By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007
In the breathtaking video for U2's new song, "Window in the Skies," Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, Marvin Gaye and a shirtless Iggy Pop take turns singing the lyrics on Bono's behalf.
Instead of The Edge on guitar, you see Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Elvis Costello and a very young Keith Richards, back when he looked like a George Harrison doppelganger.
And hey, there's Vladimir Horowitz playing the piano! And that guy from Wilco on bass! And the manic Keith Moon on drums!
All thanks to the magic of editing and copyright clearances.
The "Window in the Skies" video is a stirring montage that features roughly 100 archival clips of various musicians performing in concert. The footage has been carefully and cleverly edited so that the performances sync up with U2's lyrics and music -- right down to Frank Sinatra conducting the soaring song to its conclusion.
It's a triumph of postmodern reconstruction, a 4-minute 19-second celebration of some of popular music's most beloved and influential figures.
Let other, lesser artists feature video cameos by one or two of their sorta famous friends. U2 seems to have invited the entire Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to its party, and more than a few folks showed up: Ray Charles, Joe Strummer, Smokey Robinson, Patti Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis, Robert Plant, Ronnie Spector, Roy Orbison. They were even joined by some celebrated newcomers, from rapper Kanye West to the Canadian indie-rock band Arcade Fire.
"We wanted to honor these great artists," says Gary Koepke, the video's director. "Throughout time, they've been playing music and trying to achieve greatness. We wanted to celebrate them and their passion. This video had to happen. And it made itself, basically."
Well, not really. It took three months and plenty of man-hours to make the addictive video, which has become a hit on YouTube and VH1 and has inspired endless pages of Internet discussion-board messages about who exactly appears in the clip and when. (That's Lou Reed, not Jim Morrison, at the 44-second mark; Beyonce, not Britney Spears, at 1:47. A rundown of all of the artists might eventually appear on U2's Web site; until then, obsessive music fans will have to keep guessing about whether that is or isn't Rory Gallagher.)
While Koepke oversaw creation of the video, he left much of the heavy lifting to others -- including three young editors who, he says, "wanted a break": his son, Max, plus David Brodie and Julian Wadsworth. "They're all in their 20s and they love music and embraced this. If I'd gone to somebody my age, in their late 40s, they would've grumbled and said, 'You're crazy.' The spirit of youth really drove this project."
Koepke had exactly one music video credit on his résumé prior to working on "Window in the Skies" (David Bowie's "Slow Burn"). He's an advertising executive by trade, the co-founder of a Boston agency, Modernista!, which last year teamed with Bobby Shriver and U2's designated world-saver Bono on their "Choose Red" initiative -- a campaign that urged consumers to buy red iPods and Motorola cellphones and such to help fund medication for AIDS victims in Africa.
Koepke says the wheels began to spin almost immediately when Bono gave him a copy of a new U2 song that was intended for a greatest-hits package. "Everybody probably has a different interpretation," the director says, "but to me, the song is about time and the power of love."
Somehow, that interpretation led to the idea of a montage of . . . musicians.
The resulting video features 137 clips, including several "Where's Waldo?"-type crowd shots in which the various members of U2 can be seen, if only briefly. There's also footage of people dancing, people kissing, flowers blooming, and what Koepke calls "the money shot" -- an atomic bomb turning into a sunset. But the guest musicians are the stars, their presence overpowering U2 and its featured song.
It's a little bit Bruce Conner (he of the famous found-footage film "A Movie"), a little bit Christian Marclay (he of the multimedia music presentations). And it's a whole lot of Jeff Estow: As director of business affairs for Modernista!, Estow spent endless hours making licensing deals for the archival footage and trying to secure permission to use the artists' likenesses.
In making his pitch, Estow says, he told the musicians' reps that the video would be "a very tasteful homage to artists from across eras and genres who've provided particular influence and inspiration to U2."
Sinatra's estate attorney signed off on the project almost immediately (it didn't hurt that Bono had befriended and worked with Sinatra before the crooner's death). Shortly thereafter, Presley's estate agreed to allow the singer's iconic image to appear in the video and provided footage from a 1968 comeback special that synced exceptionally well with Bono's singing. "Once that happened, we went to other artists and said Sinatra and Elvis are in the video, and things really got rolling," Estow says.
While the video celebrates musical greatness, it is not meant to be a comprehensive yearbook of popular music's best. Can't cram 'em all into 4:19, for one thing. And Koepke says he couldn't get clearance from everybody, anyway.
"There were a few legends we missed, obviously, that we really would have liked to get," he says. Among them: Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, James Brown, Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen. While the Beatles didn't make the final cut, their representatives approved the project after the deadline, and because, well, they're the Beatles, the video has been redone to accommodate them. The new version will likely be released this week. And then, Koepke says, that's it: No more music videos. At least not ones in which a quartet transforms itself into a cast of thousands in the editing bay.
"This project took a quarter of a year to finish," he says. "If I do another one, it will just be a picture of the sun rising and the song playing over it. Very conceptual!"