There has been so much crossover between pop music & film over the decades that it’s almost difficult to distinguish exactly what makes May’s Movie of the Month, the full-length Girl Talk dance video Girl Walk // All Day, such a unique work. From the Beatles movies to MTV to beyond, pop musicians have turned to cinema as an outlet in many varied ways, not least of all including the music video, the concert film, and the tour documentary. Often enough, this visual element can be treated as a mere means of promotion, a backseat accompaniment to the true product being sold: the music itself. There are certainly some major exceptions to that music-video-as-advertisement mentality, however.
The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Who’s Tommy, and Prince’s Purple Rain are all readily recognizable examples of major musicians trying to put their music to film by constructing a feature-length narrative work with songs from a single album interjected between the plot points as punctuation. The concert film is its own artform, one perfected by more experimental examples like The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense & Björk’s Biophilia Live (I’m sure Kanye West’s Jodorowsky-inspired Yeezus film will be right up there if he ever releases the damn thing), but they don’t seem quite as solid of a music-meets-film artform as the narrative versions of the records mentioned above. The problem that even the narrative music movies (something we’ve previously referred to as Pop Music Cinema around here) feel somewhat stilted in their integration of music & cinema, not quite reaching a fully-formed, fully-committed ideal. Concert films are a type of documentary. Narrative pop music films are often a next-stage evolution of the Broadway musical where the songs punctuate the dialogue as a kind of emotional spike or act break. Neither are 100% the music video as feature-length cinema.
Girl Walk // All Day feels different from most of pop music cinema’s past because it is more of pure conversion of the music video into the feature-length film medium. The most apt term I’ve heard to describe what I’m getting at here was recently coined by Beyoncé as “the visual album” (more on that below). I like that term because it distinguishes the artform from the “music video album”, which is quite literally just a collection of music videos, as opposed to a feature-length, singular work that poses the music video as a narrative artform. Think of the difference between The Beatles’ album Please Please Me and their more thematically cohesive later works like Abbey Road and you’ll see the same difference between “the music video album” and “the visual album”. Just because Beach House released a music video for every track on Teen Dream doesn’t mean all the videos from that record function as a singularly-minded, narratively cohesive collection. Girl Walk // All Day is a (fan-made) visual representation of a Girl Talk mixtape in its entirety. It’s much more akin to a music video than a traditional musical, but it still functions as a feature-length, narrative work with a (loose plot) entirely driven by the shifting dynamics of its soundtrack. Nothing exists in a void, however. Just because Girl Walk // All Day is, in my mind at least, the most fully-realized convergence of the music video & the feature film into a singular work doesn’t mean it was the first, last, or most significant example of its kind.
There are many other “visual albums” out there in the world and I’ve collected a solid list of five examples below of some of the highlights of the genre, including, of course, the Beyoncé work I lifted the term from. I don’t think the “visual album” has yet reached hit its peak. There’s plenty of room for the artform to expand into an distinct medium worthy of respect & adoration. I could even argue that the “visual album” is the logical next step for the musical as cinema, a medium that has stagnated in a lot of ways over the past few decades. Here’s five boudnary-pushing examples of the visual album that offer a distinctive look on where the genre could presumably go in the future, each promising just as much innovation as Girl Walk // All Day, if not more.
1. Lemonade (2016)
It’d be a shame to praise the “visual album” as an artform without mentioning the source of where I lifted the term. It also helps that the product itself is an exquisite work of art. Beyoncé has been going through a spiritual growth spurt in the last few years where she’s struggling to break away from her long-established persona of top-of-the-world pop idol to reveal a more creative, vulnerable persona underneath. Her recent “visual album” Lemonade feels like a culmination of this momentum, a grand personal statement that cuts through her usual “flawless” visage to expose a galaxy of emotional conflicts & spiritual second-guessings the world was previously not privy to. It’s at times a deeply uncomfortable experience, as if you’re reading someone’s diary entries or poetry as they stare you down. However, it can also be an empowering & triumphant one, particularly aimed at giving a voice to the underserved POV of being a young black woman in modern America.
