If there is a redheaded stepchild of the creative arts, the music video format is it. Literature, music, theater, even the L’Enfant terrible that is cinema, all have their “respectable” champions and preservationists. Music video, on the other hand, has often been regarded as historically vital as a car commercial. (Granted, the visual trends of mainstream music videos in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s did make a lot of them look like actual car commercials, which probably has not helped.)
In fact, a large part of this is due to music videos being regarded as nothing more than cold-hearted commercials. Something that manipulated the masses and slaughtered the careers of less conventionally attractive artists to the altar of MTV while the refrain of The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” plays over and over on an eternally timed loop. Ironically, there is an actual music video for “Video Killed the Radio Star” and it did launch the debut of MTV back in 1981. But if that is one’s basic understanding of the format, then you are seeing the last three seconds of a television miniseries helmed by Ken Burns.
The early stages of any art form are often the most exciting. The newness of it all is a sweet preventative to hard lined rules of what you should and shouldn’t do. Nothing is codified and experimentation is royal. The early days of the format, dating back to the Scopitones and Video Jukeboxes of the late 1950’s and 1960’s and all the way through till the mid-1980’s produced some of the most thrilling, innovative, and striking works of audio-visual art. After that, some great work still continues to be made, despite the branded formula that grew bleached and mouldy by the mid-late 1980’s onward.
This series will be both a celebration and an exploration into some of the best, brightest, weirdest, and overlooked music videos from the past fifty years, starting with one made in the Great White North itself, Canada. Specifically, Burlington, Ontario, home of Spoons, a postpunk band that encountered commercial success in the 1980’s with singles like “Old Emotions,” “Arias & Symphonies” and the today’s visual focus, “Nova Heart.”
Typically, there are three kinds of music videos. There is the literal-story-telling variety where the lyrics are acted out on screen, line by line, sometimes with fun results (everything by the band Blotto) and other times with less than stellar results (Don Henley. Just Don Henley). The second variety is the straight concert-type music video, which was hugely popular with a lot of your butt-rock, Crest-toothpaste-smile-stadium bands, ala Bon Jovi or Europe. (Grab the maalox, kids.) Then there is the third kind, which is arguably the finest and most fascinating category, where the director uses the song in question as a soundtrack to a wholly new visual approach. It’s a concept that is two-part striking, with one half due to the visuals and the other half thanks to the deviation from trying to make everything literal and basically, dumbed down. This is precisely what occurred when the director, Robert F. Quartly, worked with Spoons for their 1982 music video of “Nova Heart.”
Naturally, it helps that “Nova Heart” as a song is a beautiful piece of poetry, hinting at definite meanings but not spelling everything out for you. Some of the lyrics include lines like, “Architects of the world/I walk your streets and live in your towns/Temporarily/Architects of the world/You’ve served us well until now/But soon we’ll be on our own.” In an interview for the web series Behind the Vinyl, lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Gordon Deppe talked about how he was influenced to go for a more synth-driven and dreamy sound (the latter my word choice, not Deppe’s) after seeing a live performance by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. How does one create a visual piece of art that gels with such a song? In the case of Quartly, really, really well.
The video centers around a young woman played here by the band’s bassist Sandy Horne. The introductory quick cuts reveal a neon clock in motion, the woman sleeping, a trio of men wearing matching, severe-looking white suits, all of whom are bathed in red light emanating from underneath glowing geometrical shapes, including a vertical rectangle and a triangle. Primary reds and blues are used throughout, along with the third main shape–an oval that glows bleached-white with red shifting on and around the titular “nova heart.”
She wakes up on her red bed, flanked by an artificial cityscape against a blue sky, and through some well-executed editing, is having a psychic connection with the three gentlemen. The latter is shown interacting with the shapes and looking directly into the camera, forging a communication between the woman via the mind, the light, the eyes, and the shapes. The men are the “architects of the world,” looking on as she opens up a large book lying next to her. The blank pages, along with her nails, are nearly pulsating in white.
Stark neon beauty takes a small break for the golden sequence, where the woman swings gently in a harvest-hued-false-pastoral setting. The white book is wide open on her lap, while the main gentleman, played by Deppe, sits next to a window and reads, while she softly swings, flanked by the other two men in repose. Intercut here are shots of the woman seemingly looking at this Fragonard’s Girl in a Swing painting-like scene through the nova heart.
As we get to the mid-late portion of the song, scenes of the band playing against an azure blue background are juxtaposed with the woman carrying the glowing egg-shaped item in near darkness, save for her form being backlit with white light. In the end, she brings it the gentlemen and places it on the red platform, reuniting it with its sister shapes. The neon clock shuts off and we have witnessed a little over four minutes of music video high art.
Director Quartly, who also made music videos for Canadian rock gods Rush (“Big Money”) and Helix (“Rock You,” “Kids Are All Shakin”), as well as Corey Hart (“Sunglasses at Night”), created something truly special with “Nova Heart.” The video received good airplay on Much Music, Canada’s premiere music video network. (Also, objectively, it was way, way, WAY better than MTV in America.) The core of Spoons, Deppe and Horne, have continued to create music off and on together and separately to the present day. As for the video, judging by that terrifying and occasionally entertaining world that is the comments section on YouTube, the majority of viewers are still smitten with both the song and video. (And Sandy Horne, who may or may not want to get some “bros beware” mojo dust from Papa Jim’s Botanica.)
But there is one possible creative child that came into this world tied to this video in the form of Panos Cosmatos’ 2010 sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Beyond the Black Rainbow. In the latter, there is a young woman named Elena (Eva Bourne), clad in white, though instead of the Victorian style dress that Sandy Horne wears in the music video, Elena’s clothes are more befitting of a patient who is being kept in an institution. (Which she is.) We often see Elena in various states of sleep and displaying a high level of psychic energy. Tapping into the latter is Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), who utilizes a large glowing white triangle that is surrounded by red light and darkness to try to harness and exploit Elena’s gift. Red neon light is used throughout the film, most strikingly in close-up shots of Barry, making his handsome features look alternately ethereal and severe. There is also a shot of Elena’s father and Barry’s old mentor, Dr. Mercurio Arboria (Scott Hylands), holding a smaller version of the glowing triangle, a near mirror image of Sandy Horne holding the nova heart towards the end of the video. Arboria, seen in an old promotion film for his institute, is dressed in a neo-futuristic white suit holding the illuminated object, a proxy to the gentlemen.
I haven’t been able to find anything official to confirm Cosmatos being directly influenced by “Nova Heart” but it is a strong coincidence if not an outright connection. Plus, the fact that he is Canadian and was a kid in the early-mid 1980’s, putting him in the perfect age range and era to be watching music video television, it feels like a rich possibility. A multitude of films have been inspired by music video-style editing and camerawork, while fewer have shown an influence where the visuals and the story itself are intertwined. That said, influence or not, Beyond the Black Rainbow is a brilliant and rewarding movie that does not cater to convention and refuses to take an easy way out. “Nova Heart,” both the music video and song, are equally fantastic. The video is as hypnotic now as it was when it was originally released. This is not a three-four minute commercial for a band. This is art.