Guava Island (2019)

The natural impulse when trying to find a proper context for the Donald Glover vanity project Guava Island is to consider it in conversation with recent “visual albums” like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. While it is billed as “a Childish Gambino film” and features a smattering of songs from Glover’s most recent album under that pseudonym, this isn’t exactly the form-breaking music video experiment we’ve been seeing echoed in the post-Lemonade era. It’s far too loose & laid-back to hold up to that standard. Guava Island is an hour-long, low-key movie musical that only allows its surrealist touches & music video interludes to creep in from the borders of the frame. It’s more narratively focused than its fellow visual albums, but also too casual & relaxed in its narrative to feel too substantial without its occasional breaks for Glover’s music. Guava Island is deliberately minor in some ways as a result, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unpleasant or not worthwhile. The worst you can say about it is that it often feels like a thin excuse to watch beautiful pop stars vacation in Cuba; that’s not such a terrible thing.

An opening narration from Glover’s costar, Rihanna, promises something much more adventurous & detached from reality than what’s ultimately delivered. She establishes the fictional island setting in a magical-realist folktale about the battle between Love & War that has raged since the island’s creation, a storybook monologue illustrated by 2D animation akin to 90s era Disney titles like The Emperor’s New Groove. This tale of The Dueling Truths (love & war) is only faintly echoed in the live-action story that follows – love in the beautiful silks & music that the island creates and war in the evil capitalist shipping company Red Cargo that seeks to commodify those arts. Of course, Donald Glover’s protagonist finds himself at the exact center of this struggle. He seeks to woo Rihanna (along with the rest of the island) with his beautiful music, but the wicked Red Cargo company only wants him to sing jingles promoting their products and encouraging their workers to remain productive. The whole thing culminates in a kind of workers’ uprising in the form of an all-night party that Red Cargo attempts to shut down, so its employees won’t be too tired to be industrious the next day. The stakes can be tragic, but defiance through partying & letting loose is exactly the film’s M.O. throughout.

Formally speaking, Guava Island is a gorgeous wonder. It has the classic shot-on-film look of a 70s arthouse picture (or a well-curated Instagram profile) and is effortlessly charming in its documentation of two charismatic pop stars, barely in character, vacationing in a lush tropical locale. Director Hiro Murai, who has previously collaborated with Glover on career-high achievements like the “This Is America” video & Atlanta, occasionally choreographs its music video sequences as if it were a movie-musical reiteration of arthouse relics like Touki Bouki or Black Orpheus. Glover himself brings a surreal touch to what’s otherwise a romantic hangout film in his writhing dance moves – reinterpreting the Iggy Pop contortions of his “This Is America” choreography in a newly interesting context (and prompting questions of what it would it be like if he were in a Magic Mike sequel now instead of four years ago). The only frustrating thing about the film, then, is that there isn’t more. Rihanna is a joy to watch here but doesn’t sing herself. Glover & Murai hint at a sinister, surrealist tone just under the surface of their dance sequence collaborations, but never fully unleash that impulse. The songs themselves are pleasant, but far more abrupt & spaced out than what you’ll hear in Lemonade or Dirty Computer. In almost every way, Guava Island could be more and could be better with just a little extra effort from each of its collaborators, but that doesn’t mean what’s onscreen isn’t worthwhile as is.

-Brandon Ledet

Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture (2018)

I had honestly given up on Janelle Monáe’s potential as a popstar a few years back when I first heard her single “Yoga” on the radio. She’s proven to be a talented screen actor since, via roles in Moonlight & Hidden Figures, but there was something dispiriting about “Yoga” that made me lose interest in her music career. It’s not an especially horrendous pop song or anything. I even mildly enjoy it. It was just disappointing to hear a persona once tied up in the weirdo A.I. sci-fi themes of early releases like 2007’s Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) deliver an anonymous pop song about letting your booty “do that yoga,” an adequate tune that could’ve been sung by anyone. I imagine it was the equivalent of longtime David Bowie fans feeling alienated by the relatively personality-free stylings of the objectively-enjoyable “Let’s Dance” in 1983. Like those disenchanted Bowie devotees before me, I was wrong to lose faith in Monáe so easily. Not only did the sci-fi themes of her early career eventually reemerge in her work, they came back louder, brighter, and more undeniably fun than ever. And as a wonderful bit of lagniappe, they also came back queer as fuck.

