Straight from video
They made their names on MTV. And BET. Then these hip-hop auteurs graduated to the big screen.
''Constantine" is the new Keanu Reeves sci-fi movie. But based on all the slow-motion blasts of water, mesmerizing strolls through crimson-tinted sets, and highly choreographed computer-generated demons, it could be Reeves's new music video.
That is the world where first-time feature director Francis Lawrence began. Filmmakers who've leapt from the shorter to the longer format are nothing new. Most of the modern video masters have done it: David Fincher (''Fight Club"), Spike Jonze (''Adaptation"), Michel Gondry (''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"), and Jonathan Glazer (''Sexy Beast").
Then there's Hype Williams, whose influence is far greater than you'd know from his one and only feature film -- 1998's ''Belly."
In the late '90s, Williams's videos transformed rap music into indelible hip-hop spectacles that went beyond the confines of the music itself. Fisheye lenses, bad-dream imagery, jiggling bodies, and wholesale bombast were now for every pop star -- from Shelby Lynne to Ludacris -- and eventually for any movie that was interested.
Williams has left his mark on a crop of moviemaking upstarts, who've drawn on the hip-hop-infused style so prevalent in his videos for the likes of Missy Elliott and Nas. Every time you see a room drenched in impossibly rich color (probably indigo), you're seeing a little of Williams's aesthetic. And you see plenty of those definitive flourishes in the videos and movies of the following, whose work is or has been recently featured at a multiplex near you.
F. Gary Gray
Videos: ''It Was a Good Day," Ice Cube (1993); ''Fantastic Voyage," Coolio (1994); ''Waterfalls," TLC (1995); ''Keep Their Heads Ringing," Dr. Dre (1995); ''Ms. Jackson," OutKast (2000), above
Films: ''Friday" (1995); ''Set It Off" (1996); ''The Negotiator" (1998); ''A Man Apart" (2003); ''The Italian Job" (2003); ''Be Cool" (2005), right
Style: Gray's urban videos move from the crudely realist to the silly. His Coolio clip, which features all kinds of California types hopping out a lowrider, is sunny and cheesy. ''It Was a Good Day" is one of Ice Cube's more plangent moments. And the famously expensive ''Waterfalls," a preachy antiviolence melodrama, won several MTV awards, misleadingly suggesting that TLC would become an important video presence.
This small-screen versatility has led to a substantial body of film work. But only the laid-back stoner comedy ''Friday" showed true personality, and that's because it lacked the macho-driven mayhem that came to Gray's later efforts. As his projects have gotten bigger, the filmmaker hasn't shown much verve or point of view; his ho-hum treatment of ''Be Cool" only underscores that. Gray's most inspired moment as a director remains the video for OutKast's ''Ms. Jackson," a song about a crumbling relationship that might be salvageable. The duo tries to fix a leaky and uncooperative country shack, all to no avail. It's a beautiful metaphor.
Videos: ''Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," Backstreet Boys (1997); ''Hot Spot," Foxy Brown (1998); ''Jumpin', Jumpin', " Destiny's Child (2000); ''Doesn't Really Matter," Janet Jackson (2000); ''Hero," Enrique Iglesias (2001); ''Elevation," U2 (2001); ''Toxic," Britney Spears (2004), above; ''La La," Ashlee Simpson (2004)
Films: ''Torque" (2004), below left
Style: An unabashed student of hip-hop video auteur Hype Williams, Kahn has come uniquely into his own -- no one makes a shinier, happier video. The Simpson of ''La La" is such goofy, plastic fun that she belongs inside a cereal box or on a keychain. (The video gleams like a just-waxed car.) ''Toxic" is another brightly lit contraption that makes a lethal Spears seem cute. And in ''Doesn't Really Matter," the now-NC-17 Jackson lives in a cuddly, Hello Kitty-style dreamland.
Kahn's big achievements are his formal tricks. His art directors can personify anything. The camera is good for filming, but what if you treat it like a toy? In two Destiny's Child clips, it pivots and bounces, as if to say that these girls are infectious. At moments, Kahn's first movie, the motorbike action drama ''Torque," is just as contagious. The film has a spaghetti-Western kitschiness, but at 80 minutes, it is 75 too long. His style is like bubble gum, and sugar isn't meant to last that long.
Videos: ''Fortunate," Maxwell (1999); ''Waiting for Tonight," Jennifer Lopez (1999); ''Play," Jennifer Lopez (2000); ''I'm a Slave 4U," Britney Spears (2001); ''Emotions," Destiny's Child (2001); ''Cry Me a River," Justin Timberlake (2002), right; ''What You Waiting For," Gwen Stefani (2004)
Films: ''Constantine" (2005), above
Style: Of all the new breed of videomakers who've gone big-screen, Lawrence is the most talented artist. His music stars always look great and happy, stretching in ways that don't warp their corporate packaging: the sensitive soulster Maxwell grooving in front of a holographic beauty, Lopez with a big, floppy Afro dancing in an outer-space disco, or the ladies of Destiny's Child in a teary triptych.
