Film and TV

The Off-Kilter World of Federico Fellini and Music

Opening nightmare from Fellini's 8 1/2.

When studying the films of the great Italian director Federico Fellini (b. January 1920, d. October 1993), composer Michel Chion, also a professor of film studies, believes "you can't separate out individual layers. Image, dialogue, music, they all work together." You'll get no argument from us. But Fellini is arguably best known for the fantastic even grotesque images in his films. Interestingly, musicians in all genres have appropriated his images for the visual presentation of their music.

Music video at one time did have pretensions of being an art form, whereas now the medium makes no pretense of being anything other than infomercials for what non-musicians and drug dealers like to call "product." But instead of dwelling on this unfortunate turn, let's take a brief look three great Fellini films, Amarcord, 8 1/2, and the epic La Dolce Vita. You may be surprised to see that some of Fellini's delicate as well as bizarre images found their way into a handful of popular music videos.

The traffic jam nightmare that begins Fellini's 1963 film 8 1/2, simply named as it was the 8th and a half film he'd made as a director up to that point, is an unnerving combination of sound, sets, and special effects. We don't see the face of the film's protagonist until well after he's woken up from this hellish dream. Before that abrupt awakening, we hear his labored breathing, the sound of his hands pawing at the windows of the car he's trapped in, and the breath of wind that fills his ears when he escapes and finds himself floating high above the earth only to be yanked back down by a rope tied around one of his feet.

Music video director Jack Scott borrows the claustrophobic inertia of Fellini's traffic jam throughout his video for REM's popular song "Everybody Hurts." However, the subtitling of the inner and unspoken thoughts of the various drivers is an homage to Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire which features invisible (except to small children) angels "listening in" on the thoughts of the living. Stipe's simple, plaintive lyrics enveloped over the course of the track by strings arranger and former Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones become even more sublime and more moving thanks to the latent subtext of the quoted Fellini and Wenders mise-en-scène.

REM, "Everybody Hurts," video directed by Jake Scott

Fellini is credited for bringing the term "paparazzi" into popular culture thanks to his classic La Dolce Vita which repeatedly features an insect like chorus of men armed with cameras swarming around their subjects and photograph them without their consent. Elizabeth Taylor referred to paparazzi as "cockroaches," but in the same breath acknowledged that "they do take some very revealing photographs." And in fact, the trailer for La Dolce Vita is presented as a series of still paparazzi-styled photographs book ended by two brief and chaotic sequences of the photographers scrambling and literally crawling over each other to get their shots.

In the chilling scene below, Marcello Mastroianni's character waits helplessly as a gang of paparazzi lie in wait to photograph the wife of a friend who, in spite of leading what seemed like a charmed if intellectually shallow life, has without warning killed himself and their two children.

Scene from La Dolce Vita, directed by Frederico Fellini

When pressed by rock journalist Lisa Robinson in a televised 1985 interview, singer Bryan Ferry put all the blame on director Jean-Baptiste Mondino for the images and narrative of his video for Ferry's gorgeous song "Slave To Love." Mondino in turn should give Fellini credit for inspiring the classical statues, paparazzi, and maybe the young blond haired girl Ferry is careful not to awake at the end of the video as she probably symbolizes his innocence before it was corrupted. Or something like that. In the end, even the paparazzi are moved to leave Ferry alone in his lip-syncing reverie.

Bryan Ferry, "Slave To Love," video directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino

Few things scream "Felliniesque" more than the small army of pre-adolescent and adolescent boys that rampage, often dressed in short pants and capes, throughout his classic Amarcord. The film's title translates as "I Remember." In the liner notes to his album On Land, celebrated "non-musician" and producer Brian Eno describes Amarcord as "a presumably unfaithful reconstruction of childhood memories..." going on to say that we "...feel affinities not only with the past, but also with futures that didn't materialize, and with other variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we have agreed to live in." And indeed, Fellini happily brings to life his own unreliable and dreamlike memories in this earthy and at times nasty film masterpiece. (Editor's note: At some point, explore Amarcord's connection with the Farley Brothers or Tyler Payne) In the scene below, the aforementioned troublemakers enjoy a brawl in the snow, happily sending several snowballs at the derriere of one of their lovelier neighbors, until the action stops to herald the unexpected arrival of...a peacock.

Scene from Amarcord, directed Frederico Fellini

It's probably safe to say that the aforementioned Mondino could care less about "...variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we agreed to live in..." or symbolic peacocks. However, he does like derrieres. And he uses a gang of kids to admittedly charming effect in this video for one-time Paisley Park artist Jill Jones (yes, she's the blond hostess of the club "the kid" plays in the film Purple Rain) singing and shimmying her way through a wasteland that lies somewhere between La Strada and Amarcord. Some cheesy gunfire (Subtle!) references classic Spaghetti Westerns while the relative innocence of the kids, especially compared to the gawky-with-raging-hormones gang in Amarcord, call to mind the concluding scene from Marcel Camus' film Black Orpheus.

Okay, so we have snow in the Fellini, desert sand in the Mondino. Maybe we're stretching the point a bit, but sometimes you can't tell where the dream ends and real life begins. We appreciate you hanging in there as we try to illuminate the threads that connect the worlds of so-called high art and popular culture. Now dig this:

Jill Jones, "Mia Bocca," video directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino

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Chris Becker
Contact: Chris Becker