A Light that Never Went Out: The MTV Legacy of Derek Jarman

One of the most fascinating and overlooked aspects of Derek Jarman’s impressive filmmaking career is his collaborative work with musical artists. These projects materialized as experimental short films as well as music promo videos that regularly aired on MTV throughout the 1980s. Jarman appreciated the money he made directing videos but he wasn’t particularly happy about doing work for hire and said that it was something he “would dearly have wished to avoid.” And in 1987 he complained in his published journal (Kicking the Pricks) that “Music video is the only extension of the cinematic language in this decade, but it has been used for quick effect, and it’s often showy and shallow.”

It’s become impossible to measure the full impact that MTV has had on our cultural landscape since its initial launch in 1981. But its direct effect on filmmakers has been profound. The 24-hour channel that was once solely devoted to music television has changed the way we absorb and process images. Techniques that were once associated with avant-garde filmmaking have become mainstream and it has a lot of critics up in arms. Complaints about “MTV style” editing are commonplace and critics continually deride “jittery” camera work that can make a million dollar film look like a home movie. Amid the current uproar, few take the time to trace the source of these flickering images and blanket statements about any kind of filmmaking methods tend to be reductive and pointless. What has been called “hyper” or “chaotic” editing and “shaky cam” style camerawork can be found in many of Derek Jarman’s most popular and widely seen music videos. But there is purpose in the images he chooses and his editing techniques give his work a profound depth that is anything but showy and shallow.

Jarman’s cut-up style of filmmaking, which employed quick edits, superimposed images, non-narrative storytelling and the incorporation of home movies or found footage, was a radical break from the slick and formalistic filmmaking style that dominated the British film industry. He was an artist who used film as a form of self-expression to question the status que and redefine gender roles. And the music videos he made were an extension of his experimental and inventive directing style. They merit more critical attention than they’ve received and also serve as a wonderful compendium to his extraordinary body of work


One of the filmmaker’s earliest experiments with music video included shooting some of the first super 8 footage of the Sex Pistols during a live 1976 performance that ended up being incorporated into Julian Temple’s film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. At the time Jarman was fascinated with the young punks that paraded down King’s Street in London and this obsession led him to make his punk rock opus, Jubilee (1977), which was both a celebration and a critique of the punk movement. Jarman told John Savage, the author of England’s Dreaming, that ‘Punk was an understandable and very correct disgust with everything but it wasn’t focused. Youth seemed to get it right, but, in its funny way, it did end in repression with Margaret Thatcher’s England. Jubilee told that parable.’ The film has a very rough and unfocused look that perfectly captures the rebellious mood of the times.

The Sex Pistols from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle

In 1979 Jarman was contacted by Island Records who hired him to make three promotional music videos for Marianne Faithfull’s album Broken English. Jarman ended up making a 12-minute short using a mixture of super-8 and 16mm film that he edited together with old found footage of WW2 bombings, political protests, and dance contests. Each of the three songs (“Witch’s Song,” “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” and “Broken English”) is framed in a way that makes them enjoyable on their own as individual music videos but they also combine to form a single cohesive film. Jarman used many of his favorite techniques while he was making Broken English such as superimposition, which gave his work a richly textured and layered look. It’s a remarkably personal piece of filmmaking that expresses Jarman’s own artistic vision but it also provided Marianne Faithfull with an incredible canvas to showcase her songs.

Marianne Faithfull – Broken English (“Witch’s Song,” “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” and “Broken English”)

During this period Jarman also began working with the experimental music artist Genesis  P-Orridge who was a member of Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. The two became very friendly and collaborated on a series of short films and music videos together including In the Shadow of the Sun (1980), TG Psychic Rally in Heaven (1981), Pirate Tape: A Portrait of William Burroughs (1982), Diese Machine Ist Mein Anithumanistiches Kunstwerk (1983) and Imaging October (1984). Both Jarman and P-Orridge shared an interest in paganism and the occult among other things and there’s a trance-like quality to a lot of the work they did together.

Throbbing Gristle – “TG Psychic Rally in Heaven”

Between 1983-1985, Derek Jarman directed a large number of music videos for various artists including “Dance with Me” (The Lords of the New Church; 1984), “Tenderness is a Weakness” (Marc Almond; 1984) and “Windswept” (Bryan Ferry; 1985). One video Jarman directed probably got more MTV airtime than any other and that was “Dance Hall Days” for the British pop band Wang Chung.

“Dance Hall Days” was one of Wang Chung’s biggest hits and reached #16 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1984. The song was so popular that the band shot two promotional clips for it but Derek Jarman’s original video is far and away the most memorable. It features footage from Jarman’s own home movies that he later used in The Last of England (1988) and at the end of the video Jarman dresses the band up as characters from his favorite childhood film, The Wizard of Oz. Although this video was just another work for hire project, Jarman’s final product seems incredibly personal. He must have felt some sincere kinship with Wang Chung’s song, which takes a nostalgic look back at Britain during the 1940s and early 1950s.

Wang Chung – “Dance Hall Days”

Some of the best and most iconic music videos Jarman directed during the 1980s were for the post-punk band, The Smiths. Much like his previous work with Marianne Faithfull, Jarman made a short 13-minute film based on The Smith’s 1986 album, The Queen Is Dead, consisting of three videos for three different songs (“The Queen Is Dead”, “Panic”, and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”). The Queen Is Dead works as a stand-alone film but it can also be enjoyed as three separate videos. Jarman employed many of the filmmaking methods that were now associated with his work and there are scenes in the Queen Is Dead that are reminiscent of his earlier films such as The Tempest and they prefigure his future work in The Last of England. There is an unmistakable synchronicity between the music of The Smiths and Derek Jarman’s film aesthetics. The band and the director share a particular rhythm that’s both captivating and entrancing. This is simply music video at its very best and most provocative.

The Smiths – The Queen Is Dead (“The Queen Is Dead”, “Panic”, and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”)

Jarman also directed The Smiths, “Ask” video and as the 1980s came to a close and gave way to the 1990s, he continued to create important videos for bands like The Pet Shop Boys, Easterhouse, The Mighty Lemon Drops and Suede.


In Kicking the Pricks, Jarman asked readers a question that plagued him after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, “Ten feet under, am I still part of this?” I think Jarman’s question can be answered with a resounding yes that can partially be traced to the incredible impact of the music videos he created. They were a showcase for his highly stylized filmmaking methods and through these promotional pop videos, Jarman indirectly helped introduce an entire generation to avant-garde filmmaking. The subversive and transgressive images that were previously reserved for art houses, college campuses, and exclusive nightclubs were suddenly available to anyone and everyone who had access to a television. Jarman was winning the hearts and minds of young people through the sheer power of his artistry. And the process his work was truly transformative in ways that I don’t think we’ve fully come to understand or appreciate yet.

Pet Shop Boys – “King’s Cross”

by Kimberly Lindbergs

Originally published at Fandor.com in 2011