Alt-rock giants R.E.M. amassed one of the most monumental back catalogs known to rock, but they also passionately embraced the visual aspect of their art. Over the course of three decades, the Athens, Georgia, quartet released over 70 videos, with their groundbreaking celluloid ranging from arty short films through to iconic, MTV-friendly blockbusters and full-length, in-concert movies, many of which were directed by innovative filmmakers such as Jem Cohen, Jim McKay, Tarsem Singh, Peter Care, Randy Skinner, and Vincent Moon.
We revisit 11 of R.E.M’s most notable videos, with exclusive, in-depth commentary from the directors themselves.
“Talk About The Passion” (1987)
Originally one of the stand-out tracks on R.E.M.’s landmark debut, Murmur, from 1983, “Talk About The Passion” was later included on the band’s final IRS release, the 1987 compilation Eponymous, and the band commissioned up-and-coming NYC-based filmmaker Jem Cohen to shoot a contemporaneous promo. Renowned for his observational portraits of primarily urban landscapes, Cohen duly assembled a grainy but powerful black-and-white film which resonates to this day.
Jem Cohen: “I was quite disappointed with commercial music video as MTV generally presented/invented it, and I was fascinated by R.E.M.’s readily apparent interest in art/filmmaking and the freer, unorthodox approach they took in their earlier videos, especially those directed by Michael [Stipe] and the extraordinary ones by James Herbert. I contacted the band myself, sending along VHS tapes of my earlier work. Michael responded directly, suggesting reworking the images in one of my films, This Is A History Of New York, for an R.E.M. video. I responded that I’d be open to reusing some shots, but would prefer to shoot new material as well. The end result was ‘Talk About The Passion’.
“Get Up” (from Tourfilm, 1989)
Also co-founder of the C-100 production company with Michael Stipe, Jim McKay (whose credits also include episodes of Law & Order and Breaking Bad) directed R.E.M.’s radical and evocative Tourfilm: a magnificent full-length in-concert movie which captured the band on the cusp of major international success on their massive, year-long Green world tour of 1989.
Jim McKay: “I’m sure [Tourfilm] feels even more primitive now than it did then, but I also think – or hope – that, because of that, its soul stands out. It’s ugly, trippy, sloppy, gorgeous, meditative… so its lack of cohesion resulted in a certain un-uniform uniformity. It’s not some big slick set-piece. What I like best about it to this day is that we followed through on our initial decision to completely avoid any non-performance material. No interviews, no backstage antics and, for the most part, no audience shots either. It’s a post-Document document.
“Also, we were filming a show that had a ton of projected film in it. So the layers of imagery were pretty intense. Jem [Cohen]’s Super 8 black-and-white films of fish in an aquarium for ‘Turn You Inside Out’ had been blown up to 70mm and projected behind the band, and then Jem is there at the show filming that in Super 8 – pieces of film grain swimming through the water like fish food, bigger than basketballs. It was just luscious.”
“Losing My Religion” (1991)
Currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, the evergreen Out Of Time sold over 18 million copies worldwide and turned R.E.M. into global superstars. Arguably the catalyst was the LP’s first single, “Losing My Religion,” which shot to No.4 on the US Billboard chart with help from mainstream radio and (crucially) heavy rotation on MTV. Michael Stipe had previously vowed he would never lip-synch in any of the band’s promotional films, but he finally changed his mind for director Tarsem Singh’s remarkable video, which later won a Grammy Award. Heavy on religious imagery, Singh’s short was reputedly influenced by (proto-Baroque Italian painter) Caravaggio, a short story by Gabriel García Márquez (“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”) and Michael Stipe’s unorthodox dancefloor moves.
“I like either Bollywood and Busby Berkeley, or mystic-gone-crazy dancing,” Tarsem Singh recently told Rolling Stone. “I don’t like half-assed choreography. I liked his thing because… it was so internalized, the way he danced. He danced, and in between takes I was jumping with him. I just knew that was it. The next day when I was shooting all these things that looked so kitsch and strange, he didn’t say a thing. He said, “All right, you know what you’re doing. Carry on.”
“Half A World Away” (1991)
Though not one of Out Of Time’s quartet of singles, the melancholic “Half A World Away” remains one of the album’s most powerful tracks. Included on R.E.M’s gold-selling VHS release This Film Is On, its evocative, Kerouac-ian video was directed by Jim McKay and starred actor Tom Gilroy.
