10 great debut films by music video directors

From David Fincher to Jonathan Glazer, some of the most acclaimed modern directors began their careers making music videos. Here’s what their first films looked like.

13 May 2021

By Josh Slater-Williams

Control (2007)

Using a post-apocalyptic framing device, dystopian anthology Undergods explores three tales of totalitarianism set in a future, disintegrating Europe. It’s the first big screen directing credit for Chino Moya, who comes to filmmaking from a background in music videos, having shot promos for artists including St Vincent, Years & Years and Will Young.

By this point, there’s a long, rich history of music video veterans making the leap to feature films. Some of the most celebrated modern filmmakers – David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Jonathan Glazer among them – first made their name working in music videos. 

But the transition isn’t always smooth. While they may later go on to better things, not every star director of the promo world has come up with the goods on their first feature. Very few people, for example, would go to bat for what’s currently still the lone feature-directing credit of Samuel Bayer, one of the most celebrated music video directors around. It was the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

To mark the release of Undergods, what follows are 10 of the best debut features from music video veterans. But some criteria first: extended concert recordings shot for home media, relatively common in the VHS era, have not been counted as debut features. Also ineligible for the list are directors who may have had a number of music video credits to their name prior to their debut feature but who were previously best known for directing TV, acting or their own recorded music output, such as Richard Ayoade and Rob Zombie.

Undergods, which was backed by the BFI Film Fund with National Lottery money, is in cinemas and on digital platforms, including BFI Player, from 17 May 2021.

Electric Dreams (1984)

Director: Steve Barron

Electric Dreams (1984)

Steve Barron directed some of the defining music videos of the early years of MTV, including Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and, following his debut feature, a-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ and Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’. As he was one of the first directors in the field to make the transition to feature films, it’s interesting to note how much of Electric Dreams leans on the specific music video aesthetic that Barron helped define. The sheer number of musical interlude montages at times make this tech-romcom feel like an anthology of pop promos.

But there’s an actual narrative here too – an absurd one, but one told with affection. When Miles (Lenny von Dohlen) gets a state-of-the-art personal computer, he ends up triggering artificial intelligence in the machine after spilling champagne in it. Cue Edgar (voiced by Bud Cort), as the computer calls itself, pining for musician neighbour Madeline (Virginia Madsen), who Miles has started to date.

Barron’s career includes music videos for: Michael Jackson, Toto, Adam and the Ants and The Human League.

Alien³ (1992)

Director: David Fincher

Alien 3 (1992)

One of the most notoriously fraught Hollywood productions of the 1990s, the divisive Alien³ has since been disowned by director David Fincher. The film’s place on this list is based on the more warmly received ‘assembly cut’ first released on DVD in 2003, which features 37 minutes of new and alternative footage and several major plot elements that differ from the theatrical release. Fincher abstained from being involved, though he did give the extended version his blessing.

While the film’s third act is still hampered by an often incomprehensible set-piece involving screaming supporting players speeding through a geographically confusing succession of corridors, there’s plenty to admire in what precedes it. If you can stomach the film’s perverse rejection of obvious crowd-pleasing story directions, Alien³ stands as a menacing, bleakly beautiful reflection on grief, endurance, redemption, absolution and the notion of a higher power.

Fincher’s career includes music videos for: Madonna, George Michael, Rick Springfield and Paula Abdul.

Belly (1998)

Director: Hype Williams

Belly (1998)

Focused on mood and emotion more than narrative coherency, Hype Williams’ gorgeously shot crime drama Belly, starring DMX and Nas, is a vivid time capsule of 1998, which feels like nothing else backed by an American studio since.

Charting the twin journeys of two gangster friends, on a slow crawl to apparent dead ends in the run-up to the new millennium, Williams filters recent American crime cinema – from Brian De Palma to Bill Duke – and the hip-hop video iconography he helped define through an intense atmosphere that borders on apocalyptic. Whether actual influences or not, there are shades of the yakuza films of Seijun Suzuki or Takeshi Kitano to the underworld dynamics here, though Belly is more consciously a response to blaxploitation. It’s a crime that this remains Williams’ only feature directing credit to date.

Williams’ career includes music videos for: 2Pac, The Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes and Will Smith.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Director: Spike Jonze

Being John Malkovich (1999)

A kind of adult Alice in Wonderland, where Wonderland is a portal to the hyper-specific consciousness of actor John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s exquisite, often baffling comedy gains new layers with every revisit.

More than 20 years on, you may now have a sense of what you’re going to get with a Kaufman screenplay, but his and Jonze’s high-concept feature calling card has lost none of its profundity or sense of invention. Its technical wizardry with sound design, body doubles and compositing performers – such as in the sequence where Malkovich enters his own subconscious to be greeted by duplicates of himself in all sorts of shapes and sizes – can be traced to Jonze’s innovative early videos, such as ‘Elektrobank’ for The Chemical Brothers, ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ for Björk and ‘Buddy Holly’ for Weezer.

Jonze’s career includes music videos for: Beastie Boys, Björk, Weezer and Fatboy Slim.

Sexy Beast (2000)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Sexy Beast (2000)

Some of Jonathan Glazer’s best music videos, such as the one he made for UNKLE’s ‘Rabbit in Your Headlights’, starring Denis Lavant, thrive on an off-kilter vibe. A seemingly clear scenario is upended by the sudden intrusion of something completely unexpected within the established framework. That’s a quality he carries over to the very first scene of Sexy Beast, as Ray Winstone’s relaxed sunbathing in a Spanish villa, set to The Stranglers’ ‘Peaches’, is abruptly interrupted by a large boulder rolling down a hill and right into his pool, just barely missing him.

