David Fincher Music Videos Explained, from Madonna to NIN

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In anticipation of the release of ‘Mank’ on December 4, this week Collider will be presenting original essays and features diving into the work of David Fincher.

Before he started crafting everyone’s favorite prestige “prestige popcorn misanthropic thriller features” — and a little bit during, too — David Fincher established his career directing music videos. His rise in the form aligned keenly with the rise of the form itself; Fincher’s first credited music video, Rick Springfield‘s 1984 tune “Dance This World Away”, came just three years after MTV’s debut, and you can feel the lack of abandon and burgeoning experimentation in technique throughout all his videos, just as you can feel pop culture at large recognize the power and joy in aligning visuals to music in such a pure fashion.

If you’ve not seen any of Fincher’s early music videos, you’ll find a couple of surprising breadcrumbs in these works. One: His knack for instantly iconic imagery is unparalleled. Part of this is because, again, the form of music videos was so nascent that certain works from certain mammoth artists couldn’t help but become iconic by happenstance of being “the first,” but I do not want this fact to discredit just how natural, how instinctive, and how good Fincher is at crafting images that stick and linger in the consciousness. And two: There are such strong, straight lines one can draw from Fincher’s impulses in the music video space versus the feature film space, not just aesthetically, but narratively as well; down to the level of “one music video seeming to directly influence or echo in a later film”.

In celebration of the auteur, we’ve collected 10 of Fincher’s most notable music videos (one per artist only) and examined how they reverberate throughout the rest of his career. And if you’re into these, there’s many more for you to watch, devour, and enjoy.

Rick Springfield, “Bop ‘Til You Drop” (1984)

“In the hot city / Keep on working day and night / Don’t stop ’til you get what you want”

Straight up, when I watch Fincher’s video for Rick Springfield’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop”, I think to myself, “Give this guy an Alien sequel.” The tune itself gives us fun, soft-pop-rock danceable energy, but the visual is dark, drenched in science fiction and horror elements, and rife with surreal practical effects. Fincher gives us all of his visual, aesthetic obsessions, especially in its shadowy compositions, color palettes alternating between severely gold and grimily warm, and roving, fluid movements. As for his subjects? He casts Springfield as one of his many “protagonists who can no longer stomach the casual oppressiveness of the world at large,” a mythical hero who can save the Sisyphean fates of these poor, pale plebeians forced to work under the monstrous eye of a wild-ass skeletal monster. The way to win is to “bop until you drop,” yes, but this piece of surprising optimism doesn’t dampen the pure, raw-but-controlled terror lurking within in this clip’s shadowy frames. A genuinely upsetting, enthralling watch that takes us to Alien 3 quickly, and makes me want Fincher to try another creature feature soon.

Jermaine Stewart, “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” (1986)

“A quick hit, that’s your game / But I’m not a piece of meat, stimulate my brain”

While Mank may be the apotheosis of this impulse, Fincher has been interested in the language, procedure, and mythologies behind “classic Hollywood” since his music videos — doubly so if it’s being engaged with by an outsider of the system. You can see this from the jump in “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off,” that progressive ode to romantic interactions without sexual pressure from Jermaine Stewart (i.e. an outsider from the usual pop music/romance system of “casual sex”). We open with a series of classic “film exhibition” title cards, counting us down, giving us that brief upside-down “picture start” intel, reminding me very much of Fincher’s meta-textual shenanigans in Fight Club. And then Fincher sets up a video tableau he’ll return to often: A group of contemporary artists playing around with classical Hollywood looks and vibes while the evidence of their present tense constructions — lights, ladders, cameras, crew — lies around them. We know from his films like Zodiac that Fincher loves professionals performing procedures; in this clip, we see how he communicates that impulse simply, quickly, and solely visually.