In ''Cry Me a River," he showed us a ''dark" Timberlake, who breaks into the home of his ex (who we're led to believe is Spears) and videotapes himself cheating back. Taking a cue from Spike Jonze's visual ditty featuring Christopher Walken, Timberlake defies gravity.
Lawrence's first movie, ''Constantine," is an overblown sci-fi extravaganza. But the real hope for his film career comes from the recent Stefani clip, which hints that he may be a naughty surrealist. He cribs from the artists Takashi Murakami, Henry Darger, and Lewis Carroll, while letting Stefani tell a good joke on herself.
Videos: ''Love's Taken Over," Chante Moore (1993); ''United Front," Arrested Development (1994); ''The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," Prince (1994); ''Gangsta's Paradise," Coolio, featuring LV (1995), above right
Films: ''The Replacement Killers" (1998); ''Bait" (2000); ''Training Day" (2002); ''Tears of the Sun" (2003); ''Lightning in a Bottle" (2004); ''King Arthur" (2004), top
Style: Fuqua has never seemed entirely into making videos. He had his sights on Hollywood from the start. But ambition doesn't exactly yield personal style, and his work with Arrested Development and Prince served the songs without having any interesting ideas about the artists.
His most famous video, for ''Gangsta's Paradise" (from the Michelle Pfeiffer movie ''Dangerous Minds"), is his simplest. Coolio, at the peak of his short-lived popularity, raps straight at Pfeiffer, who sits in her chair and takes it. The video works because you're waiting to see if she cracks. (She never does.)
Here is born the steely Fuqua aesthetic later found in the performances of Denzel Washington in ''Training Day," Bruce Willis in ''Tears of the Sun," and Clive Owen in ''King Arthur."
Videos: ''Hit 'Em Wit Da Hee," Missy Elliott, featuring Timbaland and Magoo (1998); ''The Dope Show," Marilyn Manson (1998); ''Untitled (How Does It Feel)," D'Angelo (1999); ''Again," Lenny Kravitz (2000); ''Me Against the Music," Britney Spears and Madonna (2003); ''Drop It Like It's Hot," Snoop Dogg, featuring Pharrell (2004), above
Films: ''Bulletproof Monk" (2003), left
Style: For a while, Hunter was a warmed-over Hype Williams, picturing artists doing their thing in front of bright lights on a stage of some kind. His truly bizarre vision for Manson's ''Dope Show," with its warped daytime photography and its androgynous star in a blue plastic bodysuit, was an exception. Otherwise, he gave us the artists exactly as we'd expect to see them, and nothing more.
This helps explain why Hunter's one feature, a martial-arts team-up of Chow Yun-Fat and Seann William Scott, is unremarkable. By then, though, his videos had turned a corner with ''Untitled," a brilliantly suggestive, ''stripped-down" clip he made with Dominique Trenier for R&B wunderkind D'Angelo, who stands against a black background while the camera ogles his naked, sweating body.
Hunter has a gift for handsome-looking showcases full of pleasurable preening and big bowls of eye candy. In ''Again," a slatternly Kravitz runs after an annoyed Gina Gershon around New York. And there's seductive fun to be had with Britney and Madonna in ''Me Against the Music" as Spears chases her idol around a crypto-Japanese set. She seems truly heartbroken when, having caught her, the material girl dematerializes in Spears's arms.
Yet Hunter's triumphant soundstage moment is ''Drop It Like It's Hot," an utterly classy, expertly cut hip-hop video with Snoop and Pharrell standing around doing nothing more than looking expensive. It proves that platinum blings even in black and white.
The Godfather, Part Two?
Hype Williams is the one member of his generation of music-video godfathers not to develop a career in feature films. While Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry made ''Adaptation" and ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," respectively, Williams has gone back to commercials as well as clips for folks such as Q-Tip and the Game. The rumor mill has him slated to direct a remake of ''Superfly" and a film version of the cartoon classic ''Speed Racer," but so far 1998's ''Belly" remains his only film.
But what a film it is. Not good, exactly; ''Belly" is a Y2K-era drugs-and-guns yarn with a subpar script and worse acting from the likes of Nas and TLC's T-Boz. But as visual operas go, it's unparalleled: neon eyes aglow in a nightclub drenched in rich blue light; delicately superimposed faces; a fisheye lens that can't get enough of an old ghetto codger. Aside from Spike Lee's films, black life had never been treated as such an intoxicating fantasia.
At the time, Magic Johnson didn't want ''Belly" playing at his theaters for fear that young patrons would leave with a lust for thug life. He must have been watching a different movie, because the beautifully oily one Williams made should have inspired kids to be painters, not gangstas.
Lately, Williams has been in a rut, taking paychecks for throwaway videos for throwaway songs. Ashanti's ''Only U" featured more of his inky gorgeousness, but you have to unplug the speakers to truly appreciate it. Williams doesn't need to find Ashanti's rougher side. He needs to find his Charlie Kaufman.