When Radiohead premiered the video for their latest single “Daydreaming” a few weeks back, the internet was set ablaze by film and music fans alike. The video was directed by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson long time collaborator of Radiohead guitarist and part-time film composer Jonny Greenwood and arguably the most respected and admired American filmmaker of his generation. The buzz that followed didn’t just stem from the video itself but from the fact that a joint effort between these two titans had finally come to fruition. A collaboration between the filmmaker and band has been speculated for years but it wasn’t until the video went live on May 6th that the dream became a reality. With Greenwood contributing scores to Anderson’s previous three pictures, PTA has finally returned the favor.
Directing music videos for his friends has long been a favorite pastime for PTA. In a career that has, to date, spanned seven feature films, a handful of shorts and a documentary, Anderson has also directed eleven music videos. That’s as many music videos Jonathan Glazer has to his name but while Glazer is a celebrated pioneer of form, Anderson’s videos are, more often than not, seen as little more than curious footnotes to his sterling filmography. However, I would argue that they are worth studying in their own right. These eleven videos showcase a career trajectory running in tandem with his feature film output that enhances enjoyment of both. The two frequently compliment each other and overlap, sharing thematic concerns, stylistic flourishes and even cast members. So far, Anderson has used music videos as an arena to experiment with new techniques and atmospheres that he would later apply, with great success, to his feature film work. I get the sense that Anderson is as proud of these videos as anything else he’s made. The fact he shot all of them on 35mm with his regular DP and editors is a testament to his belief and ambition with them. Also, given that each video was made in partnership with close friends and collaborators, Anderson’s passion and personal touch is always invested and on display, even if the finished videos work to varying degrees of success.
So without further ado, I present to you, the first ever career-retrospective of Paul Thomas Anderson: Music Video Director.
“Try” by Michael Penn (1997)
PTA’s first music video was for Michael Penn, a recording artist, composer and brother of Chris and Sean, who provided the score for Anderson’s first two films Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. Shot and released while the latter film was in post-production, “Try” is as much a companion piece to Anderson’s 70s porn saga as it is to Penn’s song. Not only is it packed with members of the Boogie Nights cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Thomas Jane and Melora Walters all crop up) but it has many hidden allusions to the Boogie Nights universe and, specifically, Burt Reynolds. Hoffman dons a “Angels Live In My Town” sports jacket (the fictional Brock Landers movie within Boogie Nights) and that strange purple door with the number nine on it? Apparently that’s an obscure nod to a strange interview Burt Reynolds gave on Good Morning America in which he wore a purple suit and ranted about the number nine. How’s that for an Easter egg? Beyond the Boogie Nights connections the video is a lot of fun in its own right. Anderson chose to shoot it in the longest corridor in America and took full advantage of its length by capturing the whole video in one unbroken steadicam take. Given its brief running time, it’s amazing how much visual information Anderson manages to squeeze into this thing; an army of extras, camera trickery, lighting changes, pyrotechnics, a snow machine, not to mention the extended homage to Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Like all great music videos, you won’t catch everything until you’ve hit that replay button a few times. Even at three minutes, this is unmistakably a P.T. Anderson picture.
“Across the Universe” by Fiona Apple (1998)
For a few years PTA was romantically involved with singer Fiona Apple and their relationship led to him directing a series of companion videos for songs from her album When the Pawn… First of all though he directed a video for this: Apple’s cover of the famous Beatles’ standard. The song was recorded for the Pleasantville soundtrack (remember that movie?) and Anderson’s video was, presumably, shot on the film’s set during production. It re-imagines a key scene from the story in which Jeff Daniels’ diner is ripped apart by rioting youths and transplants into the chaos a dreamy Apple who floats around, oblivious to the carnage around her, while singing along to the track in her headphones. Like he did in “Try”, Anderson favors long takes filled with sleight-of-hand camera techniques which include rotating 360 degrees with Apple going from upright to upside down and back again. The busy, violent imagery is a nice contrast to the otherwise hypnotic and tranquil tempo of the song with Anderson even shooting the whole thing in slow-motion for added effect. The black and white photography, so essential to Pleasantville, is also beautifully utilized. And of course, this being made in the interim between Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Anderson regular John C. Reilly makes a brief appearance. Catch him if you can.