Lemonade is significant to the visual album medium not only for giving it a name, but also pushing the boundaries of form & narrative. In some ways it resembles the traditional mode of a “music video album” in that it represents each track from the audio version of Lemonade with a distinctly separate music video. Those rigid divisions serve mostly as chapter breaks, however, as the spoken word pieces that bind them represent an overall, loose narrative tableau about romantic grief, revenge, vulnerability, and empowerment. It’s the same kind of cryptic dialogue vs powerful cinematography formula that’s been driving Terrence Malicks’ work for years. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Beyhive, Ill confess that I don’t find every risk Lemonade takes pays off (the country song & the poetry can both be a bit much for me at times), but I respect its ambition in a general sense, especially when the more powerful, successful moments hit you like a ton of emotional bricks. Lemonade names, expands, and complicates the concept of the visual album as a medium and demands to be seen if you have an interest in the meeting place where the music video blurs with cinema.
2. The Line, the Cross and the Curve (1993)
I’ve been a huge Kate Bush fan since I first heard The Hounds of Love & The Dreaming in high school, but it took me a good, long while to get into her work from the 90s & beyond.There’s a pop slickness to Kate Bush’s sound, as strange is it is, that can be a little off-putting to me depending on the production .It was the short film The Line, the Cross and the Curve that finally unlocked this world for me and in the years since I first watched it Bush’s 1993 album The Red Shoes has become one of my favorites from the brilliant singer/songwriter. Composed of six music video segments pulled from the twelve tracks on The Red Shoes, The Line, the Cross and the Curve is a short film directed by Bush herself that mimics the 1948 Powell-Pressburger masterpiece The Red Shoes as a basic framework before deviating into something idiosyncratically sensual & surreal. Girl Walk // All Day might be the most successive marriage of the music video & the narrative feature film and Lemonade deserves its own accolades for expanding & labeling the “visual album” as an artform, but The Line, the Cross and the Curve is still a personal pet favorite for me based on pure emotional impact alone.
Bush recorded The Red Shoes in the wake of her emotional devastation of losing two loved ones & suffering a romantic break-up in a single year. The film version & the album both hold a similar cryptic diary/therapy dynamic as Lemonade, but the range & depth of emotions on display in The Line, the Cross and the Curve sometimes reach a sensual, celebratory jubilee not touched by Beyoncé’s distant descendant. I’m thinking particularly of the lush fruitscape of the “Eat the Music” portion of the film, a visual representation of a song so strong that it turned a tune I was too cynical to appreciate into one of my favorite pop music diddies of all time. Bush’s film also can play it tender (“Moments of Pleasure”) or demonically wicked (“The Red Shoes”) depending on its mood and although the singer/songwriter/dancer/director herself has gone on record voicing her frustration with the finished product, I find it to be something of a masterpiece, an early pinnacle of the “visual album” medium. My only complaint is that it could’ve easily included the other six tracks from The Red Shoes & functioned as a feature film.
3. Ultimate Reality (2007)
One of the strangest concert experiences of my life was one of the first (of many wonderful) times I saw Dan Deacon perform live. Instead of having a traditional opening act for this particular tour, Deacon’s set was preceded by a “live performance” of his “visual album” Ultimate Reality. Two drummers took the stage to simultaneously perform on top of Deacon’s trademark synth carnage as a live soundtrack to a film that was projected behind them (provided by visual artist & frequent Deacon collaborator Jimmy Joe Roche). Scrapping together clips from Arnold Schwarzenegger classic from various phases of the action movie god’s career, Ultimate Reality repurposes the Governator’s past work into a single, kaleidoscopic mess of confusingly plotted narrative & eye-burning psychedelia.
