Saturday, October 5, 2019


From Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze to Michael Bay and David Fincher, many film directors began their careers working on music videos. However, it was not the opening of MTV, in 1981, that legitimised the form of music videos, but rather when established directors began to be invited to direct: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” by John Landis, and “Bad” by Martin Scorsese, 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, three times as co-director alongside Gene Kelly, to classic MGM musicals like “On the Town,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “It’s Always Fair Weather” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Donen 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 TV show, “Moonlighting,” and recreate one of his most celebrated film scenes for a pop music video. The only problem was that Lionel Richie was 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 still clearer by the extended length of the shots, the camera fixed on Astaire, making it clear no trick photography was used at any stage... other than it moving level with the room.

In engaging Stanley Donen, the hope is for the prestige of Classical Hollywood to be bestowed on your own production, or at least to prove the effect has been done properly because they have the original director, but by 1986, the barrel room concept had been refined: “2001: A Space Odyssey” used the multiple times, most notably as actor Gary Lockwood jogs around the inside of the Space Station V. The notorious musical film “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” features Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, playing the less impressive-sounding Toby “Turbo” Ainsley, dancing inside a shed, using a set previously used by “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. Even a Dr. Pepper advertisement had used the effect by then.

As for the “Dancing on the Ceiling” video itself? 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. The video ends with a random cameo from Rodney Dangerfield at the end, saying he should not have eaten that upside-down cake. That’s entertainment.

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