"Queer Pagan Punk" Derek Jarman Was A Music Video Pioneer

This visionary director paved the way for the art of electronic pop.

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07 February 2014, 5:45pm

Over a career spanning four decades, the late English film director Derek Jarman did the following: cast Tilda Swinton in her first film role, gave Brian Eno his first credit as a film composer, mashed up Judi Dench and Shakespeare with industrial music, teleported Queen Elizabeth into the midst of the 1977 punk scene, made a film consisting of one shot (the colour blue, for a film entitled Blue).

Many of these achievements will be commemorated this year, coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of his passing from AIDS-related illnesses. However, from exhibitions in Norway to screenings in London, many of these commemorations willfully pass over one of his most fascinating relationships: a seven-year long collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys. 

Needing money to live and fund his art throughout the late 70s and 80s, Jarman began offering his services as a director of music videos. His work in this field is often associated with indie and experimental music, attested by the artists he crafted promos for: Throbbing Gristle, Marc Almond, Suede, The Smiths in their Queen Is Dead-era. 

When placed amongst this list of influential guitar-led acts, the presence of the Pet Shop Boys feels like an anomaly. Not only for their popularity - the duo of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were a capital-P Pop act by the time that they approached this arthouse and film festival darling - but they were also the only electronic group that the director would work with. On reflection, their collaboration seems prescient of how electronic music could exist in the mainstream while being socially engaged, proudly queer and unapologetically theatrical. After watching Jarman's 1986 Caravaggio late night on Channel 4, Tennant reached out for his services. Caravaggio, a loosely fictionalised biopic of the Baroque painter, was not Jarman's breakthrough film – that would be the aforementioned Queen/punk cult film Jubilee, released in 1978. 

The biopic was, however, a critical success; continuing in the vein of Jarman's other works by reclaiming vast swathes of history for their queer realities (the director found the label "gay" rigid, preferring "queer" as far more fluid). A young Caravaggio is depicted as a man that beds the models for his paintings, regardless of their gender. The first - and arguably most famous collaboration – between Jarman and the Pet Shop Boys would be the video for 1987's 'It's A Sin'. A number one single in the UK, its success introduced a huge fan base to Jarman's particular style of filmmaking. 

'It's A Sin' is set in an undefined medieval period, with Tennant and Lowe jailed and shackled in a dank basement. In front of an inquisition, Tennant delivers the lyrics on his knees before being burnt at a funeral pyre. The song is knowingly OTT and melodramatic, utilising samples from Latin masses and NASA countdowns alongside widescreen synth blasts, but Jarman's video lends that drama space to flourish. 'It's A Sin' appears to be a tale of growing up gay and ashamed, with Tennant's angst spilling out in front of none other than the Creator: "Father, forgive me / I tried not to do it," he sings. 

By juxtaposing the song against the turbulent period of the Roman inquisition, Jarman lends historical context to Lowe's angst, reclaiming the past for its queer reality - just as he did in Caravaggio, and throughout his career. When Tennant is put to death in the video, it is strongly hinted that he has been set aflame for the matter of his sexual orientation. 

The follow-up to this collaboration was a promo for 'Rent', in which Tennant plays a taxi driver for a scorned lover, played by Margi Clarke. Meanwhile, Lowe forlornly walks around a handheld, black-and-white depiction of King's Cross station, an apparent migrant from the North looking for employment. Clarke is presented pouting and posing at a classily assembled dinner table consisting of tuxes and tails; Jarman cuts away from the table, often abruptly, to de-romanticised scenes of everyday life. The dinner guests eat grotesquely from their hands, revelling in their wealth and warmth; Lowe walks alongside rude commuters, punks smoking to keep warm, non sequitur shots of a cat pawing at glass as if trapped. At one point, the camera lingers on a leather-bound smoker, creating the assumption of a hustler, just as Tennant chimes in with his alleged lyrics about rent-boys: "I love you / you pay my rent…"

On 'Rent' Tennant sings dryly about a love fixated on financial dependence. Jarman's video shows Clarke's character under the unhappy spell of wealth and all its grotesquery, a depiction of fat cat one-percenters flourishing in Thatcher's free market. By comparison, the black-and-white King's Cross footage seems to suggest a harder life for all those outside the circle of the financially able. In his films, Jarman was privy to uncovering unacknowledged queer history and the decaying industrial present. With the videos for 'It's A Sin' and 'Rent', he draws social and sexual context out from the music - context that people did not associate with a popular dance act. 