Ultimate Reality approaches the music video as cinema concept from the same jubilant, illegal mindframe as Girl Walk // All Day, except it blends all of its “borrowed” material into an endurance contest instead of a crowd-pleasing celebration of the art of dance. There’s a very loose narrative plot at work in the film that tells some kind of time-traveling story Arnold thwarting a doomsday scenario, but it’s an entirely superfluous to the work’s true bread & butter: mind-melting visual & aural assault. Ultimate Reality is simultaneously one of the most beautiful & the most difficult to watch visual albums you’re ever likely to see (it’s pretty much literally a technicolor kaleidoscope of Arnold Schwarzenegger clips & Dan Deacon synths, after all). It’s by far my favorite way way to clear my house at the end of a party. Just pop in the DVD & watch them scatter.
4. Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem (2003)
I’m far, far, far from an electronica fan, which makes me a bit of a sourpuss when it comes to enjoying the immensely popular French pop duo Daft Punk. A few singles will catch my attention every now & then, but listening to one of their albums in its entirety is something I’m not likely to ever to do voluntarily. Every rule has its exceptions, however, and I have found myself blaring the band’s soundtrack for the underrated cheap thrill Tron: Legacy. There’s something integrally cinematic about Daft Punk’s music that lends it well to soundtrack work, especially sci-fi movies and I would gladly watch any film the band scores for their contributions alone. It’s a good thing, then, that the Daft Punk visual album Interstella 5555 is a sci-fi film mostly set in outer space.
A French-Japanese co-production constructed by Toei Animation, the production studio behind legendary works like Sailor Moon & Dragon Ball Z, Interstella 5555 illustrates Daft Punk’s hit album Discovery in its entirety. Much like with Girl Walk // All Day, the visual album features no dialogue outside the band’s lyrics (which are at one point sampled in the Girl Walk movie, coincidentally), but its narrative is much more solid & vividly clear. In the movie the space alien band The Crescentdolls is kidnapped by an American record studio/ancient cult and forced to perform a one hit wonder & sign autographs for adoring fans at a punishingly repetitive schedule. Their quest to escape this hopeless imprisonment rests in the hands of a mercenary hero who flies around in a guitar-shaped spaceship & spends a lot of his time rocking out to bonafide jams while floating around in a vacuum. The film is beautiful, funny, terrifying, and easily recognizable as one of the best examples of the visual album to date. I’ll admit that somewhere around the third act the repetition of the dance music started to exhaust me a bit, but if you’re a more committed Daft Punk fan you might not even have that problem. As far as accomplishing the goals it establishes for itself, the film is wholly successful & thoroughly delightful.
5. Trapped in the Closet (2005-2012)
R. Kelly is, in all likelihood, a complete monster (unless you want to consider the shocking pile of evidence against his good name hearsay), but that doesn’t mean he’s not an entertaining monster. There are so many ridiculous phases & highlights to the R&B singer’s career that I’m not even going to attempt to touch on them, here, but I think it’s fairly clear that his de facto magnum opus, Trapped in the Closet, has earned its place among the most noteworthy examples of the visual album medium. Kelly took the idea of a narrative film music video hybrid literally to the point of outright hilarity. Described as a “rap opera”, the seemingly never-ending saga of Trapped in the Closet follows the second-by-second developments of a love triangle that spirals out of control into an absurdly complicated web of deceipt, revenge, murder, and romance.
Trapped in the Closet is a gloriously silly watch (even when it’s offensively close-minded) and at times feels way more akin to a daytime soap opera than music video cinema, but it’s inspired so much pop culture weirdness to follow (including a glorious Weird Al parody & what’s easily one of the best Wikipedia pages I’ve ever read) that it’s near impossible to discuss the visual album as a concept without including its name. Trapped in the Closet may aim for a more straight-forward narrative than Girl Walk, Lemonade, etc. (even hilariously so), but easily matches those projects in ambition & sheer audacity. R. Kelly combined the music video & the narrative feature into a single, punishing, over-the-top work of high camp. Even if you can’t stomach the idea of sitting through all 33 “chapters” of the monotonously bonkers story, you should at least consider getting a taste of the early episodes and skimming through the Wikipedia plot synopsis, including this flow chart of who’s bonked whom in its web of sex & lies.