Sound And Vision: Francis Lawrence
In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors. This week we take a look at Britney Spear's I'm A Slave 4 U and Lady Gaga's Bad Romance, both by Francis Lawrence.
There is a moment in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, in which heroine Katniss Everdeen is forced to go on stage in a dress that sets aflame like a Phoenix. She is wildly uncomfortable, but the moment seals her fate: this is where she becomes a star, and the rest of the franchise is her dealing with the repercussions of being someone in the public eye in a fascist dystopia. Is she one of the people in power, or the girl who will shake that power up? It is the most striking moment in the entire franchise, and a high-point in Francis Lawrence's career as a film director. But it is no surprise that he nailed that moment. If Francis Lawrence does one thing exceedingly well, it's the branding and rebranding of stars and characters.
Lots of his films are attempts to shake off the dust of old classics, put a new spin on them, and rebrand them for the future. Often this comes at the price of being lambasted by fanboys and critics alike, who don't like it that John Constantine in Constantine is now a brown-haired straight American who looks like Keanu Reeves and not a bisexual blond British guy who looks like Sting. Or who balk (slightly rightly so) at the ending of I Am Legend, a film that up till that point successfully reframed a Richard Matheson-story for the modern age. But give it time and Francis Lawrence always comes out a victor: both those films are now considered underrated.
Rebranding has always been Francis Lawrence's game, even as a video director. If you look at his wide and vast videography, many of the videos that became classics became so because Lawrence did something new and exciting with a pop star, young or well-established. If you want to launch an artist and make a music video that acts like a business card? You called Lawrence. And if your artist wasn't making hits anymore with their current brand, and you wanted to give them a make-over? You ESPECIALLY called Lawrence.
Witness classic nineties and early 2000's videos like launching pads I'm Like A Bird by Nelly Furtado, Sk8er Boi by Avril Lavigne or Shakira's Whenever, Wherever. Or when talking about rebranding, classic videos like Jennifer Lopez's Jenny From The Block, Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River, Gwen Stefani's What You Waiting For or Beyoncé's Run the World (Girls), all videos that relaunched a new image for their star, and prolonged their careers by a decade at least.
I want two single out two music videos especially, in that later category, for this week's pick of the Sound and Vision music video-of-the-week, because I think they single out what Francis Lawrence does so well. The first one is the sweaty, horny and sultry video for Britney Spear's I'm A Slave 4 U, that didn't just signal that this was a good girl gone bad, this was a good girl gone spoiled rotten. It's a daring video, and the misogynist controversy around Britney and this video can't be understated. People were clutching their pearls, but looking at it now, it's just a wild, sexy and vibrant video. It's not hard to see why puritanical conservatives were up in arms, cause tame the video ain't, even by some of today's standards. But it is sex positive and has stood the test of time.
The second video is Lady Gaga's Bad Romance. It is hard to forget that before this video Gaga was a star, but not an icon. She was up-and-coming, but also lambasted as a potential one hit wonder. The Fame, her debut album, had some bonafide hits, but it was only with Jonas Akerlund's video for Paparazzi, that Lady Gaga established herself as this bonafide icon in the making. The next video would be a make-it-or-break-it-moment. Bad Romance made her what she is today, and it's partly because of Lawrence's savvy visuals. At turns monstrous and erotic all shot in stark white, this video was instantly iconic, using the 'rah-rah-rah's' of the song as a jumping off point for almost animalistic costumes and choreography. Call it a mating call. Lawrence has been mostly working in film for the past decade, but as a music video director he's an icon and his influence has been far-reaching.