Sound And Vision: F. Gary Gray
In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors. This week we look at a few music videos by director F. Gary Gray.
When F. Gary Gray made Straight Outta Compton, it was the most obvious choice possible, as Gray has worked extensively with members of the rap group N.W.A, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre especially. His first big breakout as a music video director was the video for Ice Cube's It Was A Good Day (see below). It is a fairly literal music video, where we do see everything that Ice Cube describes play out on screen. The description of a good day, by Ice Cube standards, is all about having a lot of hedonistic fun, and no sudden violence erupting, be it from rival gangs or the police. F. Gary Gray has an ace up his sleeve though, escalating both the story and the budget at the end of the video, where cops suddenly show up with full force. It is the template for many an F. Gary Gray music video to come: relative calm that turns on a dime.
It is also the template for the film Friday, which starts as a deliciously leisurely hangout movie, based on a story and screenplay by Ice Cube himself, but which also escalates into violence eventually. If there are similarities between It's A Good Day and Friday, it seems to be on purpose, coming from the same writer (Ice Cube) and director, and playing in the same register.
The promotional single for Friday was Dr. Dre's now classic Keep Their Heads Ringin', which, surprisingly enough, doesn't follow the template set out by Gray's first outings. Instead it sets the template for another mode that Gray operates in: that of the heist movie. In this case the screens in an air control tower and airplane are hijacked, to show promotional clips for the film Friday. It is not that far removed from the story of Gray's own Lift (now on Netflix), or something like The Italian Job, Gray's most noteworthy entry into the cops vs. robbers genre. If there is anything that ties almost all videos and films by Gray together it is this love-hate-relationship with law enforcement, that shows up in videos like Dr. Dre's and Ice Cube's Natural Born Killaz and Babyface's How Come, How Long, and films like The Negotiator, Law Abiding Citizen and even MIB: International.
If anything else ties his entire work together it is the glossy sheen with which Gray directs both his music videos and films. The money is on the screen, for sure, where videos like TLC's Waterfalls, the aforementioned How Come, How Long, Outkast's Miss Jackson or Jay-Z's Show Me What You Got, play out like mini shorts, which all again culminate in an explosive finale. The most Gray-ish music video he ever made tho, is the one for R. Kelly's If I Could Turn Back the Hands Of Time (also below). It has this rather expensive looking and dramatically escalating story at its center, including an elaborate heist-like story-telling structure. It uses every cinematic trick in the book, and even has Gray's favorite trope, a car crash, in it. It is overwrought and uneven but also deliciously maximalist. Gray might be workmanlike and mostly a director for hire, he is also an auteur, be it a vulgar one. It is time for a reappraisal, for his cinematic output, but especially for his music videos.