A Light that Never Went Out: the MTV Legacy of Derek Jarman

Part of Keyframe’s Filmmaker Spotlight on Derek Jarman

derek jarman the smiths panic

One of the most fascinating and overlooked aspects of Derek Jarman’s impressive directing career is his collaborative work with musical artists. These projects materialized as experimental short films and music promo videos that regularly aired on MTV throughout the ‘80s. Jarman appreciated the money he made directing videos but he wasn’t particularly happy about doing work for hire and said that it was something he “would dearly have wished to avoid.”  In 1987 he complained in his published journal Kicking the Pricks that “music video is the only extension of the cinematic language in this decade, but it has been used for quick effect, and it’s often showy and shallow.”

It has become impossible to measure the full impact that MTV has had on our cultural landscape since its initial launch in 1981.  The 24-hour channel that was once solely devoted to “music television” has changed the way we absorb and process images, and its direct effect on filmmakers has been profound. Techniques that were once associated with avant-garde filmmaking have become mainstream.  This has lot of critics up in arms, however, as complaints about “MTV style” editing are commonplace, and critics continually deride “jittery” camera work that can make a million dollar film look like a home movie. But few take the time to trace the source of these flickering images, and what has been called “hyper” or “chaotic” editing and “shaky cam”-style camerawork can be found in many of Derek Jarman’s most popular and widely seen music videos. There is purpose in the images he chooses and his editing techniques give his work a profound depth that is anything but showy and shallow.

Jarman’s cut-up style of filmmaking, which employed quick edits, superimposed images, non-narrative storytelling techniques and the incorporation of home movies or found footage, was a radical break from the slick and formalistic filmmaking style that dominated the British film industry. He was an artist who used film as a form of self-expression to question the status quo and redefine gender roles. And the music videos Jarman made were an extension of his experimental and inventive directing style. They merit more critical attention than they’ve received and serve as a wonderful compendium to his extraordinary body of work.

One of Jarman’s earliest experiments with music video included shooting some of the first Super 8 footage of the Sex Pistols during a live 1976 performance that ended up being incorporated into Julian Temple’s film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. At the time he was fascinated with the young punks that paraded down King’s Street in London and this obsession led him to make his punk rock opus, Jubilee (1977), both a celebration and a critique of the punk movement. Jarman told John Savage, the author of England’s Dreaming, that “punk was an understandable and very correct disgust with everything but it wasn’t focused. Youth seemed to get it right, but, in its funny way, it did end in repression with Margaret Thatcher’s England. Jubilee told that parable.” The film has a very rough and unfocused look that perfectly captures the rebellious mood of the times.

The Sex Pistols in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle

In 1979 Jarman was contacted by Island Records to make three promotional music videos for Marianne Faithfull’s album Broken English. Jarman ended up making a 12-minute short using a mixture of Super 8 and 16mm film that he edited together with old found footage of WW2 bombings, political protests and dance contests. Each of the three song (“Witch’s Song,” “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” and “Broken English“) is framed in a way that makes each enjoyable on their own as individual music videos, but they also combine to form a single cohesive film. Jarman used many of his favorite techniques while he was making Broken English such as superimposition, which gave his work a richly textured and layered look. It’s a remarkably personal piece of filmmaking that expresses Jarman’s own artistic vision but it also provided Marianne Faithfull with an incredible canvas to showcase her songs.

Marianne Faithfull – Broken English (“Witch’s Song,” “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” and “Broken English”)

During this period Jarman also began working with the experimental music artist Genesis P-Orridge who was a member of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. The two became very friendly and collaborated on a series of short films and music videos, including In the Shadow of the Sun (1980), TG Psychic Rally in Heaven (1981), Pirate Tape: A portrait of William Burroughs (1982), Diese Machine Ist Mein Anithumanistiches Kunstwerk (1983) and Imaging October (1984).  Among other things, Jarman and P-Orridge shared an interest in magic, and there’s a trance-like quality to a lot of the work they did together.

Throbbing Gristle – TG Psychic Rally in Heaven

Between 1983-1985, Derek Jarman directed a large number of music videos for various artists including “Dance with Me” (The Lords of the New Church; 1984), “Tenderness is a Weakness” (Marc Almond; 1984) and “Windswept” (Bryan Ferry; 1985).  The one video Jarman directed that probably got more MTV airtime than any other and that was “Dance Hall Days” for the British pop act Wang Chung. “Dance Hall Days” was one of the band’s biggest hits and reached #16 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1984. The song was so popular that the band shot two promotional clips for it but Derek Jarman’s original video is far and away the most memorable. It features footage from Jarman’s own home movies that he later used in The Last of England (1988) and at the end of the video Jarman dresses the band up as characters from his favorite childhood film, The Wizard of Oz. Although this video was just another work for hire project, Jarman’s final product seems incredibly personal. He must have felt some sincere kinship with Wang Chung’s song, which takes a nostalgic look back at the days of dance halls that were particularly popular in Britain during the ’40s and ‘50s.

Wang Chung – “Dance Hall Days”

Some of the best and most iconic music videos Jarman directed during the ‘80s were for the post-punk band, The Smiths. Much like his work with Marianne Faithfull in the early ‘80s, Jarman made a short 13-minute film based on The Smith’s 1986 album, The Queen Is Dead, consisting of three videos for three different songs (“The Queen Is Dead”, “Panic”, and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”). The Queen Is Dead works as a stand-alone film but it can also be split apart and enjoyed as three separate videos. Jarman employed many of the filmmaking methods that were now associated with his work and there are scenes in the Queen Is Dead that are reminiscent of his earlier films like The Tempest (1979) and foreshadow is future films such as The Last of England. There is an unmistakable synchronicity between the music of The Smiths and Jarman’s film aesthetics. The band and the director share a particular rhythm that’s both captivating and entrancing. This is simply music video at its best and most provocative.

The Smiths The Queen Is Dead (“The Queen Is Dead”, “Panic”, and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”)

Jarman also directed The Smiths’ “Ask” video and as the ‘80s came to a close and gave way to the ‘90s he continued to create important videos for bands like The Pet Shop Boys, Easterhouse, The Mighty Lemon Drops and Suede. In Kicking the Pricks, Jarman asks the reader a simple question that plagued him after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986: ‘ten feet under, am I still part of this?’ I think Jarman’s question can be answered with a resounding yes that can partially be traced to the incredible impact of the music videos he created. They were a showcase for his highly stylized filmmaking methods and through these promotional pop videos Jarman indirectly helped introduce an entire generation to avant-garde filmmaking. The subversive and transgressive images that were previously reserved for art houses, college campuses and exclusive nightclubs were suddenly available to anyone and everyone who had access to a television. Jarman was winning the hearts and minds of young people through the sheer power of his artistry. And his work was truly transformative in ways that I don’t think we’ve still fully come to understand or appreciate yet.

Pet Shop Boys – “King’s Cross”

Kimberly Lindbergs writes about film on her blog Cinebeats and on the Movie Morlocks blog for Turner Classics Movies.

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