DVD Review: “Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video”

Written by DVD Reviews, Music, Music Videos

A critical look at a critical look at the history of the music video.

money-for-nothing-posterThe documentary Money For Nothing: A History Of The Music Video is an ambitious overview of the music clip, from its inception which dates back farther than most would imagine, to its presumed death-knell as MTV took a turn toward “The Real World.” The film is by director Jamin Bricker and writer Saul Austerlitz, based on his book with the same title. Ted Asregadoo and Dw Dunphy have both screened the film and share their documentary smackdown presently. (Editor’s note: This review does not refer to the 2013 documentary regarding the Federal Reserve, also titled Money For Nothing.)

Dw – I suppose I’ll kick this off by saying that I enjoyed it for the most part. However, it felt too episodic for a documentary. There are interstitial animation breaks that, I suppose, correspond to the chapters in the book that the film is based on. There are also segment breaks where the movie logo comes up, almost like the Autobot and Decepticon symbols during narrative breaks in the old Transformer cartoons.

The other thing that rubbed me the wrong way was a level of editorializing with some of the videos. It is not the job of the narrator to declare Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” as Michel Gondry’s best work.

Ted – The movie was like a trip down memory lane.  Many videos I hadn’t seen in years, and while I know I could easily find them on YouTube or Vevo, I kind of forget about the videos because I’m looking at some other bright shiny object on the Internet.  I had forgotten how terrible some of the videos were, but there were many that were quite brilliant.  You mentioned Foo Fighters, and I remember loving “Big Me” when it came out because of their whole parody of the Mentos ads.  If played now for an audience who have no idea about that ad campaign, it might not have the level of humor that we take away from it.  The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” had a similar effect in terms of humor.  Sure, it’s a kick-ass song, but the Beasties don’t take themselves seriously, so to me, that just adds to the brilliance. I guess we can thank Spike Jonze for that, huh.

I have similar issues with the cutaways that seemed peppered in for broadcast TV. The narrator would be making a point about a particular video or band, and then it would cutaway to another “chapter” without concluding his thought.  It was like he was in mid-sentence and then it would cut to a graphic of the next chapter.  That’s bad editing, and it was just too choppy for me.  Also, the chronology of the videos were, at times, too haphazard.  At one point, Devo’s “Beautiful World” is being presented as a kind of vanguard video by the group, and then they flash back to their cover of “Satisfaction” as if the song came after “Beautiful World.”  I was yelling at the TV, “You got the order of this wrong!”

Did you find the analysis of the videos a little too academic? What I mean, is that the script sounds like it was someone’s Master’s Thesis.

Dw – I did. At points it felt like the scriptwriter was digging way too deep into the meaning of the cigar, when sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Having said that, I must say there is a considerable amount of money up there on the screen. It is a dizzying array of videos, with the expense of licensed music attached. There are also movie clips that support or refute points, and every single stakeholder had to get their pound of flesh out of the doc’s production budget.

As for the jumping around of chronology, I couldn’t tell you why they couldn’t stick to the timeline. There’s probably some vague aesthetic reason I’m missing.

There is a deep-seated flaw in the film’s premise though. It seems to equate the death of MTV playing videos with a demise of videos itself. That’s not true. Putting aside streaming services, videos through the invention of cellphones with Internet capacity are rapidly killing the MP3. Why buy a song when I can stream a YouTube video, raunchy as ever, through my phone? I can watch it or not, if I choose, but I can always listen to it. What sold Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”? Did people really like that song or that Emily Rajatkowski was naked throughout it?

The music video is very much alive, and like unruly, reckless, and dangerous children are killing its parents.

I do think the movie is entertaining though, if just a bit self-serious. It is the video equivalent of a greatest hits, or rather greatest clips, collection. There are no complete videos, and while the audience might say, “But I want whole videos!” the reality is that after a minute of watching Tawny Kitaen writhing on cars hoods, most people are turning off Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.”

You get the moments you were hoping for: Kurt Cobain’s slow-motion raging in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Dire Straits’ digital warehouse workers, Jani Lane’s disturbing grin (with or without augmentation) in Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” video (and yes, Bobbi Brown, too).

Ted – You’re right about videos not being dead. My daughter (who is 18) reminded me that she watches a lot of videos on YouTube and Vevo. And even though the days of “The World Premiere Video” are long gone, artists (well, their PR people) have figured out a way to leverage social media like Instagram to create excitement around the launching of a video.

There’s a lot of “Three days ‘til (insert video here)” pictures on Instagram that some artists use to keep their fans interested in their upcoming video.  The technique works because it builds anticipation —  which is not an easy thing to do in this time when you can find instant gratification on the Internet when it comes to music.  The difference, of course, between now and the MTV 24 hour videos era is that people can control their own programming. Instead of waiting for your favorite video to come up when you hear a VJ tease it at the top of the hour, you can just watch when you want, and on a variety of devices.  There may be anticipation, but it’s easily sated once the video is on the Internet — which results in quick diminishing returns in terms of longevity.

On another note, just as a music producer can be an unnamed member of a band, the video director is a key player in shaping how people experience music.  The visuals that the director creates often defines the song.  I remember back in the day, I’d hear a particular lyric or hook, and images of the video would flash in my mind.  And that’s a major point the film is trying to make.  Videos as pure commerce. They are three to four minute commercials, and they do the job of selling the music and making people want to buy it. Musical artists really should thank video directors helping an artist create a look that sets them apart from others.  I made a list of video directors featured in this documentary, and it’s quite a list of notables who were either on their way to being film directors or were film directors trying to ride the wave of music videos. In no particular order, here’s what I got:

James Foley
Mary Lambert
Jonathan Demme
Spike Lee
Gus Van Sant
John Singleton
Steve Barron
Brian De Palma
Russell Mulcahy
Jean-Baptiste Mondino
Herb Ritts
Spike Jonze
Michel Gondry
Hype Williams
Samuel Bayer
David Fincher
John Landis

I’m probably missing some, but it seems these directors were either able to explore some interesting images and filmmaking techniques that could be incorporated into feature films or just remain stand-alone achievements in the video genre.

Dw – Bayer, particularly, remains a lightning-rod in music videos, having directed Maroon 5’s recent and controversial “Animals” clip. And although I don’t think he ever directed music videos, Michael Bay owes more to that style for his career than anything else.

Problematically, that’s what Money For Nothing does to the viewer. We are more inclined to start talking about the clips than the merits of the film. It is entertaining and it does attempt to take a wide stand for the music video as an important piece of pop culture history. But it seems far too episodic to feel like a documentary, and instead feels like a compilation of critiques. It equates the death of MTV as a video outlet as the death of the video itself, and that’s a huge misread of history. This should be a strong rental, but I couldn’t vouch for ownership.

Money For Nothing will be available October 7 on DVD and digital download. For more information, visit: http://www.virgilfilmsent.com/index.php