Janelle Monáe publicly came out as pansexual in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine. This announcement coincided with the release of her latest record, Dirty Computer, and its accompanying visual album, Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture. A fifty-minute narrative film stringing together an anthology of music videos with a dystopian sci-fi wraparound, the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” delivers on the genre film undertones promised in Monáe’s early pop music career while also advancing the visual album as a medium to a new modern high. We already litigated the value of the long-form music video as cinema here when we covered Girl Walk//All Day as a Movie of the Month selection in the wake of Lemonade’s release in 2016. Dirty Computer easily earns its place among the best examples of that visual album medium by both adapting it to a clearly discernible narrative that unifies its anthology template and by feeling exceptionally personal to the artist behind it. There are seven different directors listed as having collaborated on individual segments of Dirty Computer, but Monáe clearly stands out as the auteur of the project. It’s even billed as “an emotion picture by Janelle Monáe” on the poster. A large part of that auteuism is how the film works as an expression of Monáe’s newly public identity as a queer black woman navigating an increasingly hostile world that targets Others in her position.

Monáe stars as Jane 57821 (not to be confused with THX 1138), a bisexual rebel whose group of friends & lovers have been abducted by a tyrannical future-government for conformity-encouraging brainwashing. In a cruel twist of pure malice, it’s her own previously-brainwashed girlfriend (played by longtime Monáe collaborator and all-around talent Tessa Thompson) who’s tasked with walking her through the mysterious, scientific process that drains her of her vitality & sexuality, essentially leaving her a living robot. This scenario reads like a sci-fi expression of conversion therapy anxiety, to a point where the tyrannical government facility, The House of the New Dawn, is literally draining the gay out of her in tubes of rainbow ooze. The music video tangents featured in the film are presented as memories that the facility is deleting one at a time. Through these stylized flashbacks we see a harsh contrast between the lifeless, oppressed world the government offers and the gorgeous, nonstop party Jane was living with a community of outsiders before they were broken up & captured by police drones. The world’s rebel Others appear to be a Warriors-style collection of varied factions: Bowies, punks, Holy Mountain freaks, Beetlegeese, etc. They party in a swirl of heavy leather, drag makeup, and glittered-up naked flesh that calls into question what’s memory and what’s fantasy. The drone-equipped future-police intrude in each vignette, along with Tessa Thompson’s character (and the couple’s masculine third), to establish a clearly discernible narrative through-line with a Blade Runner/Logan’s Run sci-fi throwback bent.

Like many examples of classic sci-fi, Dirty Computer gets a lot of mileage out of establishing its own futuristic terminology. In the evil future-government’s parlance, social Others are “dirty,” while all people are “computers,” devices that can be “cleaned” and made more useful. Monáe is clearly invested in challenging this kind of constrictive labeling through the film’s conversion therapy metaphor. The music videos read as aggressive challenges to the societal & governmental oppression that she faces as a queer black woman (from the South no less). She sings of being “highly melanated’ and of how “Everything is sex except sex, which is power.” Some tracks include studio collaborations with the since-deceased Prince, which can be heard just as clearly in the synths & guitars as it can be seen in Monáe’s weaponized, politicized expressions of race & sexuality. (At one point she appears in floral vagina pants that would make Georgia O’Keeffe blush; this film is anything but subtle.) I don’t know if I’ve seen or heard such a clear Prince descendant in a major pop star since Beyoncé’s fabulously filthy music video for “Blow.” I was a fool for giving up on Monáe so easily after a brief experience with hearing “Yoga” on the radio. With the recent losses of both Bowie and Prince, her mainstream exposure as a neon-lit queer icon feels like a beacon of hope in the grimmest times Western culture’s seen in decades. The fact that she chose to broadcast that beacon through a long-form, sci-fi themed music video about queer rebels who like to party might just be my favorite thing she’s done in her career to date, even with the awkward “emotion picture” branding.

