25 Years Ago, Guns N' Roses Unveiled Their Batshit $4 Million Music Video
Featuring a massive oil tanker, dolphins, and Slash walking on water, "Estranged" will go down as one of the most overblown creations in rock history.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the premiere of “Estranged,” the final chapter in Guns N’ Roses’ massively popular November Rain music video trilogy, directed by Andy Morahan and written by frontman Axl Rose himself.
While previous trilogy installments, “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain,” were both ambitious in their own rights, it’s “Estranged” that Rose considered his most groundbreaking, deeply personal film. “I don’t necessarily know of anyone who’s made a video like it,” he noted in a 1994 behind-the-scenes documentary. “You know, showing their own emotional destruction, and their process of transcending that.”
And, somehow, the fact that Rose considers it such an accurate expression of his inner self barely cracks the top ten baffling things about this video. With a staggering $4,000,000 pricetag and near ten-minute runtime, “Estranged” is an extravagant and thrillingly misguided monument to Axl Rose’s own persecution complex. It’s like watching the sleek production values of James Cameron applied to the melodrama of Tommy Wiseau. Rose is essentially the sole human character, with scenes featuring magical dolphins, a full-size oil tanker, a suicide attempt, a dramatic helicopter ocean rescue, SWAT teams, Slash rising from an angry sea, and loads of Axl-as-Jesus imagery—all for an implausible hit song with about six different movements, no discernible chorus, and, by last count, something like 800 totally ripping guitar solos.
But to fully appreciate why Axl Rose made a bloated PSA about how hard it is to be Axl Rose, it’s worth examining who Rose considered the perpetrators of his “emotional destruction” at the time.
Two frequent targets of Rose’s ire were the press and his recent ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Seymour, with the former having committed the offense of accurately reporting the things Rose said and did. The moment GN’R exploded and became the biggest band in the world, Rose spent the next few years putting on an absolute master class in self-implosion.
In July of 1993, five months before the video’s release, the band wrapped up a 28-month world tour notorious in the press for routinely going off the rails: Rose often forced the band to take the stage two hours late, and was just as willing to kill a set on the spot. One such tantrum occurred at a 1991 St. Louis show, wherein Rose dove into the crowd to fight a biker, got pissed that he lost a contact lens, and walked off stage, causing thousands of fans to launch a full-scale riot. This wouldn’t even be the only riot of the tour; Another Axl meltdown kicked off a second one in Montreal.
In interviews, Rose frequently faced questions about the racist, xenophobic, and homophobic content of Guns N’ Roses’ 1988 song “One In A Million,” in which he complains about immigrants, “n*****rs,” and “f****ts.” In one such interview, an incensed Rose offered defenses as predictably terrible as “Why can black people go up to each other and say, ‘N****r,” but when a white guy does it all of a sudden it’s a big put-down?” (The track was removed from a recent reissue of Appetite for Destruction.)
Media coverage of these controversies pulled no punches. A 1991 SPIN article titled “Guns N’ Neuroses” suggested: “In the midst of wild success they have been variously drug addicted, paranoid, homophobic, racist, xenophobic, ruthless, violent, a threat to the liberty of the press, and a pain in the ass to almost everyone.”
The extent to which Axl Rose took his bad press personally is perhaps best illustrated by the spoken word verse on “Get In the Ring,” another Use Your Illusion II track:
And that goes for all of you punks in the press
That want to start shit by printin' lies instead of the things we said
That means you, Andy Secher at Hit Parader, Circus Magazine
Mick Wall at Kerrang!, Bob Guccione Jr. at SPIN
What, you pissed off 'cause your dad gets more pussy than you?
Fuck you! Suck my fuckin' dick!
But while the media contributed to Rose’s feelings of persecution, it was Stephanie Seymour, who dated Rose from 1991 to 1993, who had the more direct effect on the incomprehensibility of “Estranged,” namely, why the final chapter of a trilogy so utterly failed to function as a final chapter.
Seymour co-starred in both the “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain” videos, the latter of which climaxes with her character’s sudden and mysterious death, a cliffhanger that helped rocket the song to becoming MTV’s most requested video of all time. Naturally, as Andy Morahan said of “Estranged”’s development in its documentary, “First, there was that pressure to come up with part three of the trilogy: Why did Steph die?”
And yet, according to Axl, “Where we had intended to make the sequel or the follow-up or the conclusion to ‘November Rain’… Things changed, plans changed.”
