The success of THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM (1984), director David Fincher’s feature-length concert film for Rick Springfield, led to a very prolific period of music video assignments for the burgeoning auteur. In three short years, Fincher established himself as a top music video director, held in high regard and higher demand by the biggest pop artists of the era. It was the golden age of music videos, and Fincher was the tastemaker at the forefront developing it into a legitimate art form.
THE MOTELS: “SHAME” (1985)
In his early professional career, Fincher’s most visible influence is the work of brothers Ridley and Tony Scott, two feature directors who were quite en vogue at the time due to blockbuster, high-fashion work like BLADE RUNNER (1982) and THE HUNGER (1983). Tony in particular was a key aesthetic influence, with Fincher borrowing the English director’s love for theatrical lighting and the noir-ish slat shadows cast by venetian blinds.
For The Motels’ “SHAME”, Fincher makes heavy use of this look in his vignette of a woman stuck in a motel room who dreams of a glamorous life outside her window. Because computer-generated imagery was still in its infancy at the time, Fincher’s penchant for using special effects in his music video work is limited mostly to compositing effects, like the motion billboard and the fake sky behind it.
THE MOTELS: “SHOCK” (1985)
Fincher’s second video for the Motels features lead singer Martha Davis as she’s chased by an unseen presence in a dark, empty house late at night. The concept allows Fincher to create an imaginative lighting and production design scheme.“SHOCK” also makes lurid use of Fincher’s preferred cold color palette, while a Steadicam rig allows Fincher to chase Martha around the house like a gliding, ominous force. This subjective POV conceit echoes a similar shot that Fincher would incorporate into his first feature, 1992’s ALIEN 3, whereby we assume the point of view of a xenomorph as it chases its victims down a tunnel. The piece also feature some low-key effects via a dramatic, stormy sky.
THE OUTFIELD: “ALL THE LOVE IN THE WORLD” (1986)
By 1986, Fincher’s music video aesthetics were pretty well-established: cold color palettes, theatrical lighting schemes commonly utilizing venetian blinds, and visual effects. While The Outfield’s “ALL THE LOVE IN THE WORLD” was shot on film, Fincher embraces the trappings of the nascent video format by incorporating tape static and a surveillance-style van.
THE OUTFIELD: “EVERY TIME YOU CRY” (1986)
Fincher’s second video for The Outfield in 1986, “EVERY TIME YOU CRY”, is a concert performance piece a la THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM. Like the latter’s incorporation of rudimentary visual effects, here Fincher uses the technology to replace the sky with a cosmic light show and add in a dramatic moonrise.
HOWARD HEWETT: “STAY” (1986)
In “STAY”, a piece for Howard Hewett, Fincher makes use of another of Tony Scott’s aesthetic fascinations—billowing curtains. He projects impressionistic silhouettes onto said curtains, giving his cold color palette some visual punch.
JERMAINE STEWART: “WE DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OUR CLOTHES OFF” (1986)
While Jermaine Stewart’s “WE DON’T HAVE TO TAKE OUR CLOTHES OFF” is a relatively conventional music video, Fincher’s direction of it is anything but. The core aesthetic conceit of the piece is the playful exploration of aspect ratio boundaries. Fincher conceives of the black bars at the top and bottom of your screen as arbitrary lines in physical space, so when the camera moves to the side, those lines skew appropriately in proportion to your perspective. He takes the idea a step further by superimposing performance elements shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio over the main 2.35:1 anamorphic footage, giving the effect of visuals that transcend the constraints and the edges of their frame.
STABILIZERS: “ONE SIMPLE THING” (1986)
Fincher’s video for Stabilizers’ “ONE SIMPLE THING” is notable in that it marks the beginning of a phase that would become one of Fincher’s aesthetic trademarks: grit and grunge. Shot in black and white in smoky, industrial/urban environs, “ONE SIMPLE THING” eschews the gloss and glamor of Fincher’s previous work and establishes a style that he would build upon over the next several decades.
