Once upon a time Shawn Carter aka Jay Z contacted his 99 PROBLEMS music video director Mark Romanek for PICASSO BABY, the second track from his new album MAGNA CARTA…HOLY GRAIL.
Romanek whose work in the music video realm is the stuff of legend—Nine Inch Nails’ CLOSER and Johnny Cash’s HURT—had not directed a music video in ten years. You see, he’s been busy making feature films (ONE HOUR PHOTO and NEVER LET ME GO) as well as turning them down (WOLF MAN and CINDERELLA which Kenneth Branagh is now directing).
Having reinvented the music video in the 90s and early 2000s (and gotten kinda bored with it since), Mark Romanek was not interested in directing just another music video. But what of his buddy Jay Z’s predicament?
Mark Romanek (director): “When Jay said, “I’d like to do a music video for this song,” my reaction was kind of twofold: I wanted to work with him again, because we had just made the Samsung stuff, but I didn’t want to make a traditional music video because it felt uninteresting to me. So I was trying to think of something that would feel more of the moment—more spontaneous, more uncontrived—and I presented this idea to Jay of this performance-art piece in the mode of The Artist Is Present.
Music video, art film or performance art?
PICASSO BABY is inspired by performance art pioneer Marina Abramovic’s intense and spiritual THE ARTIST IS PRESENT. Romanek sought Abramovic’s blessing before commencing work on Jay Z’s own performance art. In fact, so flattered was Marina Abramovic that she not only granted her consent but also showed up during the Jay Z shindig, along with a slew of celebrities including directors Jim Jarmusch and Judd Apatow; and actors Alan Cumming, Taraji P. Henson and Rosie Perez.
Not to be outclassed by the entertainment and nouveau riche, art critic Jerry Saltz paid a visit too. After Jay Z’s performance, he gushed: “Maybe I was smitten by fame. I stayed for just about the whole six hours, and all I can say is that I don’t think I saw one instance where Jay Z was not totally there, in the moment, working the energy.”
The making of PICASSO BABY
Lensed by the talented, up-and-coming cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE), eight ARRI Alexa cameras were used to capture the transformative quality of Jay Z’s performance. They went mostly handheld, freestyle, with director Mark Romanek himself operating one of the cameras. Alexas are operator-friendly, and so far offer the most balanced complement of accurate skin tone and great latitude (that might change with the soon-to-be-released RED Dragon; but more on that in a future blog entry!). Lipes captured the footage at ProRes 444 on SxS cards.
After the six-hour shoot, Romanek spent fifteen days meticulously combing through the footage to make sure no gems went unnoticed. He ended up locking in his ‘art film’ at ten minutes, which does not preclude the surprisingly long end credit sequence!
Mark Romanek: “We didn’t want to make a music video in the traditional sense, because it seems like that era has kind of passed, so what I tried to do is design an event that was completely authentic. Once we flipped the on switch, we didn’t know what was going to happen! We were kind of hanging on by our fingernails just trying to make sure that any great moment that occurred was beautifully captured on film.”
Designed to capture the unfeigned joy of participants and viewers alike, PICASSO BABY is a lucidly structured series of moments that perhaps reveals the intimate personality of Jay Z the musician (and businessman), but also the increasingly blurring lines between entertainment, art and hyperbole. The end?