From Justin to Kelly
A play-by-play look at SF's hot no-budget music video director.
By Johnny Ray Huston
MUSIC VIDEOS ARE known for the wasteful spending that comes with ostentatious commercialism, but Justin Kelly's stylishly pull off the form's conventions on a budget of next to nothing. A dancer for local pop outfit Hey Willpower, Kelly did a clip for the group's "Double Fantasy II" that won a music video competition at New Langton Arts earlier this year. He went on to helm an adaptation of Mutilated Mannequins' "Sharecropping" that eagerly dives into lyrics about "niggas sexing the nation" while white folks "be giving ovations like head." His latest effort, Veronica Lipgloss and the Evil Eyes' "Strip Mall Glass," hones and expands upon his specialties: compact story lines, frenzied crowd scenes, and fun, rebellious sexiness.
About to complete his film studies at San Francisco State University,
Kelly is eager to take on other projects. This fall, he'll be shooting
a Super 16 dramatic short about 12-year-old kids in a desert suburb. He's
also planning a documentary about the LA-based Church of the Most High
Goddess which was brought down by police in a sex-for-money scandal
investigating the First Amendment implications of the founders'
plight. Still, music videos remain close to his heart. Obsessed with VH1
Classics, he'd like his next one to pay homage to Rod Stewart's "Young
Turks," with copious slow-motion hair shots. He recently got together
with the Bay Guardian to break down his output to date:
'Strip Mall Glass'
The concept: A witch bird and other beasties come to the rescue of a wounded friend who sends "distress signals" (animated by Heather Cizare) through the air to them. Reunited, they ride the bus downtown, where they claim revenge against the suited squares.
The look: With a first shot that wakes up amid a pile of androgynes in the wake of what looks like an explosion in a clothes factory, Kelly's video for "Strip Mall Glass" recalls the infamous rooftop shoot of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures. Sprinkle in some extra glitter, and you might think of the Cockettes.
The shoot: "We [filmed on] the 14 line from 13th and Mission, right by Discount Builders, all the way to Daly City," Kelly says. "It was a good hour. There were 20 of us, and we just took over all of the seats in the back. Because of the crazy outfits, other people on the bus were tripping out. I was holding a camera and the next thing you know [lead singer] Rainy's hanging upside down from her legs on a pole. My friend Melissa told the bus driver, 'If we're being too loud, let us know,' but he didn't care. In fact, he came back and took pictures when the bus reached the end of the line.
"Downtown, I knew we had to show the Oscar De La Renta store window
with the creatures running by. There were definitely some tits hanging
out. This one woman looks shocked that was in Maiden Lane, where
all the fancy boutiques are."
'Double Fantasy II'
The concept: In the spirit of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's bed-ins for peace, Hey Willpower hold a dance-in at a hotel. Hell-bent on getting an exclusive scoop, an inquisitive TV news reporter (Mary Manning, in a star-making performance) ventures inside. Bouncy bedroom choreography and bubbly "Big Poppa"-style hot tub frolics commence.
The look: "Double Fantasy II" was the first video Kelly shot, and, like a visual version of Hey Willpower's music, it offers a personalized, nonironic take on pop tropes: dialogue-laden intro à la Gwen Stefani, faux-glamorous settings, energetic edits. At one point, Kelly utilizes a star wipe ("I'm so glad you noticed that," he says). When the song's lyrics refer to underwear, singer-songwriter Will Schwartz pulls back his robe to flash a glimpse of his tighty-whities.
The shoot: "I thought we'd have to sneak into the hotel [the Hotel Triton, where a friend of Kelly's works] and stay in the room. We filmed in the elevator, the hallway girls were running through the hallway in lingerie while families were passing through, but no one said anything. We got away with murder.
"Mary is amazing in the video. Everyone freaks out over her
she did a great job. I gave her the lines, and it only took two takes.
She showed up at noon, and we didn't even shoot her until five, so she
was in that gross, cakey makeup the whole time. She was a real trouper."
The concept: A dandy master in whiteface (singer Reginald Lamar, a.k.a. Ian Callas) oversees his slaves as they till a field on a sunny day. The weather is hot, the shirtless boys in short-shorts are hotter, and work gives way to pleasure. "Reginald wanted to do something involving sharecroppers," Kelly says, adding that a teacher recently wrote him to say the Mannequins' mission deeply probing race, class, and sex prejudices and taboos recently unsettled a Midwestern college where "Sharecropping" was shown.
The look: Unlike Kelly's other videos, "Sharecropping" was shot on Super 8 film. "When I heard the song, it was scratchy and gritty, and I knew it would work with the format," he says. The black-and-white visuals fit the Marilyn Manson-like sounds, but Kelly notes that certain elements of the time-consuming process were stressful: "We could only buy ten rolls of film, and I had to use two for test rolls because I was so nervous about doing cinematography and recording. I shot about eighteen minutes of footage for a four-minute video, which is insane, ratio-wise. If one roll hadn't come out, I would've been totally fucked."
The shoot: Kelly had one day and not a lot of film, so preparation was key instead of filming an entire performance, he planned in advance which lines of the song Lamar would lip-synch. "We tried to get to the location, McLaren Park, at 10 a.m., but ended up arriving at noon," he says. "I had to round up friends with cars and get a cab. My friend Brandy Baugh did the makeup. The production involved a lot of the same people [who worked on 'Double Fantasy II'], because they saw how it turned out and wanted to be involved again. I wish I had money to pay them, because it's just an amazing network of creative people with commitment."