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Decoding David Fincher’s Gorgeous, Goofy, and Iconic Music Video Career

Before ‘The Social Network,’ ‘Fight Club,’ or ‘Se7en,’ the director made his bones directing videos for the likes of Madonna, Billy Idol, and George Michael. What can we learn from the auteur’s MTV hits?

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To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.


The alien slave rebellion begins, as all alien slave rebellions must, with a salad bowl. “Yeah, the thing opens with this amazing shot of a space dome,” says ’80s pop-star dreamboat Rick Springfield, describing, in a 2013 interview with Indiewire, the plot of the bonkers music video for his 1984 synth-rock ditty “Bop ’Til You Drop,” which depicts, in remarkably vivid and grody detail, an alien slave rebellion led by Springfield himself. “And we were looking at it, and he goes, ‘Yeah, that’s a salad bowl.’” The he in this story is David Fincher, who directed the bejesus out of this video and 40-odd others, mostly in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Get a load of the texture on this space dome.

Young Fincher had recently stumbled into a gig doing special effects for the little-seen 1983 underground flick Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi, and he brings just that sort of tactile, grimy, laser-blastin’, Jabba the Hutt–worshippin’ verve to Springfield’s empowering ode to resilience and the power of love. The alien slave masters look fuckin’ rad, man; undaunted, a heroic Springfield vanquishes them all and crowd-surfs his way to liberation. This was a director with a future: Fincher would not often go the sci-fi or action-hero route, and indeed he’d constantly juggle his visual and narrative approaches to avoid pigeonholing of any kind, but every video he shot was unmistakably the work of a wily and steely auteur.

Fincher’s debut feature film, 1992’s catastrophic but instructive Alien 3, was the better part of a decade away—the glories and depravities of Se7en and Fight Club and Zodiac and Gone Girl were further off still. In preparation, he would spend his formative years helming bizarre and/or workmanlike and/or luscious and/or goofy and/or deadly serious and/or iconic clips for the likes of Loverboy, the Outfield, Sting, Ry Cooder, Paula Abdul, Billy Idol, Aerosmith, George Michael, Justin Timberlake, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna. Here, now, is a humble attempt to sketch out Fincher’s MTV filmography and the major motifs therein. As with the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, decoding these clues is the obsession of a lifetime.

Mullets

Lotta mullets in the ’80s, as a certain pinup prone to bopping ’til he drops will attest. Fincher helmed a whole-ass Rick Springfield concert film, 1985’s The Beat of the Live Drum, that incorporates several of the pair’s ambitious video collaborations, including the bitterly satirical apocalypse fable “Dance This World Away” and the peppier but remarkably trash-strewn “Celebrate Youth,” which in addition celebrates the fabled “business in the front, party in the back” hairstyle lifestyle. Nice scarf, too.

east your eyes, furthermore, upon the billowing waterfall locks on display in the Outfield’s “All the Love in the World,” or Stabilizers’ “One Simple Thing.” or Wire Train’s “She Comes On.” What passed for minor-rock-star sex appeal in the mid-’80s is sobering to recall indeed, but Fincher sells all these dramas with inventive aplomb, his various approaches—black-and-white lushness, wall-of-TVs panopticon unease, quick-cutting smears of sweaty ardor and PG-13 lust—bound to later reoccur when he got hired by way more famous people. His Mullet Era peaked with the 1987 clip for Loverboy’s “Notorious,” in which various babes are subjected to cheerful street harassment and the harmonica solo looks lewd as hell.

I feel bad saying “minor rock star,” by the way, as the Outfield’s “No Surrender” very quietly and elegantly kicks ass, with a video that strikingly utilizes the director’s preferred approach to window treatments.

Venetian Blinds

For what are Venetian blinds, really, but merciless slashers of light? Dig the sickly chemical-sunset noir of the Motels’ “Shame,” a 1985 new wave passion play that confines lead singer Martha Davis to a motel-room prison no less dispiriting for its lack of laser-toting aliens.

That same year, Fincher also directed the clip for “Shock” that finds a terrified Davis stumbling around an eerie, empty house pursued by unknown tormentors (shades of Panic Room) until she is cornered and, presumably, devoured (shades of the xenomorph-POV delights of Alien 3). At one point Davis stumbles across the rest of her band and appears none too pleased; Fincher would direct the less menacingly neon-indebted clip for one of her many solo tunes, “Don’t Tell Me the Time,” in 1987.