Speaking of solely visually, Fincher has fun cutting between dramatic compositional lengths, giving us impressive wide shots, keenly emotional (even playful, not something we see from Fincher often) close-ups, and an eventual corruption and collusion between the two modes. Fincher mucks around with the aspect ratio to do everything he wants — he’s nothing if not a controlling director — until close-ups in the foreground bust open wider aspect ratios of wide shots in the background, a wondrous, surprisingly noticeable climax to Fincher’s usually invisible dissemination of visual effects. Plus, that camera roves throughout the subjects, like Fincher’s camera loves to dang do.

Sting, “Englishman in New York” (1988)

“I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”

It’s evident from the song title: Sting‘s “Englishman in New York” is the story of an outsider who can’t help but disrupt the system around him. And Fincher simply loves this story, giving it more “picture marker” meta-sound effects to heighten it to the point of classical filmmaking, finding the joy in the purity of fusing sound and motion (especially in the synchronicity of his editing), blowing up the impulse of “high-contrast color schemes” to its logical conclusion with such overexposed black-and-white photography, and of course, that camera is always roving! There’s a purposeful “lack of control” in this clip’s language, though it’s obviously controlled within its DNA to seem that way, and it results in a wholly “alive” feeling clip that gives me some Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vibes, especially in its backlit tableaus where we can see subjects’ breath in the cold. And in one spectacularly cacophonous breakdown, where Sting’s controlled, mellow tune erupts in vivid percussion for a couple of bars, Fincher lets all Hell break loose, hinting at some of the chaotic imagery we’ll eventually see in Seven‘s opening credits sequence.

Steve Winwood, “Holding On” (1988)

“People should be searching all night long / For a reason to help them live”

Whoops, Fincher likes making thrillers! The director takes Steve Winwood‘s “Holding On,” an ode to finding the person who makes life worthwhile, zeroes in on the desperation and pain evident within that idea, and blows it out into a phantasmagoric, intense, explosive examination of the pervasive perversions bubbling under the most proper, upper-class denizens of society; it feels like Fincher made The Game using only techniques from his Seven title sequence. Again, Fincher pushes past the form of “film,” shifting between every kind of color stock (black and white, sepia, bleached out color) and utilizing disruptive flashes of white to invade our space in as subjective a way as possible (these flashes pleasingly synced up with the music’s hits). As a demo reel for “making a neo-noir,” Fincher has thrown subtlety out the window, showing us all what devilish production design, oppressive framing techniques, and propulsive editing he can throw at the genre if given the chance. And Winwood himself is our private eye, our alien observer who keenly observes all of this chaos without being able to do much about it; the perfect protagonist for Fincher’s peerless filmmaking techniques.

Paula Abdul, “Straight Up” (1989)

“Lost in a dream / I don’t know which way to go”

In the opening moments of Paula Abdul‘s “Straight Up”, she tap dances with panache, her and Fincher telling us we’re going to directly engage with classical Hollywood musicals head-on. Then, they’re both like, “Fuck that.” We move into a new jack swing groove, and a bevy of phenomenal professional dancers come in to disrupt any previous myths of Hollywood to breathlessly write a new one. And Fincher is here to film it all, pushing his high-contrast lighting-scapes past the point of traditional comprehension, processing the final product in a grimy-yet-glamorous blue-and-white film stock that feels timeless and alien. The relationship between “movement of subject” and “movement of camera” continues to be refined and perfected in this clip, with Fincher patiently knowing when he needs to stay still to let his movers move. There’s also more playing with “neo-noir” visuals; shots of Abdul lit brilliantly like a femme fatale cross-cut between a darkly lit, fedora-sporting man in a shadowy cityscape, all heightened by the unusual color correction. And Fincher takes this muckraking with classical visuals to the next level by interrupting the flow of the piece with flashes of lyrics onscreen, giving us, again, Seven titles vibes, straight up.

