In the days of the post-Thriller era, the English-speaking pop industry adopted an aesthetic that has a clear packing date. The feedback between film and music videos had as a result mini-films such as a-ha’s Take on Me or the teenager exuberance seen in the videos of The Cars, which had the same intentions as the films of John Hughes. Precisely in one of his films, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, there’s a scene in which we can hear the cover that The Dream Academy made of Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want. On the same year that this classic by The Smiths was trivialised with biodegradable upholstering, Derek Jarman entered the lives of Johnny Marr and co. Jarman was no beginner in the pop universe. Bryan Ferry or Marc Almond had already allowed their pop pills to be soaked with his touch, but rejecting his strong point: the shooting of sound among super-8 textures of powerful visual lyricism, but under the reliefs of the typical 8 mm noise.
For Jarman, super-8 was “the hieroglyphic monad of the 20th century,” and through it he devised a musical short film for The Smiths that included The Queen Is Dead, There Is a Light That Never Goes Out and Panic, respectively. Already from the first scene we can appreciate a tangential parallelism with Val del Omar’s Fuego en Castilla. But if in the work of the artist from Granada we can detect interpretations based on religious sentiment almost as a grotesque act of horror, in The Queen Is Dead we only need to exchange the terms: “monarchy” instead of “religion”. Those unmistakable symbols of flowers, fire and the will to grant movement to dead objects confirm the analogy, highlighted as well by the angel imagery that flies over Jarman’s work, the same that was used in the video that Tarsem Singh directed for R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion.
The following fragment is There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, in which the Val del Omar echo comes from the dreamy statism of Aguaespejo granadino. The melodic totem of The Smiths crowds around an epic act of exacerbated romanticism followed by Panic, in which, in the midst of the fire of the British Royal House, there appears again the rolling crown of The Queen Is Dead.
This music short film expanded the semantics of music videos. But Jarman himself had already opened them seven years earlier with the short film he had done for Marianne Faithfull, in which recurrent symbols such as fire, masks and flowers are the predecessors of his work for The Smiths, but also for The Last of England, a Jarman film in which chromatic visual anxiety and out of focus textures capture the same score cadence. Music is not at the service of the scenes; it’s the scenes that dance to the rhythm of the sound. It’s thus how, within the cinematographic format, Jarman found the right visual movement language to grant music a subjective but full of meaning outlook. In fact, all throughout The Last of England we can sense Jarman’s rage against the treatment received by gays and all those who, like him, were VIH-positive. This latent drive within the frames reproduces a dream-like allegory about the collapse of the values of a society buried under Thatcherism.
The Last of England and the short films for The Smiths and Faithfull conform Jarman’s theoretical opus on the relationship between music and image, the same that sow the conception of visual albums such as Suede’s Night Thoughts, band that had already worked with him in So Young, but most of all on their 1993-94 tour, for which Jarman’s usual team (he wasn’t the director, but as if he were) chose some of the most enigmatic moments from the more than four-hundred hours recorded in super-8. The contrast between the epic of the songs included in Dog Man Star and the darkness of Jarman’s images gave way to such strange moments as the We Are the Pigs video, with those kids dismantling a car with crow masks on. Such a conjugation of elements wouldn’t have felt our of place in Jubilee, his punk feature film, which generated Vivienne Westwood’s ban, denounced through the design of a T-shirt.
Since its first preview, Jubilee was contemplated as the work of an intruder in punk terrain. His openly gay stance and his crossover between the medieval, Satyricon‘s Fellini and anarchy took it to be rejected by the audience to whom it was at first directed. What finally remains from Jubilee is its mixture of high and low art, something that Jarman also managed to translate to the opera world in 1988, when he directed L’Ispirazione by Sylvano Bussotti, and which featured a computer choir and a robot orchestra. It was precisely Jarman’s artistic plurality what attracted the Pet Shop Boys, who for their first tour, in 1989, he turned into the protagonists of a grandiloquent techno pop musical. Jarman’s prominently Baroque conception would have a great influence on the duo, who out of their own initiative brought church crosses to the set. But where the symbiosis between the Pet Shop Boys’ pop hyperbole and Jarman’s medieval obsessions fully worked was in the music video for It’s a Sin. In this one, Jarman literally follows Tennant’s words recognising that “in our songs we try to step out of the limits of pop music.” The result was an unusual bifurcation that Tennant described as “Catholic pop,” anticipating future instances in the same line, like Madonna’s Like a Prayer.
It’s a Sin is marked by a pre-Raphaelite aura, an antagonist to the futility of the eighties pop canon. Likewise, it gave form to the four musical minutes in which Jarman not only established himself as the speleologist of the subversive possibilities of pop, but also ended up becoming responsible for the definitive introduction of the concept of ‘video artist’ in the world of music videos.