“Fast As You Can” by Fiona Apple (1999)
Anderson’s second video for Apple feels like a love letter to the ethos of the French New Wave. Basically built from tiny vignettes of Apple singing to us against a handful of mundane backdrops, “Fast As You Can” looks and feels like the singer and the filmmaker simply took the camera out to a bunch of found locations one afternoon and made it on the fly. Anderson uses varying frame rates, alternating ratios, natural lighting, in-camera lens-swaps (as he did in Magnolia) and DIY filters to create a pop video that looks as organic and freewheeling as the song feels. The video is light on its feet and breezy, refreshingly un-tampered and spontaneous. Apple looks truly radiant here, showcasing a natural beauty free of overdone make-up or an elaborate wardrobe. She just looks like a girl singing a song, and that’s enough to be totally captivating. Anderson happily breaks the rules of the form by letting Apple’s lips frequently go out of sync with the lyrics and never tries to disguise the fact that the camera is being manned by a technician. Apple interacts with the camera constantly, whether by tearing tape off of the lens or smearing Vaseline around it. It’s a lovely little creation, as sensual as it is playful and sexy. Plus, is it just me, or does this video’s earthy aesthetic seem to foreshadow Anderson’s approach to Inherent Vice? Apple reminds me a lot of Joanna Newsom’s character in this video. But we’ll get to her shortly…
“Save Me” by Aimee Mann (1999)
Anyone familiar with PTA’s third film, Magnolia, will know how important Aimee Mann’s songs are to that movie. Her music dominates the soundtrack so extensively that, most famously, the entire cast even break out into a heart-wrenching singalong to her track “Wise Up” at a pivotal moment in the story. It should come as no surprise then that PTA directed a companion music video for Mann’s “Save Me” which is also used in the film’s final scene. This might be the least interesting of Anderson’s music video output as it is essentially just a re-staging of iconic moments from the film with Mann dropped into the background. There’s some cool flourishes here and there involving rotating furniture and sneaky lighting cues but on the whole this is little more than a bog-standard movie tie-in with an exceptionally high profile cast. However, considering it was probably shot concurrently with Magnolia’s hectic production I suppose we can forgive Anderson for turning in something so basic.
“Limp” by Fiona Apple (2000)
Following on from “Fast As You Can”, Anderson and Apple’s third collaboration takes things in a slightly more expressionistic direction. Reds and blues are strikingly juxtaposed in an almost Douglas Sirkian fashion and the pace varies with fluid camera moves fighting against a jittery and fractured editing pattern. The video is set in a large mansion and the grand rooms, walk-in wardrobes and spiraling stairways are all given heavy showcase. However it is Apple’s highly emotive face which is the star yet again and she is never anything less than entrancing. I particularly love the moment when she starts putting the jigsaw together and has an almost boyish sense of wonder and challenge about her. She’s a real performer and her knack for working with the camera is quite wonderful and Anderson knows exactly how to present her. “Limp” also boasts the technical invention that “Save Me” sorely lacked with the video transitioning into a jazzy, cut-up montage about halfway through that is pure technique. Very cool.
“Paper Bag” by Fiona Apple (2000)
With “Paper Bag”, PTA puts his love of Hollywood musical numbers on full display by making one of his own. Probably the best of the Apple/Anderson videos, this feels like the one they were working towards the entire time. “Paper Bag” just works on every level; the whirling camerawork is a wonder, the lighting exquisite, the cuts perfectly timed and the staging and choreography are note-perfect. The song itself is fantastic too. Apple commands every moment of the brief running time by looking casually iconic in a silky red dress whether strolling around or dancing with her young co-stars. If “Fast As You Can” was Apple and Anderson’s ode to DIY filmmaking, this is their valentine to big-time, big-color production value. It’s also a brilliant snapshot of where PTA was creatively at this point in his career being that it bridges together the emotional power of Magnolia and the lighter, romantic sensibility of Punch-Drunk Love wonderfully. Quite perfect.
“Here We Go” by Jon Brion (2002)
Like “Save Me” this is another movie tie-in, this time for Punch-Drunk Love. The song is written and sung by famed record producer (and longtime Fiona Apple collaborator) Jon Brion who became PTA’s composer of choice on both Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love. Unlike the unremarkable video for “Save Me”, “Here We Go” forgoes an exclusive shoot and is instead built up from unused footage and alternate takes making it a bit more worthwhile for PTA completists. The song is also constructed from refrains and melodies from the film’s score making it far more of a piece with Punch-Drunk-Love musically than “Save Me” was for Magnolia. On the whole though this thing is pretty inconsequential. This actual clip is taken from a longer edit titled Blossoms & Blood compiled by Anderson to promote the film on home video. Worth a look if you’re a fan of the film.
