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Mark Romanek's 'Hurt' Revives Johnny Cash's Career

Johnny Cash has for decades been considered a living legend, an American icon — and one of country music's greatest stars. But it took director Mark Romanek's powerful video for Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" to introduce the "Man in Black" to the current MTV crowd, and revive his career.

Since the "Hurt" clip debuted in February, the 71-year-old singer has enjoyed a long-overdue resurgence in popularity. In heavy rotation on MTV, VH1 and CMT for months, the video helped to make Cash's latest album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, his most popular in years. The surprisingly strong reaction is even more miraculous considering Romanek was "pretty certain that it wouldn't see the light of day on any music video channels."

The video seamlessly blends old and new footage of the country legend to great effect. "There was never a real concept for the video," Romanek said. "It fell together in a very organic and almost accidental way."

After begging producer Rick Rubin to let him make the video, Romanek set out to direct a clip that lived up to Cash's impassioned, stripped-down performance of the song. "I had an instinct that the video was about the truth of an older person's experience," he said. "The original concept was going to be more stylized and metaphoric. It was going to be this Samuel Beckett piece that I was going to shoot in a soundstage in Los Angeles. But because it took us so long to hammer out a budget and schedule, Johnny became unavailable and I had this narrow window to make the video. And the only way I could do it was to get on a red-eye to Nashville on a Wednesday night, meet Mr. Cash, take a look around his house and the House of Cash museum, and whip up some stuff to shoot, not fully knowing how it would come together."

The footage of Cash is dark, foreboding and unforgiving. Cash, who has suffered through several bouts of pneumonia and other debilitating maladies over the last few years, is portrayed as an old man — a relic of days past. The present-day footage alone is moving, but the emotional weight of the video lies in the juxtaposition of Romanek's images and snippets of archived footage of Cash.

"Mr. Cash gave us four huge boxes of tapes and film," Romanek said. "I wasn't even sure if any of the archival material would even be in the video because I hadn't seen any of it before we got back to Los Angeles. We pulled titles that sounded intriguing and we started going through the archives and experimented with dropping the old material in with the new. It quickly became obvious that that blend of old and new was very powerful, and we realized that the archival material was going to be the spine of the piece."

By combining such a stark song with images of Cash throughout his career, the video can be seen as a tribute to an astonishing life or a premature obituary. But Romanek is quick to point out Cash's ongoing tenacity. "I think the video gives a false impression that this is some sort of swan song, which I don't get the sense that it's the case at all," he said. "It's important to note that he's a lot more vital and funny and full of life than he appears in the video — when we yelled cut he was telling a lot of jokes, and he plans to make a lot more records."

Despite the artistry of his "Hurt" clip, Romanek has a difficult time rationalizing the ever-fickle medium of music videos. "I don't know if I would use the 'A' word about videos," said the Chicago-born director, who has also directed clips for Madonna ("Bedtime Stories") and Michael Jackson ("Scream"). "They are marketing tools, but I found that they work as marketing tools when you try to make a sophisticated and interesting thing that stands out."

Last year it looked like the man behind striking videos for Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" and Lenny Kravitz' "Are You Gonna Go My Way" was finally moving on to the more prestigious world of feature-length films. Romanek wrote and directed the Robin Williams thriller "One Hour Photo," which garnered modest critical and commercial success. But unlike video-visionary-cum-film-rebel directors Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") and David Fincher ("Fight Club"), whose music-video output decreased as their movie-making careers picked up momentum, Romanek continues to make high-quality clips on a regular basis.

"They're fun to do," he said regarding his decision to return to videos. "The lack of any rules makes videos attractive. One could argue that there are no rules for movies either, but if you're going to make a film that costs millions of dollars that is expected to have a coherent narrative that will engage audiences in some way, there are inherent rules one must follow. But in music videos it's more like freeform poetry, and experimentation is actually considered a plus."

In the past year, in addition to "Hurt," Romanek shot videos for No Doubt ("Hella Good"), Audioslave ("Cochise") and the Red Hot Chili Peppers ("Can't Stop"). Most of Romanek's video work is interpretive and complex. At the end of the "Hurt" clip, for instance, scenes from a re-created Crucifixion are spliced together with a crowd at a Cash concert. The images volley back and forth as the nails are hit onto the cross. That scene could be interpreted in many ways, and that's exactly how the director likes it; instead of giving the viewer a confining, concrete image-based association with the music, he tries to make his videos as mentally malleable as the music they accompany.

"One could also argue that the greatest, most inspired and beautifully crafted and evocative music video ever made is worse than no video at all because of the fact of depriving the listener of their own mental images," he admitted. "I generally try to have the videos remain interpretive in some fashion. Even though I'm imagining images for the listener, the way those images fit together with the music, along with hints of narrative or symbolism, allows the viewer a place to enter into and engage with the music and the video in an interpretive way. That's why I don't really like videos with linear narratives, because they don't allow for that interpretation. I also try to cram a lot into my videos so one is forced to watch them many times, which makes it fresh and keeps the video from killing the song on one viewing."

Watch the video for "Hurt," as well as many other Romanek clips, in high-quality QuickTime at his Web site. — Ryan Dombal [Wednesday, May 21, 2003]

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