Thirty years ago, Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain” video crashed onto MTV’s airwaves like a Sunset Strip tsunami. Clocking in at nine minutes and seventeen seconds, it was a sweeping epic unlike any video by a hard rock band. It follows the story of a troubled rock star (accurately played by Axl Rose), his girlfriend (played by Axl’s real-life flame Stephanie Seymour), and her mysterious suicide. To date, Guns N’ Roses’ magnum opus—which was the middle in a music video trilogy, bookended by “Don’t Cry” and “Estranged”—has racked up 1.8 billion views on YouTube.
As an 11-year-old, I was riveted by “November Rain” whenever it played, which was often. Three decades later, one shot still haunts me. In the video, Axl marries Stephanie, and they host a decadent outdoor wedding reception. Then, the titular rain appears, drenching and ruining the party. Everyone heads for cover. At the seven-minute mark, to avoid the downpour, one guest, a long-haired man in a royal-blue blazer and khaki pants, launches himself like a human torpedo into a five-tier wedding cake.
The first time I saw the video, I turned to our babysitter—my parents wouldn’t let us watch MTV, but the sitter would. “Why?” I asked. “Why didn’t that guy walk around the table? Why did he jump through the cake?” Our sitter shrugged. “It might be acid rain,” she said. I nodded, knowing that she was wrong.
All these years later, I can’t shake the image of the cake jumper out of my head. In a video that is so flawlessly executed—from Slash’s heroic, shirtless guitar solo in front of a chapel to Axl’s triumphant performance behind the piano at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles—the cake jumper feels like a moment of spontaneous chaos. Whenever I see it, I can’t help but wonder: Was that planned? How many takes did it take to get that shot? How many cakes? Who was the cake jumper? Each time I see “November Rain,” a new question about that scene nags at me.
The first person I reached out to for answers was Andy Morahan, the director, who helmed some of the biggest videos in MTV history. He promptly responded, and declined to comment, saying, “The secrets of the video are safe with me.” I’d have to start my quest for answers someplace else.
If you Google “who jumped into the cake in ‘November Rain,’” the answer you’ll get is Riki Rachtman. From 1990-1995, Rachman hosted Headbanger’s Ball, a two-hour, late-night, metal-video show on MTV. And he owned the Cathouse, a Hollywood nightclub that served as the headquarters for the heavy metal bands he showcased on television. Guns N’ Roses were regulars at Rachtman’s boîte and even filmed music videos there. I called up Rachtman, now 56, at his home in Mooresville, North Carolina, to talk about his memories of his time on the “November Rain” set.
“We had been up all night shooting at the Rainbow,” Rachtman said, referring to a nightclub on the Sunset Strip. “And then we went straight to the wedding reception scene the next morning. Axl wanted it to feel like a real wedding, so all his friends were there. It’s why I was there. When I see the video now, it’s a lot of faces from the old scene. But the biggest misconception of the whole video is that I was the guy getting thrown through the cake. That wasn't me. Everybody seems to think it was, but it wasn't.”
It’s easy to see why people think Rachtman jumped through the cake. He’s prominently featured in one shot, smiling ear to ear at a reception table, with his long metalhead mane. Moments later, the jumper that plows into the cake also has flowing hesher locks, but his face is obscured. “I feel bad for the cake guy,” Rachtman says. “He's probably some out-of-work actor and on his résumé, he puts, ‘I'm the cake guy in the ‘November Rain’ video.’ And everybody is like, ‘No, you're not. That was Riki Rachtman.’ He probably does like comic-book conventions, signing things as the cake guy, and nobody believes him.”
To this day, people still harangue Rachtman about the cake jump. “I got married two months ago,” he said, “And everybody was like, ‘You gotta jump through the wedding cake!’ I was like, ‘Guys, please. Stop.’”
To get to the bottom of this mystery, I figured I should talk to a person with a front-row seat to the cake jump: Daniel Pearl, the cinematographer. Pearl is one of the most prolific cinematographers in music video history, and arguably the most distinguished. Not only was he director of photography for Guns N’ Roses legendary video trilogy, he was behind the camera for R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe,” The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” Brandy’s “What About Us,” and literally hundreds of others. And if you scroll all the way to the bottom of Pearl’s impressive IMDb page, you’ll see that his very first credit is cinematographer on Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
In 1967, Pearl enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin’s film department after falling in love with the films of Fellini, Bergman, and Kurosawa. He’d had some experience with a camera. Growing up in New Jersey, he’d used an 8mm to film his friends skateboarding. Later, when Hooper looked for a cinematographer for Massacre, he wanted a Texan. When I spoke to Pearl, I mentioned that his iconic shot of Leatherface flailing with a chainsaw at the movie’s conclusion reminded me of the shot of Slash soloing in “November Rain” outside a chapel. “No one has said that before,” he said. “But it has the same vibe, for sure.”
“My reaction at the time was that it looked wrong.” —Daniel Pearl, cinematographer
Pearl’s career is the stuff of legend, but I wanted to talk about one thing specifically: The cake jump. I asked him if it was pre-planned or a spur-of-the-moment shot.
“It absolutely did come up on the spot,” Pearl said. “All I know is I got my instructions from Andy that we were going to shoot this. And I know we shot it very quickly. I have to say that your choice of verb, that we got the [actor] ‘jumping’ through the cake—it is jumping. It's not like he just falls through it or anything. When we shot it, I went, Well, that's no good, man. It looks like the guy jumps into the cake, and we had only one cake. So there it is, that's it. That's what it is. My reaction at the time was that it looked wrong.”