In a fascinating essay on the evolving history of music for social protest, the author Anna G. Priotrowska argues that electronic music appears to be politically minded due to a fascination in technology. Many of the defining moments in electronic music history takes place against post-industrial spaces like Detroit, Berlin and Chicago, with increasingly accessible musical technology offering a way out of harsh urban landscapes. Think of the post-human sounds of Kraftwerk, the squelching machinery of Phuture, even the skittering future-fuckery audible today in footwork. 

The Pet Shop Boys transcended electronic music's traditional political rhetoric with Jarman's help; their social conscience was based in reality and history, rather than in a utopian relationship with technological possibilities. In 1989, the duo requested that Jarman stage-direct their first tour: the MCMLXXXIX Tour, often referred to as "Derek Jarman tour" by the group. 

Presented on the out-of-print VHS Highlights, the MCMLXXXIX Tour showed an ambitious, theatrical rendering of the group's songs. The theatricality of the show, with its allusions to baroque art and elaborate, narrative-led dance sequences, added another layer to Lowe and Tennant's music, but also made amends for the duo's minimal movements. In a way, they were updating the old Kraftwerk problem: visuals used to humanise the mechanical, post-human aspects of electronic music. 

The opening instrumental, 'The Sound of the Atom Splitting', was accompanied by a flashing lightshow that brought Heaven to Wembley Arena (Jarman was a frequent attendee at the famous London gay club), and an evocative onstage recreation of the 'It's A Sin' video took place alongside sexualised backdrops of a male harem; a reminder of the gay subtext in both Jarman and Pet Shop Boy's art. 

Best of all, the tour-only video to 'Heart', presented on the VHS Projections, finds Jarman's camera spinning in the middle of a dance floor, free from race or age constraints, and most likely sexuality too. The director himself joins in with the ecstatic dancers, smiling wryly as he swings across the screen. It's the most joyous moment in all of their collaborations: a cheeky acknowledgement of friendship between the three men, and a reminder of Jarman's sense of humour. Just as Jarman drew the political and queer undertones from Lowe and Tennant's work, Lowe and Tennant had a talent for testing Jarman's impish side. 

In the 1992, Jarman requested a cover of the Village People's 'Go West' for an exhibition, and the Pet Shop Boys gave him a version about a post-communist Russia communicating with the western world. Fittingly, regarding Jarman's ability to bring gay/queer identity to the forefront of Pet Shop Boy's art, the exhibition he presented the cover in was entitled Queer. Aside from a posthumously released video for b-side 'Violence', 'Go West' would turn out to be the last collaboration between Jarman and the Pet Shop Boys. Yet as the group warm up for a series of 2014 festival dates, they will play alongside artists that carry the influence of their Jarman collaborations. 

The theatrical nature of MCMLXXXIX feels like a precursor to the bigger and bolder presentation of electronic music over the last decade: the intense light show that opens their Wembley show on the Highlights VHS is an arena-sized father to the dance spectacles that pepper festivals like Ultra Music and Electric Daisy. Kraftwerk, who play alongside Pet Shop Boys at April's Moogfest, have a new live show driven by three-dimensional backdrops. One senses that Jarman would have relished the boundary-pushing, having overlaid live performance with different visuals on Highlights. We can only wonder what he would have done with Lady Gaga, in many ways the pop heir to the dance/video-as-political-theatre stage show. 

Their ability to turn mainstream electronic music away from a technological-obsessed political mind-set and towards queer politics subsists, even ahead of its time: as Russia creeps closer to criminalising homosexuality, and club culture boycotts the state in protest, having a gay anthem sound "almost identical to the Soviet National Anthem" seems as politically prescient as it does satirically amusing. 

Jarman's art will be rightfully commemorated over the rest of the year, from his experimental short films to diaries to his eleven feature films. His work with Lowe and Tennant appears absent from these commemorations, which is a shame for such a collaborative relationship. "Of all the music people I've worked with, they put the most trust in me," Jarman once said. Over seven years of work it shows - and continues to show.

'Queer Pagan Punk: Derek Jarman', as part of a season of events at London's BFI, begins with Part One: Jarman and The Occult this month. Details here.

You can follow Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy on Twitter here: @danielmondon