and “Valotte” were Peckinpah’s final directorial efforts; he died just two months later.
2. William Friedkin directing Laura Branigan: “Self Control” (1984)
With films like The French Connection, To Live And Die In L.A., and Sorcerer on his résumé, William Friedkin can lay to claim to being one of the most gifted action directors ever. Friedkin is less assured when delving into sex, which he approaches with unsettling ickiness in movies like Cruising and Jade. Unfortunately, Friedkin’s first foray into music videos, Laura Branigan’s “Self Control” (which also was among the first videos made by a major film director), is short on pulse-pounding car chases and big on “sexy” ick factor, following Branigan as she wanders through a nocturnal never-never land filled with masked, asexual interpretive dancers that appear to be engaging in what humans would call an “orgy.” It’s similar enough to Eyes Wide Shut to make you wonder whether Stanley Kubrick was a closet Branigan fan.
3. Brian De Palma directing Bruce Springsteen: “Dancing In The Dark” (1984)
In the early ’80s, Brian De Palma was one of the biggest directors in the world, a commercial and critical success known for making stylish, mind-bending thrillers with ridiculous climaxes like Dressed To Kill and Body Double. For the “Dancing In The Dark,” video, De Palma was paired with one of the biggest rock stars in the world, Bruce Springsteen, and he produced a strangely straightforward performance clip with little style or mind-bending thrills. What it did have was a thoroughly ridiculous climax, with the Boss famously pulling Courtney Cox out of the audience and engaging in what can only be described as the “Bruce Springsteen And Courtney Cox At The End Of The ‘Dancing In The Dark’ Video” dance. If anything screams to be weirded-up with a murderous, cross-dressing Michael Caine, it’s this video.
4. David Fincher directing Billy Idol: “Cradle Of Love” (1990)
Before films like Seven and Fight Club made him one of the leading cinematic stylists of his generation, David Fincher was a top video director whose distinctively dark, disturbing sensibility was already apparent in memorable videos for Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun” and Madonna’s “Oh Father.” Decidedly less Fincher-like is Billy Idol’s “Cradle Of Love,” a typical late-’80s “hot girl/nerdy guy” fantasy that’s essentially a Whitesnake video dressed up with better production values. At least Fincher scores a few points for realism by having his feral, horned-out video vixen fuck a mattress rather than a car-hood, like Tawny Kitaen.
5. Brett Ratner directing Cannibal Corpse: “Make Them Suffer” (2006)
Like Fincher, Brett Ratner also got his start in the world of music videos, working with the likes of LL Cool J and Heavy D And The Boyz before making his first feature, Money Talks, in 1997. Also like Fincher, Ratner hasn’t left his music-video past behind now that he’s an A-list filmmaker: He frequently lends his short-form magic to club-hopping cohorts like Mariah Carey and Jamie Foxx. In 2006—the same year he gifted X-Men: The Last Stand to the world—Ratner stepped out from behind the velvet rope and crawled deep into the sewer of gory, Satan-hailing metal by directing the video for Cannibal Corpse’s “Make Them Suffer.” While the director/band combination makes for an even crrrazier couple than Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker from Ratner’s Rush Hour movies, “Make Them Suffer” itself is a thoroughly mundane metal video loaded with de rigueur strobe lights and smoke machines. Impressively, Ratner found yet another forum in which to be mediocre.
6. Jonathan Demme directing Artists United Against Apartheid: “Sun City” (1985)
If Jonathan Demme’s endlessly invigorating Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense isn’t the best concert film of the last 30 years, then that honor probably belongs to his moving Neil Young doc Heart Of Gold. Either way, the man knows how to bring out the power and pull of live music on film better than pretty much any other director. (This is even true of his narrative films like 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, which features a stirring a cappella version of Young’s “Unknown Legend” sung by TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe.) Demme handles music on film in such a natural, breezy way that it’s kind of shocking how stilted and ham-fisted his video for Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” is. In fairness to Demme, he was likely hamstrung by the song’s overstuffed “We Are The World” format, which required him to squeeze in so many big names—as well as shaming archival clips of Martin Luther King and luxurious South African resorts—that he couldn’t establish his own idiosyncratic rhythm. Still, perhaps the plight of South African’s black citizens would have been better addressed by simply showing the country’s government Stop Making Sense and the thrillingly potent—and integrated—1984 live incarnation of Talking Heads.
