Sometimes musicians endeavor to create narratives for their music videos which actively enhance the emotional impact of their songs.
Music videos in their construction stretch the gamut from corporate-organized publicity stunts to painstakingly crafted artistic statements integral for an understanding of the song they accompany. They are an interesting reversal of normal films — where in normal films, a score acts as an interwoven element critical to interpreting the film, in music videos it is the film that is adding an extra dimension to our interpretation of the music.
Often, that filmic dimension is small, content to present band members as eye candy or demonstrate a group’s onstage energy. But sometimes musicians endeavor to create narratives for their music videos which actively enhance the emotional impact of their songs. Sometimes, they craft films that are as artistically complex as the songs themselves.
Yesterday, Francis and the Lights (a project of Francis Farewell Starlite) released a music video for “May I Have This Dance (Remix).” It is directed by Starlite’s friend and collaborator Jake Schreier (“Paper Towns”) — the two attended Berkeley High School together — and features Adam Newport-Berra (“Barry”) as cinematographer. Both Schreier and Newport-Berra have previously worked with Starlite on the music video for “Friends,” which featured Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Kanye West in a minimalist white studio space.
Both are rare cases of thoughtful, engaging pieces of visual art that leverage lighting, color, camera and subject together to produce an abstracted form of narrative, one in which our psychic distance and emotional investment is toyed with at the flip of a light switch or a single sweep of the camera.
The video for “May I Have This Dance (Remix)” trades in the seemingly infinite snow-white studio set of “Friends” for a paranoia-inducing, confining blackness. We see Starlite, dimly lit by a spotlight directly above him, his dark outfit fading into the blackness at its edges.
After a few beats of gentle swaying, he is joined by Chancelor Bennett (known professionally as Chance the Rapper and featured on the track). The camera — as much a character in this story as Starlite and Chance — smoothly begins to pull away, leaving the two musicians isolated in the sea of darkness.
There is an intentional subversion of our initial perception of the seemingly spontaneous emergence of Chance, in the mathematical, geometric setup of the trick.
That is, until exactly 30 seconds into the song, when the video ruthlessly and viscerally betrays us.
Just as we start feeling sorrow for the fading dancers, start feeling the panic of our own isolation in the oppressing, inky darkness, Chance appears in frame from camera left, inches away from our faces, the hazy ghost in the distance a mere reflection in a mirror.
Only a few seconds later, the camera has pulled back far enough for us to realize that the betrayal is twofold — it isn’t just a mirror; it’s glass, and where we expect Starlite to appear in frame next to Chance instead is a gaping void — Starlite himself is trapped far on the other side of the window. There is an intentional subversion of our initial perception of the seemingly spontaneous emergence of Chance, in the mathematical, geometric setup of the trick.
Suddenly, the video abandons the conceit of the optical illusion, allowing us to see the surrounding set — we reorient ourselves, finally feeling grounded.
As the song enters a new verse, we start sliding smoothly back in toward Chance, but we remain isolated from him, approaching from behind, unable to see his face. His motions mimic that of a puppet on strings, and we begin to feel like the puppeteer.
That sensation is only highlighted as the chorus launches and the camera — thus far limited to a two-dimensional plane in its motions — swings rapidly upwards to look straight down at Chance. Looking closely, we can actually see a blurry reflection of the camera itself underneath Chance in the white platform — a reflection of us, as the break in the fourth wall imparts a sense of voyeurism to our observation of Chance’s dancing.
As the song enters a new verse, we start sliding smoothly back in towards Chance, but we remain isolated from him, approaching from behind, unable to see his face. His motions mimic that of a puppet on strings, and we begin to feel like the puppeteer.
As chorus transitions to verse, we return down to the original camera plane, but on the complete opposite side of the platform from Chance — we see him from the side now, but feel miles away. By now, our desire to be placed in front of him, to interact with him, to feel a connection with him, is steadily rising as an uncomfortable anxiety.
And then, suddenly, as he rolls out of a double spin in his choreography, Chance stares directly into the camera at us, singing, “I love you more than your mother.” Having our spying recognized is jolting, even if we’ve been itching for acknowledgement from the artist for most of the song. But the moment is ephemeral, the camera already moving to center on the platform.
In a moment, it’s clear why. Banished since the opening, Starlite runs on screen and the two immediately launch into simultaneous spins, matching motion-for-motion for the rest of the video. It’s another subversion of our perception — Chance’s initial dancing feels disjoint, spontaneous, as if Chance is exploring the music for the first time. But the perfectly rehearsed, matching choreography reveals the intentionality of those earlier moves.
That climax has one, final trick up its sleeve. As the final chorus drops, the overhead lighting is cut and a white spotlight placed at ground level sears into them, casting long shadows on the set behind. The camera pulls back further and further, until we see the full set, as a hard, concrete studio, all illusions of dreamlike haziness burned away by the harsh light.
This video has no story structure, but it has characters, and it absolutely has an emotional narrative, conveyed exquisitely, precisely and at times frustratingly through the most subtle applications of motion, through the most sudden applications of lighting shifts, through distance, through color, through dance.
It is, in short, a masterstroke — a work of art that should be recognized, even at three minutes and 24 seconds, as a short film in its own right, and as a testament for the capacity for film to enhance our interpretation of music as much as music enhances our interpretation of film.