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The Best Film of 1989 That Wasn't

Glenn here to discuss a lil something from 1989, but first a divergence to the modern day.

Last night’s MTV Video Music Awards were like stepping into a pop culture gulag. It’s easy to get misty-eyed thinking about VMA ceremonies of years past, when the network actually showed music videos and the form felt truly like art. Despite being aware of last night’s winner, “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus the icky Terry Richardson, I don’t claim to have near enough knowledge of modern music videos to truly complain. It does seem harder to imagine Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, or Pearl Jam winning these days though, doesn’t it? Are there brilliant works that just aren’t being recognized?

It’s been some time since videos were genuine pop culture moments and the internet certainly doesn’t help. Beyoncé appears to be the only one who’s been able to recreate the buzz of sitting around to watch the premiere of a new Michael Jackson or Madonna video. Most importantly, however, formative years are no longer spent watching music videos hoping to find our new favorite song and reveling in visual genius, rather we leave that to YouTube, iTunes and Spotify while we binge-watch sitcoms on Netflix instead.

Which brings me to 1989. If it weren’t for 1989 we wouldn’t have David Fincher. The future Oscar-nominated director had successes before ’89, but his two collaborations with Madonna that year – “Oh Father” and “Express Yourself” – as well as “Vogue” a year later feel like true moments of breakthrough genius. Whenever I tell fans of David Fincher that they should thank Madonna they balk, but isn’t it kind of true?

“Express Yourself” lost the video of the year award to Neil Young’s “This Note’s For You”, but much like a lot of Madonna’s music career, time has proven that she wasn’t just a momentary flash in the pan spurred on by a public wanting what’s new and shiny. Fincher’s video took liberal inspiration from Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent sci-fi classic Metropolis and gave it a slick and sexualized make-over (before blue filters were over-used). For mine, it remains the best thing David Fincher has ever directed – although, ever the contrarian, I don’t quite know if his maturing directorial instincts are for the better. Rather I find myself getting less excited for each new Fincher film and the very insular heterosexual male worlds they appear to inhabit. Will Gone Girl will change that?

Madonna has always been obsessed with cinema, old and new. She and Fincher would prove that again most famously one year later with “Vogue” with its recreations of the Golden Age of Hollywood as well as Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston. Every cent of Express Yourself's then record-breaking $5mil budget is on screen and it’s heightened, boldly stylized aesthetic is the exact kind that Baz Luhrmann was recreating with Moulin Rouge! over a decade later. From the rain-soaked underclass below to the sensual art-deco with modern twist of Madge’s world up top, “Express Yourself” surpasses even some of the work nominated for art direction and cinematography Oscars that year. Who remembers the sets of Driving Miss Daisy, you know? In a neat twist, Tim Burton’s Batman won the former category, itself also inspired by Metropolis. And remember when they went via satellite to present awards in England? Yikes!

The overt homoeroticism. The power of the pussy. The rally cry of the woman. It’s certainly a video that informed my early years a lot, and would go on to inspire my predilection for excessively stylish cinema as well as bold interpretations of eras. The “Express Yourself” video holds up better than most films of 1989, but perhaps works best of all as a beacon not only for Fincher’s career, but as an encapsulation of where cinema could and eventually would go in the following decades from Quentin Tarantino to endless remakes and reboots. By repurposing Metropolis, everything old was new again. Something we still see the effects of today.

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Reader Comments (18)

Public vote + YouTube hits - it was going to be Miley all along. It won against three highly superior nominees but she had the buzz factor.

For brilliant works that weren't recognized:

- Lorde's music videos are, for a teenage girl, a revelation. Amazing. And the Royals one (which got nom'ned) was great
- Janelle Monae's Q.U.E.E.N
- St Vincent's Digital Witness
- Fiona Apple's Hot Knife
- Arcade Fire's Afterlife

And Miley's We Can't Stop. Much better than what she won for.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

And Beyonce. I'd say she's the true heir to Madonna's visual styling. Her "visual album" with video clips for each song beautifully complement the music. Drunk in Love, XO and Partition especially.

That said, the time of the great music video is long gone. Directors step away as much as they can from it, unless it's someone they perceive as artsy like Beyonce, Lady Gaga or indie like Apple, Janelle, Lorde etc.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I'm not sure that I'd agree that it's Fincher's best video (Freedom '90? Janie's Got a Gun?) or better than Zodiac, but it's a masterful piece of work, and it may be his best film. It's certainly smart and beautiful, and it has been unusually influential.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

I always loved Bedtime Story's video.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

No women is the heir madonna is true living legend and the next hot thing will always always copy,riff or borrow.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

David Fincher's video for "Bad Girl" is also noteworthy. It's one of my favorite Madonna videos. As for the worst, I'd say "Cherish" was lame. And it was lame again when Herb Ritts reused the concept for Janet Jackson's "Love Will Never Do."

