Film has long used music to enhance moments, but the possibility of the pop music video as anything other than an incidental adjunct to the music it presents is still a hard sell for many. Might Lemonade, the latest visual album release from Beyoncé Knowles, offer an effective reconsideration of whether music videos can exist as film?
Of course Lemonade is not the first visual album for Beyoncé, or any pop star. And even before visual albums the pop video’s foray into the cinematic has been pronounced. Lemonade, though, with its holistic structure directly confronts the way we view music videos as filmed art. For, to experience Lemonade without the context of its filmic aspect is to miss half of its thrust. It would be akin to listening to the soundtrack of a musical without first watching to gain context.
The album’s subtitle hailing it as “every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing” is a key indication of that holistic function. Rather than a series of apposite sequences under a general theme, the visual aspect of the album traces a sequential movement of a single woman. Understanding the effect of the music which accompanies, comes with understanding the visuals of the film itself. The extract that best epitomises this is ‘Hold Up,’ which bears the image of a casually strutting Beyoncé clad in yellow gold and gleefully causing wreckage.
Its impetus is a clear invocation and mimcry of the 1997 Pippiloti Rist (‘Ever Is Over All’), a slow motion art short film which sees a young woman walking down city streets smashing windows of cars with a flower shaped sledgehammer.
‘Hold Up,’ like the album, confronts Beyoncé’s visuals penchant for references in her music and videos. It’s the nature of art, particularly filmic art of course, where everything is a copy of a copy of a copy (just ask Abbas Kiarostami who delves into this in Certified Copy) but beyond that what makes this sequence work so well is how it depends on the filmic ironising of context. Beyoncé steps out of the building (iconic visual moment number umpteen) and swaggers down the streets, divorced from the lyrics, which, despite their jaunty tune, border on the plaintive. The moment where she snatches the baseball bat from a young child is winsome in its easy joy, so that when the first moment of smash comes it’s jolting, and incongruous.
But the incongruity doesn’t stop there, neither is it accidental. The first smash cuts away to a bystander screaming in shock and we cut back to Beyoncé – her face espouses a beatific smile. And that is the crux. On its own, ‘Hold Up’ is an excellent reggae infused pop song but within the context of this album as film it becomes a provocative piece. The intrinsic destruction literally gives way to joy – in a later sequence she smashes a fire hydrant; the water from it results in children dancing joyfully in the streets. This is a film sequence that runs in conjunction with what’s being said and spoken.
Beyoncé’s biggest detractors will decry her worth as a product of pop culture, and it’s that kneejerk reaction that informs a delegitimisation of the value of works that are ‘pop.’ Can a music video be art? Can it be film? And for it to be art, does it have to evoke the ‘high brow.’ These aren’t new questions. We were asking them with OutKast, we were asking them with Twiggs, we were asking them with Madonna. The need to demand that artforms remain “independent” and pure results in a kind of parcelling off of goodness, when really artforms are at their best when they give over to artistic interdependence. It’s why the original song category at the Academy Awards often comes into such contempt, how dare pop music stain the value of real cinema. The naysayers miss the point of artistic merging.
But what makes Lemonade emerge as a film, ultimately? Most significantly, it’s the ease of tracing the hour long piece as a coherent narrative and ultimately it’s what most intrigues about this creation.
Fans are intrigued, either impressed or confused, at Beyoncé running the gamut of genres with the music on the album – from rock to country to pop to R&B to reggae. Clarity might come though when we consider the singleness of thought and ethos in the visuals of the album. Sure, we move from city streets, to country beats and gothic mansions to bus seats but the forward momentum of a single story being told is clear and distinct. This is a single story moving over one hour. The images here are the story here as well as the song. And in this way Lemonade emerges as an hour long construct that demands a single viewing, like any ‘film.’ Perhaps with it we can reevaluate the never ending conversation on whether music videos can be relevant as cinema.