WIRE TRAIN: “SHE COMES ON” (1987)
The video for Wire Train’s “SHE COMES ON” begins a long run of grainy black and white videos by Fincher. “SHE COMES ON”, seemingly shot in a staccato, stuttered motion effect, takes place in a dark, sweaty music venue. Interestingly, the video seems to anticipate the aesthetics of the grunge music genre popularized by early 90’s acts like Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
WIRE TRAIN: “SHOULD SHE CRY” (1987)
While technically shot in color, Wire Train’s “SHOULD SHE CRY” leans heavily into a brownish sepia tone. Fincher finds another instance to project silhouettes onto the background, while the stripped down lighting and practical bulbs used for artful effect also anticipates the un-glossy iconography of grunge.
EDDIE MONEY: “ENDLESS NIGHTS” (1987)
The video for Eddie Money’s “ENDLESS NIGHTS” again finds Fincher working with grungy, grainy black and white photography in a smoky urban setting, creating a distinct noir vibe with evocative lighting.
PATTY SMYTH: “DOWNTOWN TRAIN” (1987)
Patty Smyth’s “DOWNTOWN TRAIN” features gritty black and white photography that highlights Smyth’s punk persona as she performs on a smoky, industrial subway station set.
BOURGEOIS TAGG: “I DON’T MIND AT ALL” (1987)
“I DON’T MIND AT ALL”, a video for Bourgeois Tagg, sees a return to the glossy pop look for Fincher. Surprisingly, there’s little to no camera movement here. Instead, Fincher relies on a visual effects conceit using clear prisms that reveal and refract the performers as they drift through the frame and the empty set contained within it.
LOVERBOY: “NOTORIOUS” (1987)
Fincher’s high demand as a director was due to his slick, high-fashion aesthetic, and Loverboy’s “NOTORIOUS” is one of his best examples of the look. He treats the rowdy streets of Hollywood at night as one big fashion runway show, with the Loverboy band members acting as eager observers while “the talent” strut their stuff down the concrete boulevard. In an inspired moment, Fincher even uses a helicopter as the source of a spotlight that shines on a model.
LOVERBOY: “LOVE WILL RISE AGAIN” (1987)
Fincher’s second video for Loverboy, “LOVE WILL RISE AGAIN” is a concert performance piece like THE BEAT OF THE LIVE DRUM, only more stylized. It’s got all the hallmarks of a Fincher video: dynamic camera, cold color palette and theatrical lighting, but isn’t terribly memorable on its own merits.
THE HOOTERS: “JOHNNY B” (1987)
Cool color palette? Check. Billowing curtains? Double check.
MARK KNOPFLER: “STORYBOOK STORY” (1987)
“STORYBOOK STORY”, as performed by Mark Knopfler, was created as a promotional tie-in video for THE PRINCESS BRIDE’s release. It’s a fairly unremarkable video, so I’ll just mention Fincher’s compositing of black and white performance footage against color clips from THE PRINCESS BRIDE (and I definitely won’t mention that Knopfler’s John Waters mustache is super creepy and the 80’s were a hell of a drug).
COLIN HAY: “CAN I HOLD YOU” (1987)
Filmed in black and white, Fincher’s video for Colin Hay’s “CAN I HOLD YOU” is by-the-book, with its straightforwardness only challenged when Fincher projects video onto taxicab windows.
THE OUTFIELD: “NO SURRENDER” (1987)
Fincher’s third video for The Outfield again blends his affectation for grainy black and white photography with his high-fashion pop work.
FOREIGNER: “SAY YOU WILL” (1987)
Fincher’s video for Foreigner’s track “SAY YOU WILL” incorporates black and white photography along with a series of impressionistic close-ups, culminating in the compositing of images onto the pupil of a woman’s eye.
MARTHA DAVIS: “DON’T TELL ME THE TIME” (1987)
In 1987, Martha Davis, lead singer for The Motels, released her own solo record. Having worked with The Motels previously, Fincher was enlisted to shoot the video for a track named “DON’T TELL ME THE TIME”. Unlike his work for The Motels, Fincher’s video for Martha possesses some of the grunge that marks his other works from the period.