Aerosmith, “Janie’s Got a Gun” (1989)

“They said when Janie was arrested they found him underneath a train / But man, he had it comin'”

On Aerosmith‘s “Janie’s Got a Gun”, Fincher is flexing. Granted, he was gifted a song that already told a story of psychosexual obsession, upper-class corruptions, and murder; aka the topics he’d later explore in works like SevenGone GirlThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Mindhunter. But you can feel Fincher rising to meet and exceed the material, not content to simply depict it, resulting in one of the purest, most creatively successful videos of his career. Janie is a perfect protagonist for Fincher, a young woman who is so beaten up and brutalized by her oppressive surroundings that she is fated to drown in, she must fight back, must resort to a vicious crime in retaliation to the vicious, personal-cum-systemic crimes perpetrated to her. It’s all communicated using Fincher’s time-tested techniques, crystallized to near-perfect efficacy. Gnarly, shadowy, high-contrast colorscapes make our cities look decrepit and frightening, while hard-cuts to brightly lit suburban interiors make our “places of comfort” look unwelcome and alien. The camera roves and moves throughout every facet of this oppressive videoscape with control, skill, and motivation. Even the performance sequences of Aerosmith playing the tune feel both in dialogue with his earlier tactics of “watching professionals go through their procedure with surprisingly wide shots” and writing new dialogue that aligns something as otherwise appealing as “Steven Tyler singing” with an underlit, unsettling milieu. And Fincher also weaponizes one of the most perversely entertaining meta-aspects of his career, something made textual in moments of Fight Club: His need to smuggle taboo pieces of ultra-violence and madness into mass entertainment and culture. Somehow, this video about incestual abuse and murder rife with unsettling imagery became an MTV mainstay, a mere taste of things to come from Chef Fincher.

Madonna, “Vogue” (1990)

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“Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache / It’s everywhere that you go”

One of the most iconic music videos ever made, from an artist who’s got quite a few of them. Madonna‘s “Vogue” was a game-changer for her, the form of music videos, the level of dancing acceptable on your average dance floor (can’t dance? Frame your face like a film shot; done), and of course, for Mr. David Fincher. It’s his cleanest take on “classical Hollywood mythology meets contemporary muckraking impulses”; Madonna herself borrowed the idea of vogueing from New York City LGBTQ+ ballroom culture, fused it with explicit lyrics and imagery about the classic Hollywood scene (down to a psuedo-rapped list of actors as a bridge), and set it all to a club-friendly house beat. Fincher took these fusions of culture, high and low, classic and contemporary, and came up with an eminently watchable, entertaining, stylish, and downright Mank-esque music video.

Like much of his previous video work, we see the detritus of “making a film” while the subjects are in the middle of “making the film”. It’s in high-contrast, astonishingly lit black-and-white photography, with Fincher making ample use of shadows and light and the narrow spaces in between to his advantage. His camera and editing instincts are as professional as they’ve ever been; no move or cut is unmotivated or unmatched to a moment of the tune. And in the middle of it all? A story about a protagonist trying desperately to fit into an oppressive world she doesn’t understand who resorts to making her own rules as a response. Strike a pose, change the world.

George Michael, “Freedom! ’90” (1990)

“Well it looks like the road to Heaven / But it feels like the road to Hell”

In one performative shot in Panic Room, Fincher’s camera flows throughout Jodie Foster‘s house in a oner, flying through objects’ narrow crevasses like they were nothing, making us feel like a particularly stylish God. Wanna know where the seeds of that shot were originally planted? Check out the clip for George Michael‘s “Freedom! ’90”, another ultra-iconic video from an artist chock-full of them. In fact, Michael — and Fincher — have such iconic visuals on their CV that they can have fun of them, putting not just “classic Hollywood mythology” through the postmodern blender, but their own postmodern mythology. “When you shake your ass, they notice fast,” sings Michael, cannily and satirically referencing one of his most famous videos. How does Fincher, so well-known in the industry for blowing up and out his subjects to vault them into a new era of mythology, communicate this moment? By quickly, lackadaisically, and snarkily shooting a guy wearing boxers from his backside, not much special in its framing, color temperature, or editing rhythm.

