Brian De Palma Week: How "Dancing in the Dark" starts a fire
Thanks to the Summer Movie Wager, Andy used his victory bet to assign us to each write about Brian de Palma!
This assignment from Andy resulted in me finally watching the excellent De Palma documentary from a few years ago. The documentary is like an extended lecture from Brian de Palma about his own career, going film by film in chronological order. His reflections on everything from Phantom of the Paradise to Scarface are a fun mix of humble and humblebrag. He talks about navigating the studio system, ratings boards, and many other obstacles, and most importantly, the creative problem solving required to make movies happen. It is a very insightful documentary, and one I would recommend to anyone who loves movies.
And it reminded me of the only de Palma film I’ve seen more times than Mission: Impossible, the “Dancing in the Dark” music video:
So in honor of de Palma week and the Boss’ 70th birthday this past Monday, I thought it would be worth digging into a bit. The video was filmed at Saint Paul Civic Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota, on June 28 and 29, 1984. The 28th was just for the video, while the second night of shooting was the first night of the Born in the U.S.A. Tour. The video itself is a simple one, not as lavish a production or as high concept as many other videos from the time (“Thriller” came out the year before). But it nonetheless became iconic, and helped launch Courteney Cox’s career.
But what about this video made it such a breakout hit? Yes, the song is one of the poppiest songs in Springsteen’s career (synthesizer and all), so much so that it would be easy to miss the self-loathing and wistfulness in the words.
Brian de Palma’s direction seems to aim at one main thing: playing into Bruce Springsteen as a sexual icon. “Dancing in the Dark” is a single from the Born in the U.S.A. album, which has the iconic butt shot of Bruce in his jeans taken by Annie Leibovitz as its cover. The album, specifically the cover more than anything else, transformed Springsteen from a socially-conscious rocker into a pop icon. The sexiness of the image is drawing directly on Springsteen’s working class background with the wear on the jeans pocked, the tucked in plain white shirt, and the dusty ball cap. This masculinity in the image taps into the same energy that Ronald Reagan was using to give Americans a renewed feeling after the “crisis of confidence” from the 1970s as stated by President Jimmy Carter. Of course, as their clash over Reagan’s use of the album’s title track on his 1984 campaign stops shows, Springsteen was aligned with the blue collar union workers of the left as opposed to Reagan’s trying to lure them rightward with a combination of promises to stimulate the economy and family values.
As the song goes, you can’t start a fire without a spark, and that album cover is definitely the spark to the music video’s fire.
The video starts with a pan across Springsteen’s body from his foot up to his chest before cutting to a reverse shot. We don’t see Springsteen’s face for over 10 seconds into the video, which calls to mind the delayed introduction of Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even more striking is that it is shot entirely in closeups and medium shots for the first full minute (the runtime of the entire video is less than 4 minutes) before we get anything resembling a wide shot. This opening salvo puts Springsteen’s body front and center, his pants tight in all the right places, his short sleeves rolled up. De Palma embraces the singer’s inherent sex appeal, giving fans a better view of Springsteen on their tube televisions than they would get from most vantage points at a concert.
And Bruce is a perfect combination of sexy and goofball in this video, dancing with the microphone, smirking in between lines of the song, pointing at the audience. He’s channeling Elvis in every part of his body save his hips, since his dancing is almost entirely in his legs, arms, and shoulders. The epitome of white guy dancing. He isn’t performing at the camera, however, and only looks directly into the camera lens for a few seconds, almost accidentally. This is Springsteen in his element: it’s not about seeing crowds of people cheering him on so much as seeing the power that Springsteen has over his audience.
Courtney Cox doesn't;t show up until about halfway through the video. Playing the role of a front row Springsteen fan who happens to catch his eye, her presence gives him a point of focus. It’s the idea of a magical spark of a random connection between two people. One performing for thousands, the other wearing a shirt with his body emblazoned on it. What sells it is Cox’s face as she watches him. The perfect picture of awe, disbelieving that this icon could even notice her.
In this way, Cox’s presence on stage humanizes Springsteen, bringing him back to reality. The shots de Palma uses here are more distant from Springsteen, focusing on him and Cox casually dancing together, sharing a fun moment. It doesn’t feel as romantic as it does friendly, a gesture of warmth and connecting the icon to the fan.
As Clarence Clemons plays them out on his saxophone, de Palma zooms out, quickly cutting to the final shot, the only one where we can even see how big the venue is. It’s the point of view most people will have of a Springsteen concert in 1984: the figures on stage barely perceptible at the front of the crowd. The video creates a sense of intimacy that a concert doesn’t. It sacrifices the experience of hearing music live in favor of seeing Springsteen’s iconic butt. But thanks to heavy rotation on MTV, many fans were able to get both in 1984.