Jim McKay: “All of us were, at the time, very big into the Beats and into cinéma vérité artists like the Maysles brothers, DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. I’d also had the amazing experience of driving around the US on and off for the preceding two years, so the American road was embedded in my DNA.
“The theme was distance and longing, and I think the images ended up marrying to the song wonderfully. There was absolutely no plan. Tom, our friend Dominic DeJoseph and I drove from Athens to LA. Along the way, we stayed at roadside hotels, ate at old diners, and stopped whenever there was something interesting outside the window. The whole thing was shot with a couple of Super 8 cameras I had at the time which were just about to die and did funky stuff like randomly faded in and out, or made frames that jumped.”
“Radio Song” (1991)
Director Peter Care made his name through his innovative music videos (including the much-lauded short film Johnny Yesno) for pioneering Sheffield post-punks Cabaret Voltaire. He’s since worked in London and Los Angeles, and has also shot critically acclaimed music videos for Los Lobos, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty. His promotional videos for R.E.M., however, still rank among his most memorable clips, and the one he directed for “Radio Song,” the fourth single from 1991’s Out Of Time, remains among his best, with its revolutionary camera angles, 360-degree panning, and rapid-fire image pile-ups.
Peter Care: “I had been playing around with film projection for many years before ‘Radio Song’ – projecting onto moving vehicles, buildings, smoke, index cards, or on screens held by people. I was fascinated with how a “frame-within-a-frame” (or picture-in-picture) worked in terms of composition, and so, for ‘Radio Song’, I designed the projections to be two-dimensional, working with the verticals and horizontal lines of the location in the background. It was important to add the idea that the surface that was receiving the projection would move at times – something that could only be captured by the camera, not added in post-production as an effect.
“The great director of photography, Paul Laufer, spent a long, long, long time lighting Michael – which pi__ed him off thoroughly at the time – but the shot is stunning. We all agreed later that it was worth the tedium. It works incredibly well in the sections where it is projected into thin air and captured by the multiple cards the band members are holding into frame. Its strength also lies with Michael looking right into the camera, singing with very little movement or emotion.”
“Country Feedback” (1991)
Jem Cohen often applied punk’s DIY ethos to his filmmaking, which was often well removed from the mainstream, and he frequently used small-gauge formats for his shoots, including Super 8. Arguably the most evocative of the six promos he directed for R.E.M., the abstract, but fascinating short he compiled for the hypnotic, dirge-like “Country Feedback” (later released as part of This Film In On) remains one of his proudest achievements.
Jem Cohen: “‘Country Feedback’ is definitely my favorite. I thought it was an incredible song and knew there was a lot of intense feeling and experience that brought it to life, so I really wanted to do it justice. It turns out that meant stripping the imagery way down and letting shots run longer and really avoiding the ways in which music videos are often constructed and edited. It became very personal, both the shooting and the editing. It was exciting and torturous – trying to really conjoin the song with images without cheapening anything.”
“Everybody Hurts” (1992)
Arguably R.E.M.’s most accessible and widely recognized hit record, the poignant, soul-inflected “Everybody Hurts” was primarily written by drummer Bill Berry for Automatic For The People. Unusually for R.E.M, the song features an atypically direct lyric which came to fruition because the song was aimed directly at teenagers. “If you’re consciously writing for someone who hasn’t been to college, or is pretty young, it might be nice to be very direct,” Peter Buck said, when discussing the song in a 2005 BBC interview. “In that regard, it’s tended to work for people of a lot of ages.”
R.E.M. turned to Ridley Scott associate, director Jake Scott, to film the song’s equally memorable video in which the band are stuck in a seemingly interminable traffic jam on a Texan highway. Reputedly influenced by the opening dream sequence in Federico Fellini’s avant-garde classic 8½, the footage then broadens to show people in surrounding cars and includes subtitles which verbalize their thoughts and frustrations before they leave their vehicles and choose to walk instead.
Instantly recognizable from its opening bars, “Everybody Hurts” has continued to touch hearts globally. Indeed, in 1995, Britain’s emotional support listening service The Samaritans launched a memorable UK-wide press advertising campaign consisting solely of the lyrics to the song.
