Musicians love directing movies. It’s an immutable truth. It seems as if every artist working at the peak of their abilities just can’t help but let that creative vigor cross-pollinate to other artforms, leaking into fashion, furniture design, business, cinema, and anything else that could make lots of money and a dope artistic statement to boot.
While we wait with bated breath for Yeezy’s IKEA collab to drop (pray for me), here are eight of the best weird, avant-garde, operatic films made by musicians over the years.
#8 Pink Floyd – The Wall
Let’s begin with something easy — the most well known musical film by one of the most critically acclaimed bands ever. Even though Pink Floyd are indisputable music icons, bypassing accusations of dadrock through sheer staying power, the fact that The Wall still flies under the radar of most filmgoers is a testament to the obscurity of this whole movies-by-bands thing.
It’s hard to listen to Pink Floyd’s seminal album without seeing the songs play as scenes in your mind — the whole thing is so visually ready, so desperate to be seen and not just heard. That’s just what the band intended, as the album was written with a film release in mind.
Initially planned to be a mix of live concert recordings and animated sequences, the film morphed and changed after the crew ran into numerous technical difficulties — the concert footage was too dark and the footage was too lo-fi, and so they scrapped the whole thing and started from scratch, bringing in animated sequences and an elaborate story about a man named Floyd Pinkerton, based on a script written by the lead vocalist, Roger Waters, himself.
We end up with a bizarre, surreal, largely dialogue-free movie that is rife with symbolism and heavy metaphor. A bit like a Floyd album cover, but with Bob Geldof in the lead role, and animated stuff constantly exploding into cloudbursts of gore.
#7 Animal Collective – Oddsac
Animal Collective’s experimental approach shines in this 53 minute avant-garde film exercise, channelling the frenetic chaos of experimental film legend Stan Brakhage, scored by a howling, grating soundtrack by the band themselves.
The film is largely colors and shapes, devoid of a story or characters, and more concerned with the act of experiencing something as a “happening”, hallucinogens optional. They made the music to go along with the film, and the film to go along with the music — a rare collaboration between two art forms that rarely work in tandem to this degree.
Is it worth watching? It’s not an easy film, and will likely leave you tired, confused, and somewhat elated. But if you’re a true AnCo completist, you’ve got to add this one to your watchlist.
#6 Daft Punk – Electroma
Who remembers watching those blue aliens transform into rockstars? Or the giant guitar spaceship? Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 hasn’t aged so gracefully, but it was a huge step outside the norm in the early 2000s. It’s also scored by the genre-defining Discovery, which helps abundantly. But for what it’s worth, Daft Punk’s most cohesive offering as filmmakers is probably their bizarre 2006 film Electroma.
It’s about two androids who want to become human. They cruise through the desert in a vintage Ferrari to Todd Rundgren, and wear creepy prosthetic faces that, when seen, will stick with you forever. Based largely in part on Gus Van Sant’s almost unwatchable Gerry, the film is devoid of dialogue and has only the barest of stories. It more than makes up for it with stunning cinematography, though — legend goes that the duo bought up the entire back-catalog of American Cinematographer Magazine and pored over it all before shooting. The end result speaks to their impressive mastery of the craft, all the more impressive for their ability to think visually as well as sonically.
#5 Talking Heads – True Stories
The greatest image David Byrne ever created wasn’t his tiny head inside the Big Suit, but this kooky cult comedy. Released before the album of the same name, True Stories takes a wild premise — what if all those trashy tabloid “true stories” were actually true? — and runs with it. The story draws upon hundreds of tabloid clippings that Byrne had saved while on tour, creating a wonderful and funny collage of weirdness that Talking Heads fans should be familiar with.
Written, directed, and starring Byrne himself, the film is a surprisingly cohesive piece of entertainment, enjoyable for Talking Heads fans and uninitiated viewers alike.
#4 Kanye West – Runaway
A Czech supercar hurtles through the woods to the exultant opening beat of Dark Fantasy, and this is how one of the finest rap videos ever made begins. Kanye West rescues a phoenix, finger drums on a classic MPC2000, plays the piano surrounded by prancing ballerinas, and lays down a stunning visual counterpart to one of the best rap albums ever made. While critics have accused it of amateurism and pretension, it rises above that with its sheer ostentatious style, a truly Westian move.
Forgive the hammy acting, the cheap special effects, and the nonsense story — Yeezy knows when something looks good, and he showcases that talent constantly in this film. If you’re even a glancing fan of rap music, this is well worth your 30 minutes.
#3 Beyonce – Lemonade
Where Runaway was the beginning of a music video movement, Lemonade might be its crowning achievement. The visual album is an hour long, and features segments directed by music video pioneers Mark Romanek and Jonas Akerlund among others. Expressive musical episodes get interspersed with stirring poetry, all the while weaving together a story of black womanhood in America.
There are definite nods to Terrence Malick’s filmography, as both Lemonade and Malick’s work heavily focus on strong atmosphere, stunning cinematography, and a powerful sense of boundlessness often bordering on listlessness — true expanse can be numbing. Aside from the crucial political message, the honest emotional core, and the slick style, Lemonade demands your attention because it’s one of the best long-form music videos ever made. Period.
#2 The Who – Quadrophenia
Before scoring CSI: Miami’s title sequence and cementing their place as the daddest of rockers, The Who were revolutionary in their approach to popular music. Not content with being another British band nipping at the heels of much larger British acts, they pushed in another direction, effectively popularising the rock opera with their 1969 concept album Tommy. Four years later, after refining their narrative chops, they dropped Quadrophenia, an album and subsequent film combo that followed the life of a young mod from London.
The film itself is dripping in the sort of adolescent existential ennui that is endearing to adolescents and at best tiresome to older, less hormonal viewers. In spite of this, the film is worth watching, with some of the most beautiful, gritty representations of London on film. The sheer style of the film makes it worthwhile.
#1 Monkees – Head
Just wait! I know, I know, the Monkees. The Monkees. But hear me out on this one. They knew they were a flash-in-the-pan manufactured pop charade, so they decided to make the most meta film they could about it all. The movie bombed at the box office, alienated their fans, and garnered critical pans from almost every publication. Nobody watched it. It’s a true cult classic.
The film deals with the band members trying desperately to go off script (both as musicians/sitcom stars and in the film itself), breaking the fourth wall repeatedly, and engaging in the most non of sequiturs. After a successful run on late night TV, the film found a new following and has seen a number of reissues, cementing its place in the obscure film/musician landscape. Is it worth watching? If for nothing more than to see a commercial pop band consciously make a swan song movie about their own careers, it certainly is.