“Freedom! ’90”, despite its painful lyrics representing the story of an alien man who’s been absorbed by the system only to find himself chewed up and spit out, is one of Fincher’s most playful videos. Certainly not in form — we’ve got all kinds of perfectly crafted mini-sequences rife with intentional camera moves and rhythmic cutting — but in content; instead of focusing on one protagonist doing their best to survive, we watch a group of normal people align themselves with this point of view, representing something I’m not used to seeing from Fincher: Optimism. Optimism in the face of anger and pain and self-hatred, sure, but a hard-fought, playful optimism nonetheless. And when we start to blow up our messed-up past to strive for this more hopeful future, I can’t help but think of the self-reflexive narrative device in Gone Girl.

As for that Panic Room-esque shot? It happens quickly, but is immediately noticeable even in its casual mastery of craft. Fincher’s camera, which we’re so used to roving throughout with ease, passes through the handle of a tea kettle on its way toward its subject, a move we will see constantly from Fincher throughout his feature film career, Panic Room and otherwise.

A Perfect Circle, “Judith” (2000)

“Oh so many ways for me to show you / How the savior has abandoned you”

By 2000, Fincher had already made his mark as a feature filmmaker, giving us Alien 3SevenThe Game, and Fight Club, pumping the brakes on his music video career along the way. So when he did return to the video game, like in A Perfect Circle‘s “Judith”, it demanded attention. And “Judith” demands attention from beginning to end, despite it being one of his simpler videos in concept and execution. You can absolutely tell this comes from the director of Seven and Fight Club, as it’s full of noticeable disruptions, obscuring film grain, and aggressive corruption of the stock itself; not to mention its grimy, gritty, sweaty color temperature and shadowy lighting. It’s also in dialogue with his previous performance-oriented videos; we see the evidence in procedure of recording the song as they’re recording the song, we see their motion in full display in shocking wide shots, and we see a simply delicious roving shot through a mixing console.

And, well, that’s about it! And that’s all it needs to be! By now, Fincher is such a confident stylist, visual storyteller, and understanding of what makes human behavior the most compelling to watch, that he only needs to shoot a band being a band with corrupted film-stock and intention in construction, and it will be the most captivating thing you’ll watch all day.

Nine Inch Nails, “Only” (2005)

“I’m less concerned about fitting into the world / Your world, that is”

After adding Panic Room to his feature CV, Fincher gave us a taste of what his eventual feature film collaborations with Trent Reznor might look like in the propulsive, minimalist, clinically groovy video for Nine Inch Nails‘ “Only”. Fincher has taken the CG-aided fluidity in camera movements taken out for a spin in Fight Club and Panic Room and fetishized them to a nearly-absurd degree, and has decided to fetishize our over reliance on the conveniences, traps, and toys of technology in the corporate workspace (another foreshadowing of Fincher and Reznor’s eventual Social Network magnum opus). In the clip, Reznor is our alien protagonist who’s been swallowed up by the oppressive world around him. Quite literally. As in, he solely exists within one of those “metal spikes that stay pressed out” office toys that represents the banal terrors of corporate influence so cleanly. But he’s not going down without a fight. Over a surprisingly danceable disco-industrial beat, Reznor growls and screams and preens that the oppressive forces that bind him literally do not exist in his wake; that he will destroy any and all shackles in his quest for autonomy; that there is no you, there is only me. While Fincher is mostly a passive (yet physically very active) observer in these proceedings, he eventually aligns himself with Reznor’s goals, threatening to disrupt the carefully crafted pablum of this officescape by exploding them with kinetic energy and rage at the song’s climax, coming this close to giving Reznor a happy ending.

But then… Everything fades back as it started. The song powers down. And Reznor disappears back into the office toy, offering a cynically downbeat epilogue to the “blow up the corporate buildings” ending offered by Fight Club. But you don’t walk away feeling beaten down. You walk away feeling inspired, invigorated, ready to keep trying. And you know that Fincher will be ready to tell stories about people like you, trying to fight every system you can with expert-level filmmaking, no matter what song underscores it.

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