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Kate Bush, 1993Photography Guido Harari

Kate Bush’s cinema of sound

As she releases her long-awaited Before The Dawn live album, we explore the musician’s longstanding desire to tie together the worlds of music and film

The long-awaited release of Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn live album – a recording of her 2014 concerts, famously her first live shows in decades – this week highlights how the musician’s work has been marked from the beginning by interpretation, adaptation, roles, performance, and a mission to trace the link between music and visuals. Bush’s control over not just her music but her image and the visual representation of her work, coupled with her love of cinema and storytelling, extends to an even larger, yet lesser-known dream of hers: filmmaking. People are mystified by Bush’s reticence to perform live, but a key reason was her desire to give audiences more than just music. Inspired by the spectacle of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, she wanted to bring her own cinematic presentation to her performances, and excelled in performing her music as larger-than-life characters. Bush’s most notorious trait is her theatricality, and this energy is laced with genuine love for and dedication to the histories of performance, dance, and film. She was even offered parts in rock-singer biopics, the role of a vampire in a horror film, and more.

Cinema, particularly the genres of horror, gothic, and film noir, drove many of Bush’s most well-known songs – Wuthering Heights, Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (quoted at the beginning of “Hounds of Love”), Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (“The Infant Kiss”), Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, and Hammer Horror movies among them. “I’ve had a calm life, but I am fascinated by the negative aspects of terror. Isn’t everyone?” she once said. “Horrible things fire my imagination. Without them there’d be no film industry. And tragic and scary things are disturbing and powerful.”

Discussing her approach to adaptation, Bush would say that “whenever I base something on a book or film I don’t take a direct copy. I’ll put it through my personal experiences, and in some cases it becomes a very strange mixture of complete fiction and very, very personal fears within me.” Her unique method of interpretation evolved over the years, initially adapting from film to song, then sometimes adapting the same song back to a new form of film. Eventually, she was being asked to write music for specific segments of films. Bush also expressed a desire to create forms within the film medium that did not yet exist, like shorter films built around music she composed for a specific filmic purpose. In the past, Bush explained how songwriting naturally brings visual concepts to her because it requires imagining the perspective, place and atmosphere that the song’s character finds themselves in at the time.

Although the Before the Dawn concerts were filmed, there are still no plans to release the footage. Fans were granted a small glimpse of what went down at the show earlier this week when Bush released the video for “And Dream of Sheep” originally shown at the concerts, but the rare chance to see Bush set her music to a visual extravaganza will remain a tantalising mystery to the majority of people who could not attend – at least for now. While a crucial component is still missing from the Before The Dawn shows, everything else in Bush’s career has shown that, as an interpreter, video director, performer, storyteller and filmmaker, she’s an artist who has created a uniquely multilayered mode of authorship in an industry where such levels of artistic control are not easily gained by women. Here are five videos that map Bush’s connection between cinema and music.

“WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (EFTELING PERFORMANCE, 1978)

When she was just 18 years old, Bush’s career and videography immediately made an impression for its otherworldly imagery, gothicisms and horror-film references. Ghostly narratives, often borrowed from film, dominate her songs from the era, including an early adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, her video “Hammer Horror” (performed around a dance routine that ends on the image of her masked partner strangling her) and more. The gothic horror of this early period reached its apex in a recorded performance at a fantasy amusement park in Amsterdam. The clip opens with leaves blowing away to reveal Bush’s name emblazoned on a gravestone, eventually leading to a rendition of “Wuthering Heights” where she rises out of a coffin and twirls inside a castle at night.

“THE WEDDING LIST” (1979)

The videos made over the course of Bush’s next two albums saw the star perfecting her flamboyant theatricality as a performer, peaking with her last live performances for more than three decades, 1979’s The Tour of Life. In a TV special, she filmed a video for “The Wedding List”, a song she’d written based on Francois Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black. The film stars Jeanne Moreau as a bride who resolves to exact revenge on the men who killed her husband on their wedding day. (Truffaut’s film is a rumoured inspiration for Kill Bill, though Tarantino denies ever having seen it.) Bush chases her object of vengeance with a gun, vowing: “I’ll get him and I will not miss!

“HOUNDS OF LOVE” (1985)

Hounds of Love, Bush’s most acclaimed album, was created in a studio she built to allow herself maximum freedom with her music’s production. The newfound control over she was able to exert over her art was mirrored by a heightened level of involvement with her videos: the clip for the album’s enduring classic title track was also her first self-directed music video. The video is an homage to Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, while the song opens with a quote from Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 horror film Night of the Demon: “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” Meanwhile, the poignant “Cloudbusting” was made in collaboration with one of her favourite filmmakers, Terry Gilliam, and his team. Time and money limits on videos led to Bush’s continual frustration with the end results, but regardless of their outcome, she said that “what I really like about videos is that I’m working with film. It gives me the chance to get in there and learn about making films, and it’s tremendously useful for me, because one day I might like to make films myself.” Increasingly, she wished to be behind the camera rather than in front, exploring the relationship between music and image. She even developed specific ideas, such as making the second side of Hounds of Love into a half-hour film integrating music with visuals. “When I was writing it, I was really thinking visually,” she said.

“EXPERIMENT IV” (1986)

The 1986 video for “Experiment IV” was conceived, composed, directed and performed by Bush. The song depicts a military plot that manipulates science to create a sound that can kill. It drew on the themes of sci-fi and horror that had been present throughout her career. Bush plays several characters, including a siren that turns into the story’s monster of lethal sound. She wipes out almost everyone in the video, then winks at the camera as she escapes in disguise. The song was punctuated memorably by a replication of Bernard Herrmann’s violins for Hitchcock’s famous Psycho shower scene. The video received a Grammy nomination for Best Concept Music Video, and Bush went on to direct all of the videos for her next two albums.

“MOMENTS OF PLEASURE” (1993)

Bush’s long-awaited musical film project finally came to pass with the 40-minute The Line, The Cross, and the Curve. The film was inspired by Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes, and Bush was even in talks to work with Michael Powell on the film before his death in 1990. Bush also lost her mother around this time, and both figures are commemorated in the film’s standout, “Moments of Pleasure”. The project’s end result was judged a failure by Bush for several reasons, including budgetary and time constraints as well as multiple losses in her personal life. The video projects that Bush considered authentic to her vision – such as “Cloudbusting” and “Army Dreamers” – leave one wondering what she could’ve created had she been given the means to make the large-scale projects that she’d long envisaged. Decades later, in 2014, no one expected the announcement of Bush picking up for the reins for live performance again. Those new shows partially fulfilled a longtime dream of hers (visually adapting Hounds of Love’s “The Ninth Wave”) as well as the dreams of millions of fans who never thought they’d see her step on the stage again.