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Video Director Chris Robinson

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Chris Robinson’s music videos are fairly ubiquitous (he usually has one or two in BET rotation) but he’s not an event video director or an overt visual stylist and so, his name’s rarely on the tongues of anyone talking or writing about music videos. When he made his feature film debut after about a decade of hip-hop and R & B videos, it was ‘ATL’, a well-reviewed but still underrated coming of age drama that was reaching for the feeling of ‘Cooley High’ or the sincerity of ‘Straight Out of Brooklyn’ and for the most part, matched those black, humanist classics. His videos are similar, avoiding the show-off cinematography, quick-cutting, and other music video cliches for an understated style and palpable sense of fun.

Alicia Keys ‘Teenage Love Affair’

This is the video that inspired this post because it’s all over BET. Basically a homage to Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’ with the right details highlighted (subtle choreography, the classic characters-on-the-dolly shot) and a wise avoidance of being a flat-out rip of the movie. ‘Teenage Love Affair’ actually looks way better visually than ‘School Daze’ as Robinson goes for a warm, 70s look instead of the colder colors that seemingly every movie between 1985-1992 had to have. Check out the production design when it cuts between Alicia Keys and her new boyfriend’s rooms; the stuff on their walls is used to contrast their personalities and there’s plenty of little details in there. The chopped-up narrative too, with funny throwback title-cards informing the viewer of where we are in the narrative is a good way of mixing-up what would probably be a pretty boring video to viewers used to tons of CGI and boat-races in Miami.

Ryan Leslie ‘Diamond Girl’

First of all, why this song isn’t like the summer-jam is beyond me. The on-the-fly shots that open this video are very good, as Leslie is getting ready and then racing to the performance. Some really good hand-held work and smart cutting that captures the energy of rushing out to perform instead of the like, the big, spectacular slo-mo entry a lot of videos about performance employ. Robinson’s a really economic storyteller, quickly reducing Leslie’s pre-performance drama (or whatever) to a few quick shots that are about to fall out-of-focus, as if even the camera couldn’t keep up with him. You don’t totally know what’s going on, but you know he’s in a hurry and that’s all you need to know.

The performance part looks like late 50s/early 60s film, like the original ‘Oceans Eleven’ or say, ‘Point Blank’ where the colors are contrast-y and immediate. Also, full of great 60s-style movie zooms and cheesy-but-great rotating diamond effects. When it cuts to the girl watching the video, she’s modern and watching it on a flat-screen, but Leslie’s performance is total 60s Rat Pack stuff and it seems to suggest how Leslie’s this throwback to an earlier time. As I said when I reviewed the song, it’s a straight-forward love song, not the postmodern crooner’s song about how she’s his girl for the night or how he has girls on the side or anything like that.

Jay-Z ‘Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)’

The introduction of this video is very much like ‘ATL’, with a whirl of telling images over a simple voiceover. What’s interesting is how all of the 80s rap iconography is real and accurate (thick chains, old flyers, Olde English 40s), much like the way the credit sequence of ‘ATL’ grabbed every part of Atlanta and not just “ghetto” signifiers. Also fun for how Robinson has Jay’s 1988 crew calling themselves “The Roc Boys” like some ‘Warriors’ or ‘Education of Sonny Carson’ stuff. I like to contrast this with Rik Cordero’s ‘Blue Magic’ teaser which yelled-out “gritty” and made the drug-dealing aspect covert enough but also pretty obvious. Here, it’s all kind of implicit and understood that the Roc Boys are a clique of dealers but it doesn’t really do anything to make that clear. And it doesn’t because that’s not really the point. The real point is the contrast between Jay-Z’s current position and where he was in 1988 and that’s made clear and emotional by the bouncing back and forth between the 2007 Roc Boys partying and the 1988 Roc Boys stalking Marcy projects. The past and the present come together in the teaser ending suggesting the played-out but always worth telling people message that you know, you don’t ever really escape “the life”.-Music Video Director Chris Robinson Brings His Feature Debut to His Charm City
-Fairly-Complete Videography from Music Video Database (there are some errors though)