That’s one way to put it—the full story, however, is a lot darker. Seymour and Rose split in February of 1993. By August, a spurned Rose sued her for failing to return $100,000 worth of jewelry to him and for “punching him in the groin” after their 1992 Christmas party.
By October, Seymour counter-sued, alleging chilling accounts of domestic abuse at that same party, and accusing Rose of giving her an STD. Two months later, “Estranged,” the hotly anticipated sequel to a music video that starred two people currently suing each other over nightmare-ish allegations of violence, saw the light of day.
Rose and Morahan scrambled to come up with a different creative direction for the video. Rose was surprisingly diplomatic in addressing this in the 1994 doc, saying, “There was an evolving that took place. That’s very hard to, um, rise to, to transcend the story we had, that we intended. But, um, [we were] kinda been put in a situation where that was necessary to make the right video.”
“So we kinda went way over somewhere else,” says Morahan, “And Axl suddenly saw a way through, in terms of the conceptual way of dealing with it for himself.”
And so, the “Estranged” music video was born: Axl Rose’s $4,000,000, nine-minute and 46-second “conceptual way of dealing with it.”
The story revolves around a despondent Rose moping through a random series of increasingly expensive set pieces until he attempts to kill himself by jumping off an oil tanker, at which point dolphins come to his aide and reinvigorate his will to live.
“Estranged”’s massive production scale—the budget was more than twice that of “November Rain”—was a clear attempt to top the Seymour-centric first two videos. In fact, it was an extension of the sort of bloat Rose insisted on retaining in so much of Guns N’ Roses’ work whenever expectations were high. This method had already caused rifts in the band after Rose insisted their much-anticipated follow-up to Appetite For Destruction must be a double-record with sprawling ballads and orchestral arrangements.
“We had a horn section and pianos and all this other kinda crap,” guitarist Slash vented in VH1’s Behind the Music episode on the band, “which we didn’t necessarily want as a band, but it’s something that Axl still wanted.”
In that same special, former Guns N’ Roses publicist Arlette Vereeke lamented Rose’s approach to his videos: “Everything had to be bigger and better and grander, more majestic and more money.”
That is perhaps how one ends up with oil tankers and tangents featuring giant, magical dolphins swimming through the air. The high-end CGI visual effects involved may seem commonplace and fairly easy to produce now, but consider the fact that “Estranged” premiered the same year as Jurassic Park.
On the behind-the-scenes doc, Rose explained, “The dolphins were to simulate a state of peace, or a state of grace.” When discussing “Estranged” in the 2011 book, I Want My MTV, director Andy Morahan noted, “I’ve been asked by students about the metaphorical imagery in it, and I’m like ‘Fuck if I know.’”
So the question remains: Did Axl Rose’s multi-million dollar attempt at PR damage control succeed? Was the video’s portrayal of Axl’s personal pain enough to heal any of his personal or professional problems?
By most any account, the answer is a hard no. In fact, the video seemed to piss away any benefit of the doubt the band had left. Longtime Axl Rose friend and former MTV VJ, Riki Rachtman, told Behind The Music, “For me, the biggest change in Guns N’ Roses was the video when Axl decided he needed an aircraft carrier, and he was gonna jump [off] and swim with dolphins. That was the moment when I said, you know what? That’s not so street.” In the same month “Estranged” was released, Rolling Stone practically performed the band’s autopsy: “With the rise of punk-rooted ‘alternative’ music in the last couple of years, it has become apparent just what that music was an alternative to: G n’ R, who had grown to represent this generation’s ultimate in bloated rock excess.”
Rose’s ambitious vision for this project would even end up expediting the band’s decay. It was during the music video trilogy segment of Behind the Music that Slash admitted, “That’s where we just sort of completely separated. This group of guys is here, and this other guy’s on this page.” There were no more GN’R live shows or successful recording sessions in this era. Continued tensions with Rose caused Slash to officially leave the band by 1996, and Rose would go on to hire and fire his way through the band’s staggering list of 23 all-time members.
As for Stephanie Seymour, her lawsuit prompted Rose’s ex-wife, Erin Everly, to launch her own suit against Rose for assault and sexual battery. According to the biography Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses, the two women testified in April of 1995, and their detailed accounts of abuse prompted Rose’s lawyers to settle shortly thereafter.
Those court dates would end up being some of Axl’s few public appearances in the mid/late 90s; he all but vanished for the remainder of the decade. As the New York Times later described this moment, Axl Rose “went through turmoil of his own during that period, battling lawsuits and personal demons, retreating from the limelight.”