“Hot Knife” by Fiona Apple (2013)
After a dry-spell that lasted over a decade, PTA finally returned to directing music videos for former muse Fiona Apple with “Hot Knife”. The closest thing Anderson has come to a performance video, “Hot Knife” is stripped back and simple in presentation but quite complex by design. Using focused cinematography, Anderson showcases the song’s overlapping vocals and thumping drumbeat with split-screens, a torrent of close-ups and theatrical spotlights. What’s particularly interesting about this video is how it presents us with Apple and Anderson collaborating later in their career, both having matured and refined their craft in the intervening years. For instance, the vintage shade and “less is more” approach to the visuals here is absolutely the work of the filmmaker who made The Master as opposed to the one who directed Boogie Nights sixteen years previous. PTA now seems more fascinated by the power of sheer performance rather than whiz-bang camerawork and editing with the camera being mostly locked down on this outing. Apple too appears to have become more regal and more commanding of her skills as a performer. Whereas Anderson chose to surround her with lavish or busy backdrops in their previous videos, here she is presented with nothing but blackness to distract from her performance. A lovely little piece that signals a significant change of pace in Anderson’s approach to short-form storytelling
“Sapokanikan” by Joanna Newsom (2015)
Following on from their collaboration on Anderson’s Inherent Vice (she narrated the film and appeared in a minor role), PTA directed the accompanying video for Joanna Newsom’s comeback single “Sapokanikan”. More or less employing the same approach he applied to “Fast As You Can”, Anderson takes Newsom out into the real world free of controlled lighting and predictable aesthetics to capture her performance as naturally and spontaneously as possible. The result is a video that combines reality and whimsy with the pulse of New York City acting as Newsom’s co-star. Some shots look as if they were ripped straight out of a Woody Allen movie (the shot of Newsom on the bench in particular) while others share surreal DNA with the TV show Louie. The singer drifts in and out of focus constantly and interacts with whatever she feels like leaving the camera, and us, to catch up when we can. The moment where she passes a parked fire engine, its lights blazing into the nocturnal darkness, is especially pleasing to the eye. A very simple video that is more dependent on a lighter touch than big brush strokes. Also, this is the first PTA release since 2002 that isn’t a period piece.
“Divers” by Joanna Newsom (2015)
Newsom enlisted Anderson yet again to direct her follow-up video, “Divers”, and the results are rather stunning. The remarkable thing about this video is how it looks absolutely nothing like anything PTA has directed before. The video shows us a baroque tableau of Newsom singing between painted backdrops of landscapes and, I’m guessing, a fish tank-like container which is frequently ignited by colored powders being dropped into the water. The warm, vintage color palette is heightened by these explosions of orange and yellow as if the sky on the paintings has erupted into psychedelic Armageddon. If we have learned one thing from studying these videos, it’s that Anderson favors one strong, simple image to represent the music rather than numerous weak ones and he stretches that concept to the max here by letting only a handful of shots play out during the songs extensive seven minute run-time. The visuals are more in keeping with Newsom’s brand aesthetic rather than Anderson’s but it’s nice to see him branch out into something less grounded and more fantastic.
“Daydreaming” by Radiohead (2016)
When watching “Daydreaming” in the context of Paul Thomas Anderson’s other music videos, you can’t help but get a feeling of things coming full circle. The endless shots of Thom Yorke wandering around corridors are extremely reminiscent of Michael Penn in “Try”, which, coincidentally, is the only other Anderson video anchored by a male singer on screen. With its flowing steadicam shots and collage of everyday locations, stylistically “Daydreaming” feels like a daylight brother film to “Sapokanikan” which itself feels descendant from “Fast As You Can”. As his most recent films The Master and Inherent Vice are testament to, Anderson is willing to sacrifice a technically perfect image if it means accomplishing something with a unique mood and feeling. In “Daydreaming” the exposure often blows out, the camera stumbles, the focus gets lost. Make no mistake about it, these imperfections are absolutely by design. Let’s not forget this is the same filmmaker who re-staged a fumbled camera move in Punch-Drunk Love because he liked the effect. This is one of Anderson’s most simplistic videos to date but also one of his most abstract. The concept is loose; if you look closely, you’ll realize the video isn’t trying to sell the illusion that Yorke is moving directly from one location to another, but rather it’s a collection of entrances and exits that aren’t directly connected. The extras in the background also go from being frozen and stylized to being naturally oblivious to Yorke’s presence. Time just seems to stop and start again between cuts. The only real constant is Yorke and the song on the soundtrack. The concept is never concrete enough to inspire one solid interpretation. As the song winds down into its unsettling final movement and day turns to night, Yorke crawls into a snow hole and makes himself comfortable in front of a fire. So what’s the point? Considering the song is literally called “Daydreaming”, a collection of aimless, almost subconscious clips bathed in daylight feels like pretty appropriate way of translating it into film to me. A soothing exercise in ambient filmmaking. Here’s to twenty more years of PTA music videos!
Note: “Daydreaming” is currently screening at select cinemas across America exclusively in 35mm.