The piece is notable for another peculiar aspect of Fincher’s music video work, which is his tendency to show the artifice of the production. For instance, the end of “DON’T TELL ME THE TIME” dollies out from Martha to reveal the whole crew hiding behind the boundaries of the set. Because music videos were such a new art form, its early directors had a lot of freedom to develop its visual language. Conceits like casually (almost dismissively) revealing the “man behind the curtain”, so to speak, allowed music videos to assert themselves as an entirely new form of entertainment, one where experimentation could occur freely, and regularly.
JOHNNY HATES JAZZ: “HEART OF GOLD” (1987)
Fincher’s video for Johnny Hates Jazz’s “HEART OF GOLD” re-uses his clear prism idea from the Bourgeois Tagg video, but this time he allows the prisms to roam outside the boundaries of the aspect ratio (a further exploration of boundaries and delineations.
STING: “ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK” (1988)
The black and white video for Sting’s “ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK” is gritty, but also very sophisticated and distinguished, like a well-read businessman. Fincher’s stripped-down photography suggests an air of documentary, while his appreciation for design is seen in several shots that dwell on Manhattan’s iconic architecture.
RY COODER: “GET RHYTHM” (1988)
With his video for Ry Cooder’s “GET RHYTHM”, Fincher works for the first time with a Hollywood star in Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton plays the manager of a failing Cuban music club on a hot, sweaty day. With the help of Ry Cooder and their tex-mex cover of Johnny Cash’s classic song, Stanton is able to fill up his club with happy dancers. The black and white photography and stylized lighting lend themselves well to the sweaty setting.
“GET RHYTHM” is a particularly interesting project in regards to Fincher’s career development. While it didn’t do anything notable on its own merit, it would be the first instance of Fincher’s world crossing with that of the ALIEN franchise: Stanton starred in Ridley Scott’s original ALIEN film in 1979, whereas Fincher himself would go on to direct the series’ third installment in 1992.
JODY WATLEY: “MOST OF ALL” (1988)
High contrast black and white. Billowing curtains. Fincher.
STEVE WINWOOD: “ROLL WITH IT” (1988)
Another hot and sweaty monotone piece, but this time in sepia.
PAULA ABDUL: “JUST THE WAY THAT YOU LOVE ME (2nd VERSION)” (1988)
In 1998, Fincher directed a series of four music videos for superstar Paul Abdul. His video for “JUST THE WAY THAT YOU LOVE ME” was actually the second video produced for the track (not sure why exactly), and sees Fincher return to the high-fashion pop look that made his name. The piece has a distinct 80’s sense of sex appeal, fetishizing the luxury items of the rich and glamorous—especially tech items like computers, TVs, cars, and CD’s.
PAULA ABDUL: “STRAIGHT UP” (1988)
The most stylized of Fincher’s videos for Abdul, “STRAIGHT UP” is filmed in a high-contrast black and white, with Abdul performing high energy dance moves in front of a black and white split cyc (think the poster for Brian DePalma’sSCARFACE). I remember seeing this video on TV when I was little, and the track itself was a huge hit, so I can only imagine this must be one of Fincher’s most well-known videos.
PAULA ABDUL: “COLD HEARTED” (1988)
“COLD HEARTED” takes on the conceit of Abdul and her gang of dancers performing a routine for some label executives. Taking place in a raw, unfinished New York City rehearsal space, Fincher juxtaposes the resulting grungy, industrial look with the classical architecture of the surrounding space. He also juxtaposes the sensuality of the dancer’s exposed skin against the hard metal of the scaffolding on which they’re dancing. It’s a very well done, minimalistic piece that also incorporates a little narrative introduction, which suggests that Fincher is expressing a desire to expand his oeuvre into features and other forms of conventional storytelling.
PAULA ABDUL: “FOREVER YOUR GIRL” (1988)
The last of Fincher’s 1988 Abdul videos, “FOREVER YOUR GIRL” mixes gritty, handheld black and white, documentary-style behind the scenes footage with slick, polished, high-fashion color photography. Again, Fincher chooses to show us the artifice of the production process within the finished piece, this time on a much more involved scale.
While Fincher was still half a decade away from making his first feature, his pioneering sense of innovation during these early years fueled a meteoric rise in the music video sector, placing him squarely at the forefront of an important new art form that still bears his mark to this day.