Other Glazer video highlights, such as Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police’, radiate a sense of menace, and there are few crime film creations as terrifying as Ben Kingsley’s raging id of the London underworld here. He’s come to bring the retired Winstone back into the fray, and is unwilling to take no for an answer. The fractured story structure also drives the unease, as do fantastical dream interludes involving cinema’s creepiest humanoid rabbit outside of Donnie Darko (2001).

Glazer’s career includes music video highlights for: Radiohead, Jamiroquai, UNKLE and Blur.

Constantine (2005)

Director: Francis Lawrence

Constantine (2005)

This stylish adaptation of DC Comics’ Hellblazer has aged well amid the landscape of interconnected superhero comic book movies that followed. Rather than focusing on a textbook transferral of its action-horror source material, sanitising the set-ups and providing a feature-length origin story to signpost a sequel that ultimately never came, Francis Lawrence’s debut throws the viewer into the deep end of its strange universe of sparring half-angels and half-demons.

The world-building is rich, but crucially, unlike so many modern blockbusters, that’s down to strong visual storytelling instincts as much as any reliance on esteemed actors spouting dialogue. On that note, though, Tilda Swinton is electrifying as the angel Gabriel, and Peter Stormare’s Lucifer is a strong contender for the title of best ever cinematic Devil. Meanwhile, judged without familiarity with the character’s comics incarnation (a blonde Liverpudlian), Keanu Reeves is perfect as the cynical, detached and acerbic John Constantine, the cancer-plagued exorcist figure at the film’s centre.

Lawrence’s career includes music video for: Pink, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake and Garbage.

Thumbsucker (2005)

Director: Mike Mills

Thumbsucker (2005)

A coming-of-age movie about a teenager who sucks his thumb may initially set off alarm bells in your head, especially if you’re sensitive to that certain mode of precious American indie movie sometimes labelled ‘Sundance bait’. But while Mike Mills’ endearing debut feature, adapted from a book by Walter Kirn, does have that goofy hook as a plot catalyst, it’s an incisive and warm character study; eccentric but by no means insufferable.

Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci) is the 17-year-old thumbsucker – a sign of insecurity that worries his reserved father (Vincent D’Onofrio) but fascinates his philosophical orthodontist (Keanu Reeves, once again perfectly cast). As Justin navigates late adolescence, seeking different forms of treatment and diagnoses, his parents (Tilda Swinton as his mother) strip back the layers of their relationship issues too. The threads of Mills’ more widely celebrated studies of romance and family, Beginners (2010) and 20th Century Women (2016), are all here in his debut.

Mills’ career includes music videos for: Moby, Air, Pulp and Mansun.

Control (2007)

Director: Anton Corbijn

Control (2007)

Having befriended the members of Joy Division in the early 1980s, taken photos of them for NME, and later directed the music video for the 1988 re-release of ‘Atmosphere’, Anton Corbijn seemed more than qualified to steer a biopic of Ian Curtis – one that deliberately evoked the mood of the era. It’s been reported that Corbijn even paid for half of the production budget out of his own pocket.

Unsurprisingly bleak, given the nature of the story, the black-and-white film – adapted from widow Deborah Curtis’s biography Touching from a Distance – is also frequently tender and darkly funny, the latter largely down to Joe Anderson as Peter Hook and Toby Kebbell as manager Rob Gretton. At its centre are sensational turns from Sam Riley as Ian and Samantha Morton as Deborah. Like Corbijn, Riley was making his big-screen debut.

Corbjin’s career includes music videos for: Depeche Mode, U2, Nirvana and Echo & the Bunnymen.

Catch Me Daddy (2014)

Director: Daniel Wolfe

Catch Me Daddy (2014)

Daniel Wolfe’s debut – co-written with brother Matthew – was inspired by what the press have called ‘honour killings’, crimes committed to defend the reputation of a community. In Catch Me Daddy, two groups (one white, one British Asian) arrive in West Yorkshire, where Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed, magnetic in what’s still her lone screen role) has run away with white Scottish boyfriend Aaron (Conor McCarron). The couple is forced to flee across the streets and pitch-black moors during one terrifying night, with members of each hunting party, including her brother, never far behind.

Shocking yet grimly beautiful, the film – lightly influenced by westerns such as The Searchers (1956) – sidesteps commentary on the religious or political factors motivating many of these crimes. Much of its power instead comes through examining the ways in which female agency is suppressed by clashing masculine agendas.

Wolfe’s career includes music videos for: Plan B, Sugababes, Take That and Duffy.

Emma. (2020)

Director: Autumn de Wilde

Emma (2020)

A largely faithful new take on Jane Austen’s novel, Autumn de Wilde’s beautifully staged film distinguishes itself from the many other screen adaptations of Emma through sheer energy and a candy-coloured aesthetic. The results feel inspired by both Wes Anderson, and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) – though without that unique biopic’s playful anachronisms.

Aside from directing many music videos, de Wilde is also a world-renowned portraitist. She’s behind striking album covers for artists such as Beck and Jenny Lewis, whom she’s also directed in videos. There’s something particularly intimate and inventive about how she captures faces and bodies on those covers; for example, on Beck’s 2002 album Sea Change. It’s a quality that she brings to the framing in this lively cinematic debut.

De Wilde’s career includes music videos for: Florence + the Machine, Beck, Jenny Lewis and Death Cab for Cutie.

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