Michael Stipe sings of a group of friends who go skinny-dipping late at night on “Nightswimming.” Reputedly at least semi-autobiographical, this elegant ballad, framed by woodwind, Mike Mills’ tumbling piano, and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones’ sweeping string arrangement, was undeniably one of Automatic For The People’s key tracks. Jem Cohen was again commissioned to create the song’s visual counterpart.
Jem Cohen: “Early on, I was shooting primarily Super 8, though by the time of ‘Nightswimming’ I was doing 16mm too, but it was all very raw and entwined with small-gauge filmmaking outside of the film and music industries. Michael [Stipe] was deeply interested in independent film – and photography in general – and had been since his time in university, if not before. Especially in the early days, we felt that all music videos could (and should) be more in the way of filmmakers’ personally resonant responses to the band’s songs, as opposed to “promotional vehicles.” Generally speaking, in the early days, I just made what I wanted to make and handed the results to Michael when I was done. And that was that.”
“Bang And Blame” (1994)
Following on from their two introspective, multi-million-selling masterpieces Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, R.E.M returned to high-octane rock’n’roll with 1994’s critic-dividing Monster. An often brasher and more mainstream work, the promotional films for the album’s five singles were also highly arresting. Though run close by Peter Care’s attention-grabbing clip for “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” the best was arguably “Bang And Blame,” directed by Randy Skinner, who previously produced Don Henley’s MTV Award-winning “Boys Of Summer.”
Randy Skinner: “R.E.M weren’t really interested in following any existing formulas for promos. They weren’t afraid to take chances. They were willing to collaborate and had varied and interesting tastes in the directors and the visuals they were drawn to. With the ‘Bang And Blame’ promo, the idea of splitting the screen into three windows came from my affinity for framing multiple images and putting things in boxes. I think it comes from having a still-photography background. It seemed like an interesting way to incorporate performance in a video and keep things moving along in an untraditional format.”
“E-Bow The Letter” (1996)
Michael Stipe duetted with his long-time heroine Patti Smith on the first single from R.E.M.’s underrated New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Jem Cohen returned to direct a beautiful video juxtaposing lonely street scenes with some highly elegant footage of R.E.M performing the song in a room lit by hundreds of tiny white lights. Stark, atmospheric, and quite beautiful, it remains one of the band’s most unforgettable promos.
Jem Cohen: “We didn’t even have to include the band in all the early videos, and lip-synch was of little or no interest to them – which was lucky for me as I’d always found it absurd. So we were all pretty anti-mainstream back then. Also, the early videos were pretty low budget. When the budgets and pressures got bigger, it became more of a label-connected thing, so by the time I got to make ‘E-Bow The Letter’, the process had become less intimate. However, that again came full circle. The last video I did for them (‘Oh My Heart’ from Collapse Into Now) was again very low budget and all the filmmakers who worked on pieces for that album were again given total freedom.”
“Supernatural Superserious” (2008)
R.E.M. continued to seek out innovative directors throughout their career. Independent, Paris-born filmmaker Vincent Moon first came to prominence through his popular video podcast series The Take Away Shows, a series of improvised outdoor video sessions with musicians set in unexpected locations and broadcast freely on the internet. Having become a fan, Michael Stipe actively sought out Moon, who later directed several R.E.M videos, including their acclaimed concert film This Is Not A Show and the intimate, yet powerful promo for “Supernatural Superserious,” the first single from the band’s penultimate LP, Accelerate.
Vincent Moon: “I’d been making films with a lot of unknown bands, but I’d done one with Arcade Fire, which may be how my name got around. However, I literally got an SMS from Michael Stipe saying he wanted to contact me! I could hardly believe someone of his stature would want to work with me, but R.E.M. was just amazing. I took my [co-director] Jeremiah with me to film the Dublin shows for what became This Is Not A Show, and Michael and the whole band were so accommodating. The whole attitude was “just film what you want and let’s see what happens.”
“They were just as relaxed when we made ‘Supernatural Superserious’. Even though it was quite a big production, it was all improvised, just shooting them as they walked around [New York’s] Lower West Side. They just went with the flow and the video was very simple, yet very beautiful and very natural. They were stars, yes, but also very real and just an incredible band.”
The anniversary edition of Monster can be bought here.