Somehow or another I came across this tweet from Taylor Swift:
"Fun facts about the 'We Are Never' music video: it's all in one take, shot with one camera, 5 costume changes, and woodland creatures."
Having already read Entertainment Weekly's love of the song featured in the video — "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" — I was intrigued.
& I'll be damned if I wasn't impressed. It got me thinking about one-take music videos — there's something very cool about them, something that somehow takes the most modern technology equipment available & cuts through it like a jackknife, back before music videos, before studio recordings, before live recordings, before any recordings, back when you had one shot, one shot only to do what it is that you were gonna do & it was all gonna come down to that.
Film critic Gilbert Adair once wrote that he thought the quintessential Alfred Hitchcock film was Rope, for, unlike Psycho & Vertigo & all the rest, Rope is comprised of eight 10-minute takes, which was at that point the maximum amount that could be filmed consecutively. Adair says that knowing this adds a layer of suspense to the already suspenseful tale — not only is there the story's suspense over whether or not the lead characters will get caught for their "perfect murder," but there's also the suspense of the actors having to get through each 10-minute shot without messing up. If one person makes one flub 8 minutes in, they gotta start it all over again. Having that foreknowledge makes the craft of the film just as suspenseful as the story it tells, & both all the more effective.
All of which is to say that I began to wonder: Is Taylor Swift's "We Are Never" video among the best one-shot videos ever? As the Orioles tell us, it's probably too soon to know, but I figured it was a good excuse to round up the canon & contemplate.
5. The Spice Girls: "Wannabe." (1996)
Yeah, I know, the Spice Girls. But in terms of a video being an interesting one-shot with pluck & savvy, this one does its job rather effectively. You may not like the Spice Girls or the song, but you can't deny the fact that this video is effective in summing up everything they were about. Which apparently was a cross between the Monkees, the Marx Brothers, & New Kids on the Block. As girls, of course. It turns out that Tweenlandia has some decent one-shot videos — props go out to Miley Cyrus's "Start All Over," which was disqualified for a quick edit right at the end (although its gaudiness probably woulda disqualified it anyway). But here the Spice Girls do it & they do it well — by the video's end, you basically have an idea of each one's persona, as well as their singing & dancing styling. If you look close, you can even see Posh sing for several seconds. Who knew?
4. The Replacements: "Bastards of Young." (1985)
The quintessential anti-video. When Minnesotan punks the Replacements were told to make a video for their major-label debut, Tim, they refused. A compromise-of-sorts was reached with this, a non-video video, mostly of a black-&-white shot of a speaker blaring their song. The camera backs up a bit & you can see someone's sneakers & cigarettes, but for all intents & purposes, the video is mostly just looking at a speaker. Which is to say, it's the "music video" our grandparents would've seen while listening to the radio. Coming from the same year as a-ha's "Take on Me" — which fer my money, may just be the greatest music video of them all — what it lacks in production it makes up in perfection.
3. OK Go: "Here It Goes Again." (2006)
OK Go have become to the one-shot music video what Billy Idol is to the dried-ice music video. Mixing extreme lo-fi production values with extreme hi-brow cleverness, their videos have slyly matured into the already-legendary love-letter-to-Rube-Goldberg video for "This Too Shall Pass," which would've made this list, but technically is a splice between three different continuous takes. But what we do have is this, which is tighter & simpler, a Revolver to "This Too Shall Pass"'s Sgt. Pepper. One might see this video as the next step up from their earlier silly-dance-routine-in-the-backyard stuff, but I see it as a sly nod to another video that, like "This Too Shall Pass," is a seeming one-shot that was deceptively spliced: Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity." By including this video, I feel like I can cover both, as they both play to the outer-space weirdness that has come to define rock & roll: Traveling without moving.
2. Bob Dylan: "Subterranean Homesick Blues." (1965)
The original music video, shot fer the start of D.A. Pennebaker's legendary Dylan documentary, Don't Look Back, which also happens to be a one-take video (the first?). What you see is what you get: Bob Dylan, looking cooler than anyone else ever as he peers into the camera, standing in the alley with his famous cue cards & Allen Ginsburg chanting behind him. It was such a great & simple idea, it got lifted by INXS in their video for "Need You Tonight/Meditate," which went onto win both the Best Music Video & the Viewer's Choice Awards at that year's MTV Music Video Awards. But accept no substitutes — the original is still the greatest.
1. Lucas: "Lucas With the Lid Off." (1994)
If Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" is the Battleship Potemkin of one-shot music videos, Lucas's "Lucas With the Lid Off" is its Citizen Kane. Working with French director Michel Gondry (who would make Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind one decade later), rapper/writer/producer extraordinaire Lucas made the single-shot music video to end all single-shot music videos. It's as intricate as it is beautiful, with a staggering amount of seemingly random variety, balanced by certain motifs (like pianos) & anchored by the little room in which Lucas sings the wonderful "Whatever bubbles, bubbles up" line. The 90-degree turns alone make my head spin, let alone everything else that's going on. Perhaps what impressed me so much about Taylor Swift's video is how much it seemed to reference this one, from the camera-turning opening & closing cityscape shots to the constant room-hopping to the guy-&-girl-in-a-fake-car schtick. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that Taylor Swift &/or her production team watched this video a lot, just as so many modern filmmakers watched Citizen Kane.
In fact, I'm damn-near sure of it.