The Work of David Fincher: Introduction, Commercials, Music Videos, and ‘The Beat of the Live Drum’

[With Mindhunter set to premiere next week, we’re reposting our deep dives into the work of director David Fincher]

In an age where movies are designed to appeal to the broadest demographic possible and no one wants to feel too uncomfortable, David Fincher has gone against the grain time and time again, but his work is consistently engaging.  “I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me, I’m always interested in movies that scar,” he told The Independent in 2010.  Known for his exacting, precise, and unique approach on-set, Fincher has consistently pushed boundaries with films that are divisive, thought-provoking, biting, and yet, for all their cynicism, strangely heartfelt.

In anticipation of the release of David Fincher’s new TV series, Mindhunter, I’ll be looking back at his career and filmography.  In this first installment, I’ll be examining his work in commercials, music videos, and his first movie, Rick Springfield’s concert picture The Beat of the Live Drum.

[A brief note before I begin: After this article, each installment will explore Fincher’s films in chronological order before concluding with House of Cards and the possible future of his career.]

David Fincher was born on August 28, 1962 in Denver, Colorado to mental health nurse Claire Mae (née Boettcher) and author and Life Magainze bureau chief Howard Kelly Fincher.  When he was two, he moved to Anselmo, California, a town in Marin County, and in his teens would move to Ashland, Oregon.

One of David Fincher’s favorite films growing up was 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but he cites this making-of EPK (narrated by director George Roy Hill) as the material that made him want to become a filmmaker:

Fincher explains that he became fascinated by how films were made, and like many young people in his generation who went on to become filmmakers, he began by making movies in his backyard with an 8mm camera.

After graduating high school, Fincher chose to get to work in Hollywood immediately rather than go to film school.  His early education in the industry wasn’t too shabby: In 1983, he worked at Industrial Light & Magic on Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (coincidentally, when Fincher was ten, he lived next door to George Lucas).

In 1983 Fincher decided to strike out on his own, and founded Propaganda Films alongside producers Steve Golin and Sigurjón Sighvatsson and directors Michael Bay, Nigel Dick, and Dominic Sena.  Fincher immediately grabbed people’s attention with his ad for the American Cancer Society, which showed a fetus smoking a cigarette:

Coupled with the rise of the music video, Fincher attracted the attention of producer and artist Rick Springfield.  At only 23 years old, Fincher directed his first film, the concert documentary for Rick Springfield’s The Beat of the Live Drum:

As concert documentaries go, it’s fairly standard, and it’s a pretty deep cut that’s really a must-see only for die-hard fans.  The movie is mostly Springfield singing on an unremarkable stage, and there are goofy effects like fake fire, a giant Wizard of Oz-style floating head, and a female ghost.  The silliest moment is when Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” is recreated in the sky because such is the power of Rick Springfield’s music.  The Beat of the Live Drum is like the high-school yearbook photo of Fincher’s career.

Where Fincher shines are the music videos that break up the film.  Fincher directed all of them, and they show incredible promise.

[The following YouTube playlist contains almost all of David Fincher’s music videos in chronological order.  Please feel free to refer to it when it comes to my commentary on particular videos.]

“Dance This World Away” by Rick Springfield (1984) – First, credit to Rick Springfield, who was at the height of his popularity at this time, for not only giving Fincher a chance, but trusting the young director with some fairly aggressive ideas.  This is a pop-rock song that meshes Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with the threat of nuclear annihilation.

“Bop ‘Til You Drop” by Rick Springfield (1984) – You can start to see glimpses of what he tried to do with Alien 3.  The video is cool (enslaved, pale-faced aliens laboring under hideous, sharp-toothed aliens who wield laser guns).  It matches the pep of Springfield’s song, but in an unexpected way.  It’s easy to see that another director may have handled this in a more conventional way.  However, it is one of the “Music Saves the People” videos that wasn’t uncommon at the time.

Although Fincher had co-founded Propaganda Films, the company wasn’t getting top-tier artists yet, which meant that the budgets were fairly limited when it came to music videos.  A majority of Fincher’s videos up until 1989 feel experimental in the sense that he’s trying out different technology regardless of how well it fits the song.  For example:

“One Simple Thing” by Stabilizers (1986) – No one’s going to question shooting Dave Christenson while a wide-angle lens looks up at buildings.  It’s a catchy visual but it’s about as relevant to the song as the band was to music history.

Additionally, a fair amount of these videos used the same monochrome, stark contrast, and dynamic angles.  A few examples include: “Endless Nights” by Eddie Money (1987), “Downtown Train” by Patty Smyth (1987), and “Englishman in New York” by Sting (1988). This leaves me to wonder if the monochromatic style had become “the Fincher look”, and if it was specifically requested by studios and artists.

“Straight Up” by Paula Abdul (1989) – Fincher matched the energy of his performers but also the catchiness of the song.  Forgettable singles tend to lead to forgettable videos, and while this isn’t one of his best, it pops better than some of his others.

“Express Yourself” by Madonna (1989) – This is where things get interesting because Fincher clearly has a bigger budget to work with, which isn’t a surprise considering a studio would be willing to pay more for a Madonna video as opposed to a lesser-known artist.  The video is glamorous, and a nice twist as dozens of buff guys do push-ups for Madonna even though they should really be thinking about plugging all the water leaks at their workplace.

The video is a delightful mix of sexy and strange.  One moment Madonna is in a three-piece suit, grabbing her crotch, and then the next scene she’s in chains.  For all of its bizarre eroticism, this video is night-and-day from Fincher’s earlier videos.  The video is brimming with life, striking images, and feels like a world blended with dream logic.  However, the “Without the heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and mind,” epigraph is an unnecessary bit of punctuation.

