Longtime readers of the blog know that I haven’t watched very many documentaries. A large part of this is simply that I choose to watch documentaries only if the subject interests me. With Money For Nothing, I’ve discovered a second, corollary issue: the more interested you are in a subject, the less new material there is to discover in a documentary. If you’re a child of the 80s, you already know most of what this film covers. If you’re older, and are interested in the combination of music and film, you know even more of it. And if you’ve ever been involved in a discussion between fans on the subject, you know about all there is… and sometimes a bit more.
On the other hand, while this may not be the ideal guide for a less knowledgeable person, it will at least get the job done.
The film essentially serves as a highlight reel of music video history. Smartly, it goes all the way back to its roots, drawing connections to the early talkies (The Jazz Singer in particular, of course), Walt Disney’s Fantasia, and Busby Berkeley musical numbers. Then it details the promotional clips made by the Beatles, touches on those made by later bands, and then gets into the MTV era before eventually discussing the decline of music videos on television and the music videos of today. Although I think the best guide for a novice viewer of music videos would be the direct influence of a more experienced fan, Money For Nothing doesn’t do half-bad, even if all the videos are, necessarily, limited to just a few seconds. Most of the major, influential music videos that are still remembered today are touched upon.
Yes, “Thriller” is in there. As if there was any doubt.
That said, there are definitely some issues with the film. First, like I said, if you’re already even a casual student of the medium, this is more of a refresher course than new information. Secondly… it has some curious oversights. It jumps directly from discussion of promotional clips (such as those by David Bowie and Queen) to MTV, giving nary a nod to the video-dedicated programs that came before MTV. Friday Night Videos and its ilk may be a short chapter in the history of the video, but given that they directly served as the inspiration for MTV, it’s a chapter that should have been touched upon. Another curious omission is a question of genre; while rock and hip-hop of all stripes are covered in detail, country music videos are completely overlooked. MTV and VH1 may have been playing rock, but TNN, CMT, and GAC were carried by a lot of providers as well. I may not be a big country fan, but it seems to me a history of music videos isn’t complete if you miss an entire genre. At the very least, a few words about the controversy around “The Thunder Rolls” would have been appropriate. I also would have liked more background on the creation of the videos; there’s a discussion on who directed the videos, and some talk about why they chose the themes and techniques they did, but there’s not a word said about how some of the more memorable videos were pulled off.
OK, I know they drew it, but still, I would have liked a bit of discussion on technique.
There’s another issue, and this one is more on how the film’s content is delivered. The vocabulary used in the writing seems mighty limited at times. There are certain words that the filmmakers seem to be in love with using over and over again, though thankfully they seem to fixate on different words in each chapter. But you’ll get tired of hearing them long before the chapter is out. David Bowie is ambiguous. Michael Jackson is ambiguous. The Cars are ambiguous. If you took a drink every time you heard the word ambiguous, you’d be unambiguously unconscious before the film was half over — either by alcohol poisoning or hyponatremia, depending on your drink of choice.
But the biggest problem I have with the film is its tone. I don’t know whether to blame it on director Jamin Bricker, writer Saul Austerlitz, or narrator Michael Charles Roman, but the monologue seems insufferably smug for most of the picture, as if the filmmakers not only think they know more than the audience, but also more than the video makers. There’s a sense of snide condescension when Roman talks about certain genres, particularly the “What were we thinking?” comment regarding 1980s metal, or the way the filmmakers fawn over certain artists and then give backhanded compliments (if that) to others. The Cars, for example, are introduced with a comment that they resorted to surrealism because they weren’t as glamorous as Michael Jackson. Hurting things further is that when the filmmakers are at their most snide, they also tend to be at their most ignorant; they parrot the word parody enough to reduce it to background noise, and then mock some of the most deliberate parodies as if they were intended to be taken seriously.
If you want to make fun of “Cherry Pie”, you have to get in line behind Warrant.
These issues significantly hamper a music video fan’s ability to enjoy the documentary. Taken as a highlight reel, Money For Nothing does a reasonably good job of showing the history of music videos. But the only thing it brings to the table on its own is a smug attitude. If you’re a knowledgeable fan, you can do a better highlight reel on your own. If you’re not a knowledgeable fan, this film might do in a pinch, but you’re better off talking to someone who is.