Derek Jarman, music video trailblazer

How the film visionary pioneered an artform with Throbbing Gristle, The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys

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The Tempest (1979) © Kendon Films Courtesy of BFI

This Friday would have been Derek Jarman’s 72nd birthday. Born in 1942, he lived a dynamic and energetic life, prolific in his oeuvre. He was renowned for his artistic dexterity as painter, filmmaker, set designer, diarist, poet, gardener and gay rights activist. Less discussed are the collection of music videos he made – in these we see his inspirations and ideas thrive. 

During his formative days studying English and History at Kings College London in the early 1960s Jarman united his love of words and images as art director of the aptly named student magazine, Lucifer, and as set designer on the first British production of Spanish playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. He listed Shakespeare, Caravaggio and Leonardo among his “heavyweight soul mates” and the words and visions of poets Ginsberg, William Langland and Rainer Maria Rilke would continue to resonate throughout his life.

But it was really his journey into film – beginning with his work as set designer for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) – where he mastered the alchemical punk style that allowed him to express his occult ideologies, even in the music videos he started making for bands like Throbbing Gristle, The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys. The MTV generation didn’t start until 1981, but Jarman had already entered the world of the music short.

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A still from Garden of Luxor (1972), one of Jarman's Super 8 films Courtesy and (c) LUMA Foundation

Film had begun to take on prominence in his work as he picked up his first Super 8 camera and began recordings reminiscent of his father’s home movies. Choosing the beautiful friends and artists surrounding himtaking inspiration from Andy Warhol. Jarman’s Englishness shines in his love of the landscapeboth rural and urban. A Journey to Avebury (1971), rich in yellow hues, is an eerie pilgrimage through the fields of Wiltshire with a soundtrack of whistling birds, bells and pulsating drones that tremble with magic all around. In London the Thames is his experimental muse, as he fuses the warehouse art scene with shots of the river in Studio Bankside (1971), documenting a piece of social history.

Although Jarman is better known for his feature films, the early experiments in Super 8 are mesmeric. The repetition of motifs, lights and mirrors, fire and water, the spinning figure – they all became vortexes for journeys in the astral world.  Burning the Pyramids (1972), Death Dance (1973), Sulphur (1973) and Tarot (1972) the titles alone speak volumes of his enchanted visions filled with secrets of the unknown. Critic Michael Charlesworth writes that these early films “tended to induce reverie, mental drift and dream”. Projected in his studio, these films would accompany music: contemporary pop, Gregorian chanting or anything else he happened to have at hand. 

With that in mind, it doesn’t seem strange that in the late 1970s Jarman ventured into music videos; after all, he shot The Sex Pistols in his Butler’s Wharf studio, entirely in monochrome on Valentine’s Day in 1976, its chaotic shaky style with tracing camera work carving the way for the music video mainstream.

The need to earn a living lead him towards directing what he referred to as pop promos, but he also recognised the start of a new visual language forming in clubs and bars of London and New York, something more enticing than television. His methods blurred boundaries and introduced new techniques that would shape the history of the music video. The MTV generation didn’t start until 1981 but Jarman had already entered the world of the music short.

Commissioned by Island Records, he produced a 12 minute album taster for three songs from Marianne Faithfull’s new wave record Broken English (1979), seamlessly fusing his bombed out landscapes of London and masked fire dancing creatures with a striking Marianne walking the psychedelic Soho streets alone, enigmatic in her eyeliner and leathers, Eros at Piccadilly Circus spinning like a disco ball in a nightclub. The activist in him radiated in his depiction of war for the three minutes of title track Broken English; soldiers, police and protesters cut with footage from old dance competitions creating a powerful and poetic backdrop.

In 1980 Jarman commissioned Throbbing Gristle to create a new soundtrack for In The Shadow of The Sun (1974) and in his subsequent music video for them we see a frenetic adventure into darkness play out. The result, "Psychic Rally In Heaven" (1981), is a grainy creation with pulsating lights and discordant sounds, it’s like a trance club in hell. As he put it, "Fire runs in rivulets through my dreams, consumes everything in its path. In In The Shadow Of The Sun it’s organised in a geometric fire-maze, the roses burn."

The Smiths were graced with his love of flowers in The Queen is Dead (1986), the red rose presented as an emblem for England, the colour of fire and also love. It’s intelligent filmmaking for the masses and although he was aware these videos were adverts in many ways, he also knew the power of the promo. Whilst watching Caravaggio (1986) on Channel 4, Neil Tennant was prompted to ask Jarman to direct a series of music videos for the Pet Shop Boys. The religious connotations, the queer spirit, the opulence and the fire once again burning strong evoked the melodrama from Caravaggio and his earlier film The Tempest (1979).

It’s Jarman’s personal style that makes his films and music videos so unique. Inspired by his friends in the underground scene he developed a collaborative approach to filmmaking, working with collage, cut-up effects, block colour and filters; tricks and illusions that had originated in his early Super 8 experiments. 

To celebrate what would have been Derek Jarman's 72nd birthday, author and theatre-maker Neil Bartlett presents a new installation, taking over the chapel at King's College London for a night and a day. The installation will feature a continuous, 24-hour-long screening of The Angelic Conversation. Friday 31 Jan, 7pm – Saturday 1 Feb, 7pm

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