-Brandon Ledet

Kraftwerk 3-D and the Modern Concert as Cinema

At the time I’m writing this it’s been over a week since I’ve seen a proper movie, which is likely the longest stretch I’ve gone without watching one in at least two years. Thanks to the ever-expanding grey area of what does & does not qualify as cinema, however, I feel like that itch is being scratched elsewhere, with a surprising amount of that content relating to pop music. For instance, long form music videos like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or our former Movie of the Month Girl Walk //All Day and prestige television shows like Baz Luhrmann’s recent chaotic mess of a hip-hop disco musical The Get Down all feel cinematic without being what’s traditionally considered cinema. Gallons of ink have already been spilled about how television is becoming more like film & vice versa (in the form of never-ending franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe),but what’s been of particular interest to me lately is how music videos & live concerts have been doing the same. This might explain why while attending a 3-D Kraftwerk concert in New Orleans last Friday I found myself (between spaced out, gin & soda fueled dancing) asking “Is this cinema?” I don’t know if it was because I hadn’t watched a film in days & was desperate to tap myself into that headspace, but I wound up deciding that yes, it was. And it was one of the best movies I had seen all year.

If you’re wondering, like I was before I reached the Orpheum that Friday, exactly what a “3-D concert” is (besides watching three-dimensional musicians perform in a three-dimensional space), Kraftwerk basically performed in front of a stage-sized screen that displayed a moving image to correspond with each song, not unlike a live music video. These images were made to look 3-D through cardboard glasses specifically printed for the show & distributed at the entrance. Now, watching a screen at a live event isn’t all that novel for a 2010s concert experience. In fact, it’s almost become standard. Besides attendees watching acts through their view-blocking, media-capturing smartphones, bands often use projections & display screens to enhance the live music experience. From metal bands doing living room sets in front of projections of silent horror relics to gigantic crowd music festivals using jumbotrons to reach the folk miles form the stage, we’ve all witnessed 2-D visual media incorporated as part of the live concert experience. The concept goes back pretty far down the history of rock n’ roll too, touching on the rudimentary light shows of 60s psychedelia & the multimedia assault on the senses of acts like The Butthole Surfers. There’s something different about the way Kraftwerk is crafting their live experience that makes it more of a recognizably cinematic endeavor, however, and that difference has a lot to do with the immersion & the gimmickry of the 3-D experience.

When trying to conjure the ways live music is gradually becoming more cinematic the first thing that might come to mind is the live performance of movie scores for public screenings. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood performed live versions of his There Will Be Blood score for recent events. Prog rock legends Goblin embarked on an entire international tour where they performed their killer score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria along with screenings of the movie. Local musician Hellen Gillet recently performed a live score for Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis at an outdoor screening outside the US Mint in the French Quarter. These examples of cinema seeping into the live music experience are exciting, but they’re also more traditional than they might initially appear. Think back to the early days of silent cinema where soundtracks would be performed by a live, in-house pianist. Updating that dynamic for a pop music context is exciting, but it’s not necessarily the innovation of a homogenous live music & cinema blend that acts like Kraftwerk have been bringing to concert venues.

What’s fascinating to me lately is the film-concert hybrid, a cinematic experience specifically designed to be engaged with as a live musical act. The multimedia performances of Björk’s Biophilia & Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV were brave steps in that direction, but the first live music cinema experience I can remember attending myself was Dan Deacon’s collaboration with visual artist Jimmy Joe Roche. Live performances of their visual album, the blisteringly psychedelic Ultimate Reality, were singularly overwhelming experiences. Two live drummers set up on opposite sides of the stage in front of an oversized projector screen. They played mechanically in sync over a recording of Deacon’s trademark synth assault, accompanied by a mid-length feature film collage of bright, kaleidoscopic imagery lifted from various Arnold Schwarzenegger films. Ultimate Reality pushes its concert-cinema hybrid even a step further by marrying its aural & visual assault with a loose narrative in which all of Arnold’s movies, from Total Recall to Junior, are melted into an incomprehensible mess of a storyline that doesn’t exactly resemble the story structure of even the loosest, most Lynchian of film narratives or the vibe-driven, movement-based structure of a live concert. Ultimate Reality occupies a strange gray area between those two extremes, the same cinematic live music territory I experienced while watching Kraftwerk 3-D.

