Widening Horizons: Artistic Director Chris Haydon talks music videos

by Chris Haydon

As lockdown slowly eases, you may find yourself commuting to work once again. But if over the last few months you feel that you have already read every book there is and can’t bear the idea of scrolling through yet more depressing news reports, you might want something else to distract you on your journey.

So, this week I want to talk about music videos – exactly the kind of bitesize entertainment that can fill the time between train stops. I have often found these short films can provide huge inspiration when I am preparing to direct a show; finding the right video can be a brilliant way of communicating to your design team exactly what kind of energy and aesthetic you are looking for. 

For instance, in 2012 I directed a great new American comedy called Wittenberg at the Gate Theatre. The play had a surreal, screwball feel and so this completely bizarre video by The Avalanches for their song ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’ was a great place to start. As you will see, it includes adult babies, talking skeletons, a chorus of singing ghosts, cowboys, Indians, singing false teeth, a chimp that plays the drums and a terrapin with a human head. I really have no idea what is going on but it absolutely captured something about the feel of the play. Another video that was useful for this show was this one for ‘Mr Brightside’ by the Killers. It’s hard to say exactly why this felt right – there is something about the razzle dazzle theatricality of the way it tells its story of sexual jealousy that felt relevant to the show, even though the play itself was not about infidelity. 

Even when I’m not thinking about how they might help me develop a show, I am always most drawn to videos that have a really clear narrative. This classic from The Chemical Brothers has long been one of my favourites. It depicts a young girl on a school trip to the Natural History Museum. She is transfixed by the skeletons she sees in the museum – an obsession which suddenly feels very personal when, as she runs away from the class bully, she trips and breaks her wrist. Seeing her own bones on an X-ray machine has, as you will see, a creepily transformative effect on her view of the world as she gets older. The song may be called ‘Hey Boy Hey Girl’ but the video clearly demonstrates that underneath everything, we are all just the same.

On the subject of macabre little girls, they don’t come much more adorably malign than in this video for ‘First Of The Year’ by the dubstep DJ Skrillex. When I directed Macbeth at the Royal Exchange in Manchester this was a really useful reference point as I worked with my witches to find exactly the right viciously demented tone they needed.

I will leave you with what is arguably the greatest music video of all time: Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’. Originally it was made to be a sequence within his incredibly weird film Moonwalker, but it absolutely stands alone. In it we see a white-suited Jackson enter a backstreet speakeasy (and in doing so apparently travel back to the 1920s) and proceed to dominate all the dolls, molls, hoodlums and gangsters with a dash of violence, a little bit of flirting and a LOT of dazzling choreography. It is a magnificent song performed with astonishing theatricality, and it gives me shivers every time I watch it.

Photo by Jakob Owens | Unsplash


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