David Fincher’s COMMERCIALS & MUSIC VIDEOS (1988-1990)

Throughout the 80’s, David Fincher became a director in high demand thanks to his stunning music videos. As he crossed over into the world of commercials, his imaginative style and technical mastery began to command the attention of studio executives, who desired to see his visceral aesthetic to features. During the late 80’s and early 90’s, Fincher churned out some of his most memorable music video work and worked with some of the biggest stars around.


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While his “SMOKING FETUS” spot for the American Cancer Society in 1984 was his first commercial, Fincher’s “HER WORLD”, a spot commissioned by Young Miss Magazine, kicked off his commercial directing career in earnest. The spot stars a young, pre-fame Angelina Jolie walking towards us, clutching a copy of YM Magazine as several cars painted with the words “sex, “love”, “work”, “family”, and others zip and crash around her in a ballet of violence. Even when working in the branding-conscious world of advertising, Fincher is able to retain his trademark aesthetic (indeed, you don’t hire someone like Fincher if you want a friendly, cuddly vibe). His characteristic cold color palette is accentuated by stark lighting and slick streets. An eye for stylized violence that would give 1999’s FIGHT CLUB its power can be glimpsed here through the jarring collisions of the cars.


Fincher’s spot for Colt 45, titled “IMAGINATION”, stars Billy Dee Williams and bears the director’s distinct mark: smoky, industrial environs, a cold color palette, and artful silhouettes.


By the end of the 80’s, Fincher had cemented the idea of “grunge glam” as his trademark aesthetic. By this, I mean the heavy use of smoky, atmospheric production design combined with soft, diffused highlights and a striking battle between blue and orange color tones. His video for Neneh Cherry’s “HEART” is a prime example of this.


Fincher’s video for Gypsy Kings’ “BAMBOLEO” places the band members in silhouette against bold, color-blocked backgrounds (think an early version of Apple’s iconic iPod campaigns in the mid-00’s). By virtue of its core conceit, “BAMBOLEO” might just quality as Fincher’s most colorful music video.


In the video for Roy Orbison’s “SHE’S A MYSTERY TO ME”, Fincher shows us the artifacts of romance—rose petals on the bed, lipstick stains on sheets, etc— with the bright red color shared between them standing out against the relatively neutral background. Fincher’s camera is in constant motion, often framing these artifacts against billowing curtains as a nod to key influence Tony Scott’s visual aesthetic.


With Don Henley’s “THE END OF INNOCENCE”, Fincher paints a rustic, black and white portrait of rusted-out, small town Americana as his camera travels through several low-key vignettes. It’s an evocative, considered piece that stands out amongst Fincher’s frenetic body of work precisely because of its restraint.


In 1989, Fincher embarked on a trilogy of videos for pop superstar Madonna. “EXPRESS YOURSELF” is considered to be Fincher’s mainstream breakout, as his elaborate, METROPOLIS-style dystopian cityscape earned him the attention of studio executives. The piece features chiseled, hard men toiling away in the city’s dank, industrial underbelly. High above them, Madonna lives a life of glamor amongst the rich elite. Like any class-based romance, one of these workers and Madonna are bound for a collision course. “EXPRESS YOURSELF” is one of the clearest early examples of Fincher’s style, with its evocative use of the color blue and the smoky mood created by a noir-style lighting approach.


Madonna’s “OH FATHER” is shot in high contrast black and white, featuring Madonna in a variety of snowy, gothic vignettes. The soft, diffused highlights lend an air of glamor and polish, while looming silhouettes projected onto the side of buildings allows for an expressionistic chiaroscuro. One of the highlights of the video is the spooky image of graveyard statues standing stone-still while singing along.


The video for Madonna’s “VOGUE” is also shot in black and white, and takes on a distinct haute couture attitude to reflect the song’s subject matter. Another one of Fincher’s best-known videos, “VOGUE” combines striking choreography with dynamic camerawork for a final result that is far better than Madonna really deserves. (yeah, I went there).


Capitalizing off the momentum from working with one of pop’s biggest personalities, Fincher worked with Aerosmith on a video for their hit single “JANIE’S GOT A GUN”. The piece is classic Fincher: smoky industrial environs, diffused highlights, silhouettes, dynamic camera movement and a cold color palette.


Something about Fincher’s style is well-suited towards the iconography of culture. This can be attributed to his fascination with characters on the fringes of society, an exploration that gives his work a distinct hard edge. We saw it in Patty Smyth’s “DOWNTOWN TRAIN”, and continue to see it today (look at his depiction of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO’s Lisbeth Salander). Naturally, an artist liked Billy Idol (who drapes himself in the dressing of punk culture) will bring out inspired work from Fincher. 1990 saw them collaborate on two videos together. “CRADLE OF LOVE” is fairly glossy and high-fashion like much of Fincher’s other work from this period, featuring the return of diffused highlights and even venetian blinds (a visual/lighting trope borrowed from Tony Scott). Fincher is also able to incorporate some great visual effects in the form of the Andy Warhol-style paintings hung in the apartment set, which come to life as Warhol appears in them and performs the song.


Fincher’s second video for Billy Idol, “LA WOMAN”, opens with a plane flying over the Hollywood sign—a visual that I’m pretty sure fellow Propoganda Films director Michael Bay outright stole for his 1995 feature BAD BOYS. “LA WOMAN” is a grand piece, with expansive, imaginative sets and aerial helicopter footage of downtown LA giving off a large sense of scale. The piece plays like a punk-rock combo of Tony and Ridley Scott’s aesthetics, with the nightclub’s architecture emulating BLADE RUNNER’s look (right down to the iconic architectural tiles inspired by LA’s Ennis House that we see in Deckard’s apartment), and the billowing curtains and goth stylings imitating the nuveau vampire vibe of THE HUNGER (1983). Fincher bathes his video in vibrant blue and orange tones, which battle for supremacy like a clash between good and evil.


The video for George Michael’s “FREEDOM ‘90” is quite notable within Fincher’s body of work because it’s the first confirmed instance that I could find of his collaboration with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who would shoot several of Fincher’s features. It’s entirely possible (and likely) that Cronenweth shot any (or all) of Fincher’s work previous to “FREEDOM”, but this was the first instance I could find of the two names attached to the same project in my research. George Michael is one of the biggest musicians to publicly affirm his homosexuality, so it’s no surprise that “FREEDOM ‘90” has become something of an anthem for the LBGTQ community. In the music video, this is reflected in an inspired way: female supermodels lip sync over male vocals. It’s a subtle way to highlight themes of gender identity and expression. Fincher’s approach juxtaposes steamy sensuality against cold stone and classical architecture, in addition to his usual additions (blue color palette, diffused highlights, silhouettes). Fincher’s fascination with tech is also incorporated with the appearance of lasers and compact discs.


In terms of 90’s pop music, it doesn’t get bigger than Michael Jackson, the King of Pop himself. In the video for “WHO IS IT”, Fincher crafts a dynamic energy that features a battle between orange and blue color tones, billowing curtains, and high contrast lighting with diffused highlights. Besides Jackson’s performance and the choreography, Fincher places a major focus on architecture and design, seen in the sets and locations featured throughout the piece. Various visual effects are also incorporated, like a haunting face that briefly emerges from several inanimate surfaces, blurring the lines between reality and dreamscape.

With a sizable amount of music video and commercial work under his belt, Fincher had established himself as a highly desirable director in firm command of his craft. However, that craft would soon be put to the test when Twentieth Century Fox gave him the opportunity to finally jump into feature filmmaking with ALIEN 3— an opportunity that would prove to be a baptism by fire.