One Good Thing: the glorious and messy music videos of Paul Thomas Anderson
Honestly, a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson films – including his Oscar-nominated comedy Licorice Pizza – feel like extended music videos. Sometimes these are essentially: Magnolia, released in 1999, was Anderson’s attempt to adapt the music of his friend Aimee Mann into a film. (The results suggest it was a good idea.)
Licorice PizzaThe needledrops of , woven into the heady emotional landscape of a 1970s summer in the Valley, feel like sweet little crushes, every time. By composing Tinkly’s strange soundtrack for love stuffed with punch (2002), Jon Brion mixed the original music with a song from Robert Altman’s 1980s film popeye, for a delicious effect. And of course, boogie nights (1997) plays like one long party, so laden with bangers that they had to release the soundtrack in two volumes.
Perhaps this explains why Anderson’s music videos, in turn, resemble films. In some cases, these are actually short films: there are valentine (2017), an on-the-fly studio documentary with Los Angeles-based pop-rock band Haim, and Anima (2019), a collaboration with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, which plays like dystopian sci-fi with a hopeful edge. But even the most traditional feature films – dozens of which he has made since the 90s with artists such as (ex-girlfriend) Fiona Apple, Joanna Newsom, Radiohead, Haim, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn – feel like mini- films bearing his unmistakable fingerprints.
What are these fingerprints? Anderson’s films are always a bit fuzzy, a bit off-kilter, with main characters often looking a bit out of place in their world – a perfect match for musicians.
In The master (2012), the loner Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is jagged and unpredictable, a man who seems poised to explode or shrivel up at any unexpected moment. Two years later in inherent vice, Phoenix is now a high-strung detective who is a day late and a dollar short as life races ahead of him. boogie nights‘ Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) is really just a kid looking for a family to belong to; he finds him in a glamorous but motley group of porn actors. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the prospector at the center of there will be blood (2007), is a timeless man, both modern and somehow medieval in his gaze.
The list could go on and on, so it’s super fun to see them popping up in his music videos too. Take this one, my favorite, for the cover of Fiona Apple’s 1998 “Across the Universe”:
Apple sits placidly and earnestly singing in the middle of a restaurant being absolutely ransacked by a horde of men in suits. The result is a blurry dreamscape, and we wonder what exactly this sweet young lady is doing in the midst of absolute chaos. She is in another world. (And nothing will change that.)
Same atmosphere in this video by Aimee Mann, for “Save Me”:
Mann sits amidst scenes from Magnolia, seemingly describing the emotional plea of the lonely cast of characters – “Why don’t you save me?” – but also hers, as one of those who are in the “ranks of monsters / who suspect / that they could never love anyone”. After all, it’s a ghost here. They don’t even know she’s there.
Or this video for the song “Divers” by Joanna Newsom, in which she hovers over the landscape like a goddess or a giant, alone in the middle of harmonious nature, a strange and disturbing presence singing of a lost love:
“You don’t know my name,” she concludes. “But I know yours.”
Sometimes Anderson captures his characters’ disjunction, their strange alienation, by following them as they forcefully move through scenes of utter chaos. Long tracking shots are another of its cinematographic characteristics; they are all finished Licorice Pizzaof course, but perhaps most famous is the uninterrupted three-minute shot that opens boogie nights:
He just shows off with it, but he loves doing it. Here he follows Joanna Newsom – this time without a steadicam – through the bustling streets of Greenwich Village as she sings “Sapokanikan”:
Or, in this very famous video clip, he suddenly moves backwards boogie nights composer Michael Penn, who sings “Try” while powering America’s longest hallway (a quarter mile away). Spot Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cameos:
In recent years, Anderson has frequently teamed up with Haim, and in these videos you can see all of his fingerprints again. the videos are messy and beautiful, and the camera is as much of a character as the musicians. The funniest of these might be the video for their 2019 single “Summer Girl,” in which the sisters stroll through Los Angeles slowly peeling off layers of sweatshirts and shirts as they enter the season. hotter :
The band started shooting the “Summer Girl” video with Anderson essentially before the song was finished, and he ended up contributing a few unused lines of footage to it (then turned down a writing credit).
More recently, her video for “Lost Track” (released March 1) features Danielle Haim looking like a miserable disgruntled teenager at a terrible party where she’s the intruder. “I’m trying to feel good / with all these people / I’m trying but I’m just numb / this time,” she sings to the camera as a group of women in retro dresses buzz around her while having fun:
Haim’s collaboration with Anderson runs so deep that the youngest Haim, Alana, is the star of Licorice Pizza, in an outstanding performance that was acclaimed by all. She plays another young woman who feels out of place everywhere, from the adult world that she is reluctant to join her own family (played, delightfully, by her own sisters and real-life parents). In the film, we feel the trust between the artist and the director, the kind of thing that is acquired over the years of collaboration.
It’s what has always made Anderson’s films so immensely satisfying to watch. He’s a director who likes to push people’s bruises and push them aside, but never in a painful way. It looks like he loves his characters.
It’s no different in his music videos: whether he’s slowly zooming in on Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood playing guitar in a twilight park, turning Fiona Apple into an avant-garde contrapuntal goddess, or watching Danielle Haim going through a car wash, you can feel the fascination with the faces and the tug of joy and the feeling that life is really weird. Watch them all in order, and you might start to wonder if he’s a music video director first, after all.
Paul Thomas Anderson music videos are available at watch on youtube. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good thing archives.