Sunday, 11 November 2018

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: DANCING ON THE CEILING


91. “What is happening here / Something’s going on that’s not quite clear”



10/11/2018



From Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze to Michael Bay and David Fincher, many film directors began their careers working on music videos, which is ironic considering how the advent of the music video came not with the start of MTV in 1981, but when established directors became attracted to the form: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” by John Landis, and “Bad” by Martin Scorcese, Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” by Brian De Palma, and Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes” by, of all people, Sam Peckinpah.



Therefore, it isn’t that surprising that Lionel Richie - someone whose music, to me, is the line painted down the middle of the road - would seek out Stanley Donen to direct a video for him. Donen, whose name is attached to classic MGM musicals like “On the Town,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” later directed Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in “Charade,” Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in “Bedazzled,” and the science fiction film “Saturn 3.” In 1986, Donen would produce the Academy Awards broadcast, direct Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in a musical segment for their show “Moonlighting,” and recreate one of his most celebrated film scenes for a pop song. Only one problem with that: Lionel Richie is not Fred Astaire.

Released in 1951, “Royal Wedding” starred Fred Astaire and Jane Powell as a song and dance duo performing in London when the future Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip. Astaire’s character expresses how he falls in love by singing, and dancing to, “You’re All the World to Me,” when he jumps onto a chair, almost loses his balance, which he regains by jumping onto the wall, and continues dancing onto the ceiling... 

For all the mechanics of constructing the scene, using a room constructed in a barrel, filled with stiff, immovable props, the scene only works because Astaire, who conceived it, moved with graceful, light steps, making his defiance of gravity believable. You have the initial surprise of Astaire landing on the wall, but this turns to joy with how effortless he makes it look, made even clearer by the extended length of the shots, the camera fixed on Astaire, making it clear no trick photography was used at any stage.

And so, Classical Hollywood comes to music video, and there is no reason to do the same thing again, other than you can. Lionel Richie, coming back from a performance, is the life of the party, and everyone is dancing... on the ceiling. Richie is the first to complete a circuit of the room, then others join in, dancing any which way. There is no copying of Astaire’s routine from “Royal Wedding” – these people are dancing because they find it hard to keep their feet on the ground, and the more rapid cutting between shots makes that clear.

I am not sure why Stanley Donen was required, as it was not like anyone had done anything similar by then – a character in the infamous “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” dances on the ceiling, and that was in a set borrowed from “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Donen’s name feels attached to this video to gain a sense of legitimacy, confirming this is being done properly, but this is then ruined by a random cameo from Rodney Dangerfield at the end, saying he should not have eaten that upside-down cake.

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