Kraftwerk is a seminal band, having played the role of innovator for nearly half a century. Listening to them perform live you can detect the early beginnings of pop music genres as varied as hip-hop, techno, industrial, and (duh) new wave lurking in the sparse, cold sounds of their digital meditations. They marry this slow, synth-soaked hypnosis, each song stretching on for dozens of minutes at a time, with a stark, minimalist, stage show. All four members of the band are centered at their own synthesizer podiums, remaining stoically still as they mix their digital soundscapes into a cohesive whole. It took me almost two songs into their set to even realize that the vocals were being provided live by one of the members. Everything felt so fixed & so clinical. Behind those four synth-commanding demigods stands a gigantic projector screen, which of course displays 3-D imagery related to each song performed. The imagery can range from archival footage of supermodels of the 1950s (during my personal favorite Kraftwerk tune “Das Model”) to crude digital renderings of a pixelated car on the highway (during the song “Autobahn”), an intentionally outdated aesthetic that recalls the look of certain Tim & Eric segments or, perhaps more appropriately, the music video project that accompanied the Death Grips album Government Plates. The rudimentary, elemental nature of these images matched the sparse genre seedlings of Kraftwerk’s music and transported their audience into a cinematic headspace that’s foreign to most concert experiences, even ones aided by higher tech on their display screens.

Unlike Ultimate Reality, 3-D Kraftwerk didn’t form its individual vignettes into a larger narrative whole. Instead, each music video experience was allowed to exist as its own separate meditation, functioning almost like a horror anthology, with the concert hall itself standing in as a wraparound segment. One song dove into the ever-present threat of nuclear war. One meditated on the machine-like efficiency of athletes who participate in the Tour de France. One provided a visualization of the digital landscape where the band’s Tron-like costumes might be considered high fashion. A particularly playful rendition of “We are Robots” had the band replaced onstage with mannequins propped up behind their synth podiums & projected in 3-D behind them. That last moment in particular pointed to the absurdity of paying to see a band so rooted in the artistry of music studio production perform “live” in the first place. The very idea of “a 3-D concert” is an exceedingly ridiculous concept on its own and the band never shied away from pointing to that absurdity. Instead of pursuing a more kinetic stage show, they turned their songs into a collection of short films with live music accompaniment, each devolving into long form meditations on concepts like international travel & “computer love”. The result felt a lot like watching a movie. Instead of feeling comradery with the band, like being within arms’ reach at a $5 punk show, you feel as if you’re watching a collection of mannequins stand before a silver screen; it’s distancing, but it’s also dazzling.

3-D technology has always been a William Castle-type gimmick meant to sell extra movie tickets to audiences looking for a novel & immersive cinematic experience. It was a perfect choice for Kraftwerk to draw an audience in with that cinema-specific gimmick because their live show already feels so similar to watching a movie in the first place. As the screen-heavy multimedia approach to the live concert becomes increasingly cinematic it’ll be interesting to see where other bands can take the basic idea explored by 3-D Kraftwerk, Dan Deacon, and others into new, more narrative territories. It’s not a perfect fit for every musical act, but in a struggling industry suffering long-term declines in album sales the idea of live music cinema could be a great potential moneymaker for bands more prone to in-the-studio tinkering than live rock n’ roll antics. More importantly, though, it could lead to innovative modes of great, cinematic art, the next evolution in both the movie going & live music experiences as we know them. It’s only appropriate that Kraftwerk would be one of the acts on the forefront of that innovation, as they have been with so many other musical advancements since the late 1960s.

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-Brandon Ledet

Girl Walk // All Day (2011) & 5 Other Must-See “Visual Albums”

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 2011 narrative dance video Girl Walk // All Day, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet