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Sound & Vision
Sound & Vision

Sound & Vision

You might not know it, but Melina Matsoukas is probably your favourite music video director right now. By Eviana Hartman. Photographed by Stella Berkofsky

David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry: Before they were alpha auteurs, they directed music videos. And right now, no music-video director appears better positioned to follow in their footsteps than Melina Matsoukas. Her name may be relatively obscure, but her work is anything but: There’s the retro-kitsch masterpiece for Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction,” Lady Gaga’s megahit “Just Dance,” Katy Perry’s retro-romantic “Thinking of You,” eight videos for Beyoncé, and five for Rihanna. With a knack for turning out high impact imagery on a low budget, a documentarian’s eye for human detail, and a killer sense of humour, Matsoukas creates the kind of videos that go viral—at a moment when viral is vital.

Matsoukas’s directorial signature is not one visual style, but rather her ability to spin a compelling, cinematic story. And her own story, it turns out, is as inspiring as one of her videos. She was born in the Bronx to a Greek-Jewish father and a Jamaican-Cuban mother, a potent cultural mix that she credits for her eclectic sensibility. As a kid in New Jersey, she was mesmerized by hip-hop and her father’s amateur photography. She paid her dues the old-fashioned way: She went to New York University for film, interned and PA’d on film shoots on the side, and promptly headed west for a master’s degree at American Film Institute in Los Angeles—“the hardest two years of my life,” she says. She found the music-video format liberating and made one for her thesis project. “I was like, This can be my way to reach the world,” she says. “To change the world, and have something to say.”

Doing that didn’t take long. In 2006, having directed just two hip-hop videos as a professional, she scored a meeting with Jay-Z. He referred her to Beyoncé and the two “just clicked.” As we discuss ’90s pop icons and the merits of heels versus wedges over tamales at an outdoor café across the street from her new loft in downtown Los Angeles, it quickly becomes clear why so many pop divas are repeat customers: Matsoukas may be focused and driven, but she’s also the kind of girl—sharp-witted, doesn’t take herself too seriously—you can hang with.

Like many of her professional forebears, Matsoukas has ruffled her share of PC-police feathers. No Doubt’s recent “Looking Hot” video was pulled after Gwen Stefani’s Native American costume drew outrage. Solange’s “Losing You,” a vibrant and life-affirming video filmed in a township of Cape Town, was attacked for romanticizing the impoverished post-apartheid communities of South Africa. Perhaps most notoriously, the video for Rihanna’s “We Found Love” depicts the singer caught up in a violent, drug-addled amour fou (shades of Chris Brown). It was called “a disgrace” by anti-rape activists and Christian fundamentalists; it also got a Grammy nod and won Video of the Year at the VMAs. “Creating a dialogue about different issues is the point of art,” Matsoukas says. “And sometimes it’s a positive dialogue, and sometimes not so much. But it hits on issues that bring up things that we’re not necessarily comfortable with, and need to talk about.”

Ask her about the secret to her success, and Matsoukas remains modest. “I think I’m really lucky,” she says. “I always say, I think it’s about not having an ego. I don’t like fame, I don’t like being famous. I would like my work to go down in history, but it’s not about me. It’s about an artist or a brand.” Music video-making, she points out, “is a hard way of life. When you’re doing a video, that’s all you can do and think, and there’s nothing else. So I’m thinking maybe I’ll do one or two a year, not, like, 12.” Meanwhile, she’s mulling over scripts for her feature film debut. “I’d like to put my eggs in as many baskets as possible,” she says, “and see which one cracks.”

MELINA MATSOUKAS: 10 VIDEOS THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

Neneh Cherry, “Buffalo Stance” (1988)
Directed by John Maybury
I think you can see the influence of this in a bunch of my videos. I first saw it when I was very young. I remember thinking that she was gorgeous, the colours were vibrant, the effects were awesome. She’s definitely one of my icons. I love her.

D’Angelo, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” (2000)
Directed by Paul Hunter
Such an important video. It was just so seamless; it’s not one shot, but it feels like it. It takes you through this orgasmic experience and for five minutes, you’re totally engaged with this gorgeous man. I don’t think any other video, except maybe Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares (2U)” has ever been just one shot that can hold your attention in the same way.

Michael Jackson, “Thriller” (1983)
Directed by John Landis
Obviously. “Bad” and so many others are important too, but definitely “Thriller.” It’s a movie, and I was totally scared, and I wanted to dance along.

Sigur Rós, “Untitled #1 (a.k.a. “Vaka”)” (2003)
Directed by Floria Sigismondi
This is the one with the black snow and the gas masks. Floria Sigismondi did it, and she’s just awesome—another wonderful female director. It’s just this visual poem.

Madonna, “Bad Girl” (1993)
Directed by David Fincher
This is the one with Christopher Walken. She’s a prostitute and he’s her guardian angel. Fincher did it, back in the day. He did so many great videos. He’s one of the ones that influenced me heavily.

Björk, “All is Full of Love” (1999)
Directed by Chris Cunningham
This masterfully used technology to make an emotionally poignant piece. I had never seen technology used in such a way in music videos. It also proves how simplicity can sometimes be the most impactful in terms of concept.

Juvenile, “Ha” (1998)
Directed by Marc Klasfield
Coming from New York, I had heard Southern rap music, but it wasn’t influential because we ran it [laughs]. This guy came from the South with this whole other perspective, and the video was just so raw and gritty and documentary-style. So was his music—and I just remember really loving it and being influenced by it.

The work of Hype Williams
I was trying to figure out which of Hype Williams’s videos was the best one, and I don’t have one, because I love so many of them. Especially his work for Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott—“She’s a Bitch” is a good one. Nas’s “Hate Me Now,” too…such awesome art direction and photography. No one surpasses him in performance videos. He is the master.

Scarface, “My Block” (2002)
Directed by Marc Klasfield
I just watched this again a month ago. Essentially, it’s the history of what happens on his block from the ’50s civil rights movement to the ’90s. It goes through time, but it’s one shot going around and around the block. It’s really interesting and very well-done.

Nine inch Nails, “Closer” (1994)
Directed by Mark Romanek
Just a beautifully photographed work that really is a piece of art. It sparked controversy, said something, and created a dialogue. A strong piece that made people uncomfortable. Loved it.

Hair and makeup: TSIPPORAH LIEBMAN