Anyway, the blinds would be back with a vengeance by the time Fincher got around to Billy Idol’s 1990 jam “Cradle of Love,” though that video is so lewd you are forgiven if at the time you didn’t even notice.

Billowing Drapes

Fincher’s color palettes were generally so cold, and his overall aesthetic so smoky and mysterious, that even his R&B videos (shout-out Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” and Jody Watley’s “Most of All”) have a distinctly Blade Runner or at least futuristic feel, and his strictly black-and-white clips could somehow feel like riots of color by comparison. The giant curtains adorning the set for Howard Hewett’s “Stay” (1986) add to both the eeriness and the lushness.

Smash these impulses together and you’re basically combining the influence of early Ridley Scott (sci-fi audacity) and Tony Scott (Goth maximalism) in the service of making even straightforward (and straightforwardly shot) tales of melancholy lust feel somehow grotesque.

Naturally, he’d soon get even weirder.

Weird Prisms

A brief sideline for Fincher, but he spices up the genial arena-folk niceties of Bourgeois Tagg’s “I Don’t Mind at All” (1987) with fancy spinning mirror-type prisms that pop back up in the 1988 clip for the grouchy Johnny Hates Jazz tune “Heart of Gold,” which feels like a Pretty Woman diss track two years early and adds a sexy lady to the spinning-prism mix just to lambaste her for being too sexy. (Also, listen, I didn’t name these bands.) A less scrupulous (or less restless) director would’ve busted out the prisms 15 more times, but Fincher quickly moved on; incidentally, he also directed the video for “Shattered Dreams,” a much more famous Johnny Hates Jazz tune in which the lead singer is shrunk down and dropped right into another sexy lady’s palm.

Alien Slave Rebellions

I feel like you haven’t fully absorbed the “Bop ’Til You Drop” video yet. Please watch it again, and observe that the slave rebellion kicks off in earnest during the (chaste, relatively) harmonica solo.

Extra-Sweaty Nightclubs

The most prominent Fincher video in this vein is for Steve Winwood’s monster no. 1 1988 hit “Roll With It,” which lavishes as much attention on sweaty necks and knuckles and bare heads as it does on the horn section and the (pretty badass, IMHO) organ fills. That year also brought us the much stranger and grimier and cooler version of this approach, in the guise of a clip for Ry Cooder’s raucous cover of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm” that stars—why the hell not?—Harry Dean Stanton as the beaten-down proprietor of what appears to be a Cuban nightclub with, at the onset, more parrots than paying customers. The situation improves, though of course everyone only gets sweatier.

Paula Abdul

And here is where Fincher begins to blossom into a name commodity himself, by virtue of four heavy-MTV-rotation videos to promote Paula Abdul’s 1988 multiplatinum smash Forever Your Girl. He accomplishes this not by making himself look good, but by making her look good: Fincher is inherently icy and stern even at his warmest, but Abdul’s charisma is bountiful whether she’s in I Can Be Sexy mode (“[It’s Just] The Way That You Love Me”), I Can Dance Extremely Well mode (“Straight Up”), I’m Good With Children mode (“Forever Your Girl”), or I Can Dance Sexily Extremely Well mode (“Cold Hearted”). It’s hard to imagine Fincher and Abdul even sharing a cab in terms of the personality mismatch here, at least as public personas go, but clearly they reached some sort of profitable understanding. I’m pretty sure that at 12 years old I got grounded just for watching the “Cold Hearted” video, so, uh, mission accomplished.

Mildly Porny Black-and-White Fantasias

Three super-famous people, three lush B&W treatments meant to convey some level of erotic intrigue. First, Sting’s serene “Englishman in New York” (1987) finds our stuffy hero traipsing around Manhattan holding an umbrella though it does not appear to be raining; he is thoroughly outshined by Branford Marsalis (on soprano sax) and Quentin Crisp, respectively. But Sting still comes out of it looking more thoughtful and soulful than he probably really was at the time, which is an even tougher mission to accomplish.