The music video was also a huge show of faith in Fincher because it was budgeted at $5 million, which at the time made it the most expensive music video ever made (it’s currently the third most expensive behind Madonna’s “Die Another Day” and Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream”).

“Oh Father” by Madonna (1989) – Fincher’s fruitful collaboration with Madonna continued as he once again used his black-and-white style, but you can see how it has evolved, and become more textured, artful, and effective.  Even though the visuals in “Oh Father” are gorgeous, the whole video feels ghostly and mournful.  This is also a video where Fincher is storytelling instead of just using different techniques.

“Vogue” by Madonna (1990) – This is arguably Fincher’s most famous music video, and what’s remarkable is its sparseness compared to “Express Yourself”.  Whereas his first collaboration with Madonna was lush in its excess and electric in its visuals, “Vogue” is relatively sparse.  Its energy comes primarily through the simple costumes and sets contrasted with excellent choreography and Madonna at the height of her allure.  The video is seductively glamorous thanks to the astounding monochrome visuals, which feels like the culmination of all of Fincher’s previous black-and-white efforts (until Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie”, which would come much later).

“Who Is It” by Michael Jackson (1992) – This isn’t one of Jackson’s most famous songs, but it should be one of his most famous videos.  Fincher tells the story mostly through an intriguing, mysterious tone, and when he’s playing at this level, it creates a clear distinction between the videos where it’s empty style and ones like these that actually draw us in past a song and into a distinct story and setting.  The video for “Who Is It” feels like it could be expanded into a pretty terrific short film, especially when you consider that the video is pretty plot-heavy and Jackson is barely in it.   “Who Is It” also has a more cinematic feel than Fincher’s previous videos since it was shot in widescreen, which is particularly unusual when you consider that this video came out in 1992 and almost no one had widescreen TVs.

“Bad Girl” by Madonna (1994) – You could also call this “That other Music Video with Christopher Walken.”  Plus you get a Mark Margolis and James Rebhorn bonus!  The video also continues for two more minutes after the song ends so that it can finish telling its story.  This is the creative freedom you get when working with A-list music artists.

“Love Is Strong” by The Rolling Stones (1994) – Following the debacle of Alien 3, Fincher returned to music videos, and ended up making one that showed he could be playful as the Stones and beautiful women are shown as giants dancing around New York City.  It’s also the first Fincher video that feels like it’s really taking advantage of visual effects in a (no pun intended) larger capacity than his previous work, so perhaps Alien 3 wasn’t an entirely fruitless endeavor in terms of technical lessons.

“Only” by Nine Inch Nails (2005) – Again, this is a fairly playful video, but also sets an interesting test: Can David Fincher and Trent Reznor make an awesome music video confined only to a handful of mundane items on a desk?  The answer: Yes.

“Suit & Tie” by Justin Timberlake featuring Jay-Z (2013) – This is like “Vogue” for the 21st century.  Fincher is still a master of black-and-white, and visually this easily competes with “Vogue” and “Oh Father” for the lush visuals.  But whereas “Vogue” was seductive and “Oh Father” was melancholy, “Suit & Tie” is suave.  It’s a music video that can combine the graceful elegance of finely dressed dancers making smooth moves with shots of Timberlake working on an iPad.  Watching this video makes me think that Timberlake and Jay-Z could go down to the local 7-11, buy a pack of Slim Jims, and if Fincher shot the video, it would look like the classiest thing ever.

[The following YouTube playlist contains almost all of David Fincher’s commercials in roughly chronological order.  Please feel free to refer to it when it comes to my commentary on particular videos.]

Some of Fincher’s music videos and commercials are very much of their time.  You will get flashbacks to the 80s and 90s, but his talent manages to usually shine through in some manner whether it’s in the tone, the visual effects, the look, or sometimes everything coming together to make some of his most memorable commercial work.  In fact, his commercials leave more of an impression than some of his music videos if only because commercials are about selling the idea of a product rather than having to figure out four minutes for a crummy song using a low budget.

Although to be fair, like his music videos, they’re not all gems.  His Orville Redenbacher commercial is beyond creepy.  The message seems to be:  “Popcorn so good, it will reanimate the dead!”

As his career progressed and focused more on movies, Fincher would occasionally return to do commercials, and his work became slicker but still effective, especially when it came to ads for athletic products.

“Trail of Destruction” is a little more uncomfortable given the current events regarding Adrian Peterson, but the ad is still gorgeously shot (and oddly reminiscent of Madonna’s “Oh Father”) but surprisingly brutal (again, somewhat uncomfortable given the recent news about Peterson beating his child).

A Nike commercial that won’t make you cringe is “Fate”, which I think is Fincher’s best ad to date.  The concept—of two lives all leading up to one confrontation—could work for a multitude of stories, but Fincher distills it down to its bare elements, which helps further the impact of the ad.  It’s like LaDainian Tomlinson and Troy Polamalu weren’t only destined to meet; they were on a collision course.

Watching the development of Fincher’s music videos and ads is like a distillation of his visual acumen and storytelling while also functioning as an idea lab.  The company gets a commercial, and Fincher gets to try something new without having to shoehorn it into a story that couldn’t accommodate a particular tone or visual effect.

Even at the early stages in his career, his music video and commercial work garnered attention from film studios.  However, the production on his first dramatic feature would turn out to be far more nightmarish than the film’s monster.

Next: Alien 3

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David Fincher Music Videos

Image via Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.

Image via Sony Pictures

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