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One Good Thing: The messy, glorious music videos of Paul Thomas Anderson

The Licorice Pizza director has made beautiful loners out of Haim, Fiona Apple, Radiohead, and more.

A still from Haim’s music video. They’re line-dancing.
Alana, Danielle, and Este Haim in a still from the video for their song “Little of Your Love,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who would later direct Alana in Licorice Pizza.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Honestly, a lot of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies — including his Oscar-nominated comedy Licorice Pizza — feel like extended music videos. Sometimes, they basically are: Magnolia, released in 1999, was Anderson’s attempt to adapt his friend Aimee Mann’s music into a movie. (The results suggest it was a good idea.)

Licorice Pizza’s needle drops, woven into the heady emotional landscape of a 1970s summer in the Valley, feel like pleasant little heart-thunks, every single time. In composing the weird tinkly soundtrack for Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Jon Brion mixed original music with a song from Robert Altman’s 1980s film Popeye, to delicious effect. And, of course, Boogie Nights (1997) plays like one long party, so laden with bangers that they had to release the soundtrack in two volumes.

Maybe this explains why Anderson’s music videos, in turn, seem like films. In some cases, they actually are short films: there’s Valentine (2017), a fly-on-the-wall documentary in the studio with the LA-based pop-rock band Haim, and Anima (2019), a collaboration with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, which plays like dystopian sci-fi with a hopeful side. But even the more traditional-length ones — dozens of which he’s been directing since the ’90s with artists including (ex-girlfriend) Fiona Apple, Joanna Newsom, Radiohead, Haim, Aimee Mann, and Michael Penn — feel like mini-films bearing his unmistakable fingerprints.

What are those fingerprints? Anderson’s films always feel a little smudgy, a little off-kilter, with main characters who often seem a bit out of place in their world — a perfect match for musicians.

In The Master (2012), loner Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is jaggedly inappropriate and unpredictable, a man who seems on the verge of exploding or shriveling at any unexpected moment. Two years later in Inherent Vice, Phoenix is now a strung-out detective who’s a day late and a dollar short while life is racing on ahead of him. Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) is really just a kid looking for a family to belong to; he finds it in a glamorous but ragtag band of porn actors. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the prospector at the center of There Will Be Blood (2007), is a man out of time, simultaneously modern and somehow medieval in his outlook.

The list could go on, so it’s super fun to see those show up in his music videos, too. Take this one, my personal favorite, for Fiona Apple’s 1998 cover of “Across the Universe”:

Apple sits singing placidly and earnestly in the middle of a diner being absolutely trashed by a horde of men in suits. The result is a blurry dreamscape, and we’re left wondering what exactly this nice young woman is doing in the midst of absolute chaos. She’s in a different world. (And nothing’s gonna change it.)

Same vibe in this Aimee Mann video, for “Save Me”:

Mann sits in the midst of scenes from Magnolia, seemingly describing the emotional plea of the lonely cast of characters — “Why don’t you save me?” — but also her own, as one of those in the “ranks of the freaks / who suspect / they could never love anyone.” After all, she’s a ghost here. They don’t even know she’s there.

Or this video for Joanna Newsom’s song “Divers,” in which she looms over the landscape like a goddess or a giant, alone in the midst of harmonious nature, a strange and eerie presence singing about a lost love:

“You don’t know my name,” she concludes. “But I know yours.”

Sometimes Anderson renders his characters’ disjointedness, their eerie alienation, by following them as they stride forcefully through scenes of absolute chaos. Long tracking shots are another of his cinematic hallmarks; they’re all over Licorice Pizza, of course, but perhaps most famous is the three-minute unbroken shot that opens Boogie Nights:

He’s just showing off with this, but he loves to do it. Here he is tracking Joanna Newsom — this time without a steadicam — through the hectic streets of Greenwich Village as she sings “Sapokanikan”:

Or, in this very famous music video, he backs away in one unbroken shot from Boogie Nights composer Michael Penn, who’s singing “Try” while powering down the longest corridor in America (at a quarter mile). Spot the Philip Seymour Hoffman cameos:

In recent years, Anderson has frequently teamed up with Haim, and in those videos you can see all his fingerprints once again; the videos are messy and beautiful, and the camera is as much a character as the musicians are. The most fun of these might be the video for their 2019 single “Summer Girl,” in which the sisters walk around Los Angeles slowly removing layers of sweatshirts and shirts as they enter the warmest season:

The group started shooting the “Summer Girl” video with Anderson basically before the song was completed, and he ended up contributing some unused movie lines to it (then turned down a writing credit).

Most recently, his video for “Lost Track” (released March 1) features Danielle Haim looking like a disaffected teenager miserable at a terrible party where she’s the odd one out. “I’m tryin’ to feel all right / around all these people / I try but I’m just numb / this time,” she sings to camera as a gaggle of women in retro dresses buzz around her having a great time:

Haim’s collaboration with Anderson runs so deep that the youngest Haim, Alana, is the star of Licorice Pizza, in a breakout performance that’s garnered universal acclaim. She plays another young woman who feels out of place everywhere, from the world of adults she’s reluctant to join to her own family (played, delightfully, by her own real-life sisters and parents). In the film, you can feel the trust between artist and director, the kind of thing that’s gained over years of collaboration.

That’s what’s always made Anderson’s films so enormously satisfying to watch. He’s a director who loves to push at people’s bruises and prod them in the side, but never in a painful way. You get the feeling that he loves his characters.

It’s no different in his music videos: Whether he’s zooming in slowly on Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood playing guitars in a twilight park, or turning Fiona Apple into an avant-garde contrapuntal goddess, or watching Danielle Haim go through a car wash, you can feel the fascination with faces and the tug between joy and a sense that life’s just real weird coming through. Watch them all in order, and you might start to wonder if he’s a music video director first, after all.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s music videos are available to watch on YouTube. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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