I was surprised that Pearl, who got the shot, thought it looked wrong. Did he think it looked better when he saw it in the final cut of the video? “No,” he said. “It still looks a bit wrong to me. But I understand that it's caught on and people like it. It's a big thing. So who am I? Look, my job is to realize people's vision, not so much to determine what's going on in the frame.”
I had read on a 2006 Blogspot post that the cake jumper might have been an extra who pitched the idea to Morahan. “It was an extra,” Pearl confirmed, of the jumper’s identity. “But I would've thought that it was Andy's idea to destroy the cake, and that he got a volunteer to do it.”
Pearl had offered more insight into the cake jump than I could’ve hoped for. Then, as soon as I got off the phone with him, an email landed in my inbox from Andy Morahan. “OK,” he wrote, “I will cooperate … ha ha.” He was open to an interview.
Morahan, 63, called from London, and couldn’t have been kinder and funnier when he spoke about “November Rain.” Like Pearl, he had an extraordinary résumé before he got the call to collaborate with Guns N’ Roses; among many other music videos, he directed “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys, George Michael’s “Faith,” and “Vision of Love” by Mariah Carey. Before getting into the cake jump, I asked him how he achieved the glossy, stylized, big-screen look of Guns N’ Roses’ “Don’t Cry” trilogy—they’re three videos that have visually stood the test of time.
“I always liked a cinematic look,” he said, “I'm also a huge fan of locations. So I'd rather do a wedding reception outside on location with three or four rain machines than try and emulate that in a studio.” For his collaborations with Guns N’ Roses, Morahan said he looked to the work of British director Nicolas Roeg for inspiration, specifically to the 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now. Roeg had also directed Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, so using Roeg’s work as influence appealed to Axl.
“I showed the cut to Axl, and he said, ‘Where’s the cake? I love the cake.’ So we put it back in.” —Andy Morahan, director
“The concept of ‘November Rain,’ what does it mean?” Morahan said. “It’s like a bad dream. It was deliberately over the top. It's an allegory. When Daniel [Pearl] goes, ‘Oh, I didn't really like the guy going through the cake,’ I'm not saying it's a joke, but it is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek bad dream, where everything just goes to shit. For me, that scene was like pissing on the wedding reception in ‘The Godfather.’ It’s an upside-down nightmare version of that wedding.”
Morahan quickly debunked any theories I’d come up with during my childhood about the meaning of the cake dive—that it symbolized Axl and Stephanie’s doomed relationship or that it must’ve taken significant planning and multiple takes. “It was one of those things where we knew we had to wrap because we'd been up all night, and we'd dumped all the rain. It was like, ‘Oh, fuck it. Let's do it, because who cares if it works or it doesn't work?’ That's all I remember. I don't remember a stuntman saying to me, ‘I'll jump through the cake.’ But it could have been. In the madness of my stupor at the time, because I'd been up all night filming, it's very difficult to recollect.”
“When we were editing the video, I actually took the cake shot out,” Morahan said. “I agree with Daniel. It looked a little bit too jokey to me. But then I showed the cut to Axl, and he said, ‘Where’s the cake? I love the cake.’ So we put it back in.”
Thirty years later, I was curious to get Morahan’s thoughts on the legacy of the video. “Well, I wish I had one cent for every time it got played on YouTube,” he said with a laugh. “Actually, I got a call quite a few years back, 10 or 15 years ago, from an assistant to Sofia Coppola. She wanted to buy any memorabilia or storyboards from ‘November Rain.’ And it didn't strike me till then that this might have had an influence on others. I don't think I realized the power of MTV really until years later. We all took it for granted because we were in this bubble.”
After I spoke with Morahan, I reached out to Sofia Coppola to ask why the “November Rain” video resonated with her. “It was so epic and glamorous. I loved it,” Coppola said via email. “I was really into the Axl and Stephanie love story. I painted a commemorative plate of them in art school, like they do for royal couples. Our friend Shawn Mortensen is the photographer in the [wedding reception scene]. It was a moment when I lived in L.A. and Guns N’ Roses were huge and Nirvana was about to come along and everything shifted.”
And of course, I asked Coppola for her thoughts on the cake jump. “Ha funny, I didn’t remember that part,” she wrote back. “But I just watched again, and it goes along with the drama of the whole thing. I love that it's so sincere and really embracing the drama.”
“I love that it's so sincere and really embracing the drama.” —Sofia Coppola, fan
I continued my sleuthing and ended up down a rabbit hole that I believe led to the name of the cake jumper. In the comments section on Blogspot, a man from Sweden named Jim said he was on a train in Malaysia and sat next to an actor, nicknamed “Slow,” who claimed to be the cake jumper. I reached out to Jim and Slow, but neither responded to my emails. So I can’t positively ID him. His identity will remain unknown for now, but I feel like I solved a bigger mystery: After talking to Morahan, I finally understood why the shot of the man careening into the cake has stuck with me all these years.
We love when artists take huge swings—from the Sistine Chapel to the Beatles’ White Album. Sometimes projects with outsized ambitions falter, but we’re thrilled when an artist goes big, especially if, like Rachtman said, they bring their friends along for the ride. Pearl told me that a helicopter almost crashed into Slash while they shot his solo. Morahan said that they moved an entire chapel to the middle of nowhere in New Mexico for that same shot. The video’s budget ballooned to $1.5 million. There’s nothing half-assed about “November Rain.”
That’s what the cake shot encapsulates: With “November Rain,” Morahan and Guns N’ Roses weren’t just swinging for the fences, they were aiming to demolish them. If the wedding guest had clumsily fallen into the cake, it wouldn’t have worked. He needed to propel himself like a Scud missile into the cake for the shot to belong in the video. As Axl sings, nothin’ lasts forever. But when you go for the glory, people will still be talking about it thirty years later.