By R. Emmet Sweeney
There is no art form as critically ignored as the music video. So expect plenty of terse parentheticals this weekend regarding Bryan Barber, the vid vet who directed the Prohibition-set, OutKast-starring musical “Idlewild” that opens this Friday. With the help of the cultural memorialists at YouTube, I’m going to sketch a (very) brief history of Barber’s work on the small screen to fill the gap.
Friends with the group since “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” came out in 1994, Barber’s been a key factor in the evolution of OutKast’s image from Dirty South stylists to the P-Funk retro-futurist look they promote today. Compare André Benjamin’s Atlanta Braves jersey in the now classic “Player’s Ball” (1994) to his glam carnival barker in Barber’s “The Whole World” (2001). Much of this change has to be attributed to Benjamin’s artistic mutation, as he embraces the performative excesses of Prince and George Clinton over, say, the Goodie Mob but Barber’s ability to massage pop iconography with a loving wink melded perfectly with Outkast’s own entrance into the pop lexicon (peaking with “Hey Ya”).
Even before he perfected this style with “Roses,” Barber was experimenting with homage/satire of pop images. He helmed a number of videos accompanying films, from the mundane (Kelly Clarkson’s “The Trouble With Love Is” from “Love, Actually”) to the bizarre (OutKast hanger-on Sleepy Brown’s “I Can’t Wait,”, with André starring as “Chamelio Salamander”, from “Barbershop 2”). His first full-length culture riff was for Southern rapper Bubba Sparxxx and his single “Deliverance” in 2003 (watch the video). The template is the Coen brothers’ “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” For the most part it’s played straighter than its model, Bubba stalking through the dustbowl as an escapee from a chain gang (without Clooney’s mugging). The tune loops an acoustic guitar riff as Sparxxx hits the chorus: “I’ve been travelin’ for some time/With my fishin’ pole and my bottle of shine.” It’s a perfect fit of lyric and milieu, except Barber and Sparxxx replace the Coen’s parade of caricatures with a more rooted sense of place (while keeping the randy Sirens). “Can you recall a time people loved you unconditionally?/Toast in the new south, this one is for history” Sparxxx ends holed up in an old barn, and before the credits hit, he and his crew burst out in modern dress, drawing a direct line between the struggle to remain upright from the 30s to today.
A few months later “Hey Ya” (watch the video) hit TV, and insinuated itself into every unwilling eardrum across the U.S. This time Barber takes a more playful attitude adopting the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan performance as a showpiece for André Benjamin’s particular brand of charisma. It’s bright, over-caffeinated, and delightfully absurd (the three-man chorus dressed as jockeys are a personal favorite). The next single off “The Love Below” was “Roses” (watch the video) a sophomoric little ditty about being resentful of a popular girl’s distracted attentions. Not Dre’s finest work but it’s certainly one of Barber’s. Borrowing from “Grease” and “West Side Story” this time, it’s set at a 50s era high-school talent show with Andre, tight-pantsed and wearing a lettered jacket (more Olivia Newton-John than Travolta), leading his “Love Below” fellows in a tune. This is intercut with Big Boi leading a group of “Speakerboxxx” thugs (his side of the double-album) smashing mailboxes on the way to the show. They call each other out and rumble while the girl everyone’s pining for runs out with a rich, fey interloper. It’s a clever play on the critical merits of both albums, and on the increasingly strained relationship between the two members, which has caused a flood of speculation on the future of the group which will only increase with the release of “Idlewild,” the album, on which they co-wrote only four songs together.
Since those reputation making successes, Barber’s been busy: having Destiny’s Child watch themselves act in a fake “Sex and the City” episode for one of their final videos together in “Girl,” and dolling up Christina Aguilera like a flapper in this year’s “Ain’t No Other Man,” in which he seemed to borrow the speakeasy set (and cinematographer) from “Idlewild.” For those concerned about such things it’s nominated four times at the upcoming MTV Video Music Awards.
“Idlewild” opens nationwide August 25th (official site).