Frankly, many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films – including his Oscar-nominated comedy Licorice pizza Feels like extended music videos. Sometimes they are basically: Magnolia, released in 1999, was Anderson’s attempt to adapt his friend Aimee Mann’s music to a movie. (The results suggest it was a good idea.)
Licorice pizza‘s needle drop, woven into the intoxicating emotionally charged landscape of a 1970s summer in the valley, feels like pleasant little heartbreak every single time. In composing the strange clingy soundtrack to Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Jon Brion mixed original music with a song from Robert Altman’s 1980s film Popeye, for delicious effect. And of course, Boogie nights (1997) play as one long party, so filled with bangers that they had to release the soundtrack in two volumes.
Perhaps this explains why Anderson’s music videos, in turn, seem like movies. In some cases, they are actually short films: there are Valentine (2017), a fly-on-the-wall documentary in the studio with LA-based pop-rock band Haim, and Anima (2019), a collaboration with Radioheads Thom Yorke who plays as dystopian sci-fi with a hopeful side. But even the more traditional ones – dozens of those he has directed since the 90s with artists including (ex-girlfriend) Fiona Apple, Joanna Newsom, Radiohead, Haim, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn – feel like mini-films bearing his unmistakable fingerprints.
What are those fingerprints? Anderson’s films always feel a bit smeared, a bit crooked, with main characters often seeming a bit out of place in their world – a perfect match for musicians.
IN The master (2012), the loner Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is ruggedly inappropriate and unpredictable, a man who seems to explode or shrink at any unexpected moment. Two years later Inherent load, Phoenix is now an excited detective who is a day late and a dollar short while life whizzes on ahead of him. Boogie nightsDirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) is really just a kid looking for a family to belong to; he finds it in a glamorous but messy band of porn actors. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the prospector in the center of There will be blood (2007), is a man out of time, at the same time modern and somehow medieval in his view.
The list could go on, so it’s super fun to see them show up in his music videos, too. Take this, my personal favorite, to Fiona Apple’s 1998 cover of “Across the Universe”:
Apple sits and sings calmly and fervently in the middle of a dining room that is absolute smashed of a horde of men in suits. The result is a blurred dream landscape, and we wonder what exactly this sweet young woman is doing in the midst of absolute chaos. She’s in another world. (And nothing will change that.)
Same mood in this Aimee Mann video for “Save Me”:
Man sitting in the middle of scenes from Magnolia, which apparently describes the emotional prayer from the lonely characters – “Why do not you save me?” – but also her own, as one of those in the “freaks’ ranks / who suspects / that they could never love anyone.” She’s a ghost here. They do not even know she is there.
Or this video for Joanna Newsom’s song “Divers”, in which she towers over the landscape like a goddess or a giant, alone in the middle of the harmonious nature, a strange and eerie presence that sings about a lost love:
“You do not know my name,” she concludes. “But I know yours.”
Sometimes Anderson recreates the inconsistencies of his characters, their eerie alienation, by following them as they progress sharply through scenes of absolute chaos. Long track shots are another of his cinematic characteristics; they are over Licorice pizzaof course, but perhaps best known is the three-minute unbroken shot that opens Boogie nights:
He just shows up with this, but he loves to do it. Here he follows Joanna Newsom – this time without steadicam – through the hectic streets of Greenwich Village, singing “Sapokanikan”:
Or, in this very famous music video, he recoils in one unbroken shot from Boogie nights composer Michael Penn, who sings “Try,” while turning off the longest corridor in America (a quarter mile). See the Philip Seymour Hoffman Comos:
In recent years, Anderson has often teamed up with Haim, and in those videos you can see all of his fingerprints again; the videos are messy and beautiful and the camera is as much a character as the musicians are. The funniest of these may be the video for their 2019 single “Summer Girl” where the sisters walk around Los Angeles slowly, removing layers of sweatshirts and shirts as they enter the hottest season:
The group started shooting the “Summer Girl” video with Anderson basically before the song was finished, and he ended up contributing some unused movie lines to it (then declining a writing credit).
Most recently, his video for “Lost Track” (released March 1) shows Danielle Haim looking like a disgruntled teenager miserable at a horrible party where she is the weirdo. “I try to feel okay / around all these people / I try, but I’m just numb / this time,” she sings for the camera, while a bunch of women in retro dresses buzz around her and have fun:
Haim’s collaboration with Anderson runs so deep that the youngest Haim, Alana, is the star of Licorice pizza, in a breakout performance that has garnered universal recognition. She plays another young woman who feels out of place everywhere, from the adult world she is reluctant to join, to her own family (played, nicely, by her own real sisters and parents). In the film, you can feel the trust between artist and director, the kind of thing that has been achieved through many years of collaboration.
That’s what has always made Anderson’s film so hugely satisfying to watch. He’s an instructor who loves to push people’s bruises and stab them in the side, but never in a painful way. You get the feeling that he loves his characters.
It’s no different in his music videos: Whether he’s slowly zooming in on Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood playing guitars in a twilight park, or turning Fiona Apple into an avant-garde contrapuntal goddess, or watching Danielle Haim walk through a car wash, you can feel the fascination of faces and features between joy and a sense that life is just really weird on the way. Watch them all in order and you might start to wonder if he’s a music video director after all.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s music videos are available for watch YouTube. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check it out A good thing File.