Some of my other favorite Robinson videos are below. Robinson has a lot of fun with throwback effects like the ‘GIRL FIGHT!’ title that explodes on the screen in the Brooke Valentine video, or the ‘Mr. Rogers/Mr. Robinson’s neighborhood stuff on the Ma$e video, the bouncing sing-along heads in ‘Selfish’, or the vaguely psychedelic ‘Sesame Street’ weirdness of Slum’s ‘Tainted’. Other times, Robinson effectively grabs a new or interesting angle on some kind of video cliche. I’ve always seen the set-in-a-diner Alicia Keys video for ‘You Don’t Know My Name’ as a kind of anti-‘Milkshake’. The Jay-Z video for ‘La La La (Excuse Me Again)’ does a really good job of incorporating the ‘Bad Boys 2′ movie clips (having them play off TV sets in the video’s background); he does a similar thing in his video for ‘What You Know’ as well. The ‘Deja Vu’ video does the typical cut-between two sets rap performance video bit, but has one of those sets as a baseball stadium. Robinson shoots it in cartoony colors too, with the grass and uniforms Crayola-bright, which takes a lot of the hardness out of the song. There’s also the Big Pun video, which can comfortable sit next to Spike Jonze’s ‘Sky’s the Limit’ video as a video made after the death of its artist and finding a creative and touching way to pay tribute.

Brooke Valentine ‘Girl Fight’

Ma$e ‘Welcome Back’

Slum Village ‘Selfish’

Alicia Keys ‘You Don’t Know My Name’

Jay-Z ‘La La La (Excuse Me Again)’

Slum Village ‘Tainted’

Big Pun ‘It’s So Hard’

Lord Tariq & Peter Gunz ‘Deja Vu’

‘ATL’ (2006)
Robinson’s debut film ‘ATL’, is undoubtedly the work of a music video director, with a mix of 2003-2005 summer jams playing in the background for almost all of the movie’s running time, but it ultimately works, as most of the movie’s set in the music-friendly settings of a roller-rink and house-parties.

At other points however, Robinson eschews source music style and punctuates a scene with a really great tone-setting or emotional cue. Big Rube’s ‘Love’s Deceit’ scores the movie’s emotional denouement, while the movie’s epilogue is set to ‘Right Now’ by Cee-Lo. ‘Git Up, Git Out’ plays as TI and younger brother Ant (played by Diana Ross’ kid) accompany their half-fuck-up/half good guy uncle cleaning up a big office building and the scene matches the complexity of the song in terms of you know, trying to get-on the right way but also being like “Man, cleaning up office buildings sucks!”. A later scene, where despite TI’s pointed wishes, Ant is dealing, is set to OV Wright’s ‘Motherless Child’; it works as both literal (the boys have no parents) and as the perfect musical switch-up in a movie full of stuff like ‘Kryptonite’ and ‘And Then What’. The scene culminates in Ant getting jacked and a few scenes later, as both TI and the neighborhood’s big-time drug dealer– played so well by Big Boi that nothing about him seems appealing or cool, a testament to the movie’s effective social message– search for Ant, the score plays some wailing electric guitar that’s vaguely ‘Maggot Brain’-like and if the movie didn’t weave so many references, I’d hesitate to connect it to George Clinton’s instructions to Eddie Hazel (“play like your Momma just died”), but having just watched a ‘Motherless Child’ montage, it seems legit.

In terms of like, brilliant sub-text, the best scene is a scene that takes place at the country club where one of TI’s friends, nicknamed “Esquire” works. A group of elderly, mainly-white, musicians, hired to play milquetoast background music, play an incredibly square version of John Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’. Mounted on a wall of the country club is a painting of a Confederate soldier, standing proud and it looms as Keith David’s millionaire entrepreneur character John Garnett toasts to “six consecutive quarters in the black…” (David also narrated Ken Burns’ 2001 ‘Jazz’ series). The whole scene is Ellison-ian in its complexity and subtlety (although its sorta ruined when Robinson ends the scene with an in-focus close-up of the Confederate painting, but still!).

Written by Brandon

June 9th, 2008 at 7:08 pm