7. Michael Bay directing Divinyls: “I Touch Myself” (1991)
Michael Bay is to subtlety what Tiger Woods is to marital fidelity, or Glenn Beck is to sober, well-reasoned analysis: It just isn’t part of his aesthetic makeup. Directing three hyper-moronic videos for singles off of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell in the early ’90s—including the ubiquitous “I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”—prepared Bay for his synapse-shredding work as the preeminent brain-dead blockbuster auteur of our time. But before hooking up with Loaf, Bay had a brief flirtation with tastefulness when he directed the video for Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself.” Bay thought nothing of having a robot perform a lapdance in the thuddingly stupid Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, and yet when he’s handed a loaded weapon like “I Touch Myself,” he doesn’t include one banana, hot dog, or greased-up pool cue. Aside from indulging in some high-angle shots of Christina Amphlett’s ample cleavage, Bay keeps it classy on “I Touch Myself,” delivering a video that’s more restrained than his subsequent filmography would suggest, and the song itself would otherwise dictate.
8. Martin Scorsese directing Michael Jackson: “Bad” (1987)
It could be argued that the “mean streets” of Martin Scorsese’s iconic New York movies are no less stylized than the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” which begin with the fundamentally un-bad Jackson proclaiming, “Your butt is mine” with much conviction and zero tough-guy credibility. At least Jackson had a semblance of rough-and-tumble living after coming up in down-and-out Gary, Indiana; Scorsese’s visions of atmospheric steam rising from manhole covers should ring false to anyone who’s ever been to the real New York, where 13-year-old street-corner hookers aren’t really as articulate as Jodie Foster and typically don’t have charismatic pimps with painted pinkie nails. But while Scorsese’s movies are no more real than Jackson’s music, they at least seem grittier, and grit is what’s sorely missing from Scorsese’s video for “Bad,” which, like the video for “Beat It,” presents a bloodless, West Side Story version of inner-city violence where the baddest character is a terminally cool roller-skater. This is also true of the arty, black-and-white “extended” version of the video, where even the supremely brilliant Scorsese can’t turn battling friends Jackson and Wesley Snipes into Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel.
9. John Landis directing Michael Jackson: “Black Or White” (1991)
John Landis perfectly combined horror and comedy with his 1981 film An American Werewolf In London, which made him an ideal choice to direct Michael Jackson’s historic “Thriller” video in 1983. Twenty-six years later, “Thriller” became the first music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library Of Congress; it’s unlikely such an honor will ever be bestowed on “Black Or White,” a deliberate attempt to recapture the old “Thriller” magic that ultimately failed for both Jackson and Landis. Featuring an all-star cast of timeless legends like Macaulay Culkin, George Wendt, and Tyra Banks, “Black Or White” is ultimately stymied by Jackson’s inability (and, by association, Landis’) to figure out what in God’s name this video is supposed to be. Is it a humble call for the world’s citizens to set aside their prejudices and live in peace, or a Twisted Sister-esque plea for parents to let their children play their stereos really loud? “Black Or White” has a little bit of everything: Maasai tribesmen, cutting-edge morphing technology, a shoehorned rap lip-synched by Culkin, and a violent and sexually suggestive coda that was quickly edited out after the video was granted a preposterously lavish simultaneous debut on four American TV networks. Lost in the stylistic confusion is Landis’ flair for high-energy comedy, which is nowhere to be seen in this bloated benchmark of Jackson’s increasingly destructive megalomania.