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

I'm a big advocate for Madonna's "Rain" video, which is as old as I am and looks brand spankin' new and forward and modern every time I watch it. Did you know it was shot in black and white, and all the (beautiful) color was added in post-production? Genius visuals, such minimalism and texture.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

Not to nitpick too much, but Beyonce is not the only artist that has people waiting around for a music video preimiere. Bieber, Katy Perry, Miley, Taylor Swift, and especially One Direction get an avalanche of press and buzz every time they release a new video.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

John, really? Maybe they do amongst their fans, but the likes of Jackson and Madonna had even non-fans sit up and pay attention. The ruckus over Taylor Swift's recent "is it racist or isn't it?" video I think was the only way anybody who wasn't already interested in her was going to watch it. And maybe it's just me, but I've honestly never sat down to purposefully watch a Bieber or One Direction video. But, like I say in the piece, I might if I were younger and in my formative years watching hour after hour of music videos on MTV (or Australia's equivalent, VIDEO HITS and RAGE).

As for other Madonna videos, one could write a book about (I'm sure someone has) all her Fincher collaborations, "Frozen", "Rain", "Bedtime Story", "Justify My Love", "Take a Vow", "Hung Up", "American Life", "This Used to Be My Playground", "Ray of Light", "Papa Don't Preach", "Die Another Day"... I was focusing on 1989 though and the Fincher connection given the site's focus on that year.

I didn't get into the Beyonce thing, but I only think she's the *closest*. TBH can you imagine Beyonce doing a performance like Madonna's VMA perf of "Vogue"? Call me when she performs in something other than a sparkly leotard. I think Gaga was once an heir, but she appears to have lost focus in all departments. That last video was, like, 10 minutes long and unless your song is "Thriller" we don't need that. Madonna, for what it's worth, has never done a "mini-film" music video. A pop song shouldn't outstay its welcome.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Music videos (when they first debuted) opened pop music up in ways that no one had imagined before. Suddenly you had a story beyond the lyrics to grab your attention and grab we did. Olivia Newton John and Let's get Physical, the Jacksons (Michael and Janet) who were unafraid to stretch, George Michael (I think the trailer for 50 Shades of Grey looks like a poor man's rip off of the Faith video which certainly fits the source material which is a rip off of Penthouse Forum aimed at the bored housewife set who think leaving the lights on is kinky) and Madonna. An imaginative video could lift a mediocre to good pop song into a hit and a poor video could sink a good song. They changed the way we listened to music and Madonna understood their power more than most (likewise her stage performances).

Great piece Glenn. Especially as the videos you mention have stood up as well as any of the films of the year.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Madonna's videos have become true classics.

August 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon


Excellent post.

Isn't it amazing how as time goes by, we understand more and more that we were (I say were because her work post-Confessions is phoned-in) in the presence of singular greatness. Forget the voice, the dancing, the acting, all of which are underrated - the artistry that she portrayed in her music videos and live shows is simply unparalleled in the history of pop music. No one before her stretched the artform like she did, and everyone since is either a sad copy or heavily-influenced by her work. Madonna is the greatest performing artist of her time, and no one is close.

August 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

Amen to that @ Sawyer!

August 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterhaajen

I think Gaga was once an heir

Gaga was a sideshow freak from day one. Never the heir apparent to anyone. Always will be and always was a poser.

August 26, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Sigh. Yes 3rtful, fine.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

"Madonna is the greatest performing artist of her time, and no one is close."

Whoa, there, cowboy! Two artists comes to mind, both male, both African-American, both born within months of Madonna, both greater than she.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Glenn, great article. Madonna's greatness seems to be all but forgotten in recent years where she has seemingly forgotten the passion that drove her. The style of dance music has become rote. I think what she needs is a great ballad to put her back on her game.

I don't think any performer was ever such an effective provocateur for popular art. The endless stream of transformations kept her image percolating as fresh and alive. And the sheer prolificness of her bubblegum pop records still awe-inspires me. I don't think anyone today has that kind of radio stamina.

Her video for Human Nature still terrifies me.

August 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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