If you’re the sort of person who finds Harry Dean Stanton impossibly cool, then doubtless you will prefer Iggy Pop’s “Home” (1990), which is not serene in the slightest, and cuts and flashes and snarls with blinding intensity: It’s at least an odder and classier vision of quote-unquote punk rock than early-’90s MTV was wont to serve up. But best of all, punkest of all, most mysterious and soulful and erotic of all was, of course, Madonna’s “Vogue,” often touted as Fincher’s single best video, and an ultraluxurious marvel of I’m Going to Beat Up Paula Abdul For Even Dreaming She Can Dance Sexily Better Than Me aplomb. (Fincher’s much busier Madonna video is “Express Yourself,” whose sex-factory aesthetic I would summarize as Metropolis-via-Brazzers.) The director’s frigidity has never looked more luscious and stylish, but he triumphs here by simply allowing alluring people to dance alluringly. Billowing drapes would only get in the way at this point.

Rich Doofuses Terrorized by Foxy Ladies

You get a little of this with “Cold Hearted” (which lampoons clueless record-label goons more viciously than any rap video you’d care to name), and if you reach back to the minor-star years there is “Johnny B,” a bizarre 1987 Irish-folk dirge from the Hooters in which there are mullets aplenty and even the hospital drapes appear to be billowing and the heartless sexy lady is extra-heartless. But in this genre the mother of them all is, indeed, Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love,” which features a semi-heartless vixen trashing some yuppie’s apartment. No idea why this guy hung priceless plates on his wall; no idea why there appear to be Venetian blinds covering an interior window into his bedroom. Never mind: I know why.

Anyway, I definitely got grounded the moment they spilled the wine.

Evocative if Narratively Oblique Noir Grimness

Fincher also directed the video for Billy Idol’s 1990 cover of the Doors’ “L.A. Woman,” which is exactly as oily and sweaty as you’d expect, and as with “Cradle of Love” has somewhat of a plot so long as you once again consider Who’s The Sexy Lady? a viable plot. But the clip for that year’s Aerosmith smash “Janie’s Got a Gun” is a far darker, grimmer, gnarlier beast, managing to evoke the specter of child sexual abuse and murder without quite depicting it. It’s all very Se7en, if that’s the sort of aesthetic you’re into, which I hope for the sake of your loved ones you are not.

If that’s a little too straightforward for you, Madonna’s “Bad Girl” has an intense if somewhat baffling erotic-thriller energy, costarring Christopher Walken as some sort of morose guardian angel. If that’s not straightforward enough, there is Madonna’s “Oh Father,” as underrated as a Madonna (or Fincher) video is wont to get: a startling black-and-white fantasia that attacks child abuse, and remorse, and forgiveness head on, full of falling snow, tumbling pearls, and a slap in the face that reverberates even though it’s inaudible. In lieu of Venetian blinds, there is now a church confession booth.

Giants

Maybe you’re a fan of that Nine Inch Nails clip where Trent Reznor is trapped in one of those children’s toys where you press your palm into a bed of pins; maybe you can still tolerate the smug ultra-lushness of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie.” (I do like the shot of JT being pushed onto the set, reclining in bed, brandishing an iPad.) But for me the single best David Fincher video is George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90,” in which Michael’s plea for autonomy and privacy is lip-synced by a bevy of supermodels as his iconic jacket from the “Faith” video bursts into flames, the jukebox blows up, et cetera. It’s gorgeous and audacious mythmaking as myth-destroying, and depending on your mood it can either mean a great deal or mean nothing at all beyond Beautiful People Looking Beautiful. All we ever asked from MTV was eye candy masquerading as brain candy.

But as an honorable mention, as singularly indelible images go, Fincher’s clip for the 1994 Rolling Stones tune “Love Is Strong,” in which giant groggy young model types cavort amid giant Mick and Keith and the gang in downtown Manhattan, is a marvel of letting rock stars be seen as they see themselves, and as we want to see them. For all the supermodels, for all Fincher’s soft-core surreality, nothing quite beats the shot of good old Charlie Watts just looking stupendously pleased with himself, as well he should be.

We’ve all come a long way since that salad bowl.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Quentin Crisp in Sting’s “Englishman in New York” video.