Opinion

The dreamy music video aesthetics of Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson's overdue — and unexpected — homage to music videos

When Paul Thomas Anderson arrived on the Hollywood scene in the late 1990s, it was common for filmmakers to cut their teeth in the field of music videos. But while some of his contemporaries like David Fincher and Spike Jonze started in that world before jumping to features, much of Anderson's own music video career came a bit later, and usually with personal ties. He directed multiple videos for then-girlfriend Fiona Apple; one for Aimee Mann, whose song "Save Me" was written for Anderson's 1999 film Magnolia; and a series for Radiohead, whose Jonny Greenwood has scored all of Anderson's later films (and whose album Junun Anderson documented with a making-of film). Most recently, Anderson has directed or co-directed a long run of videos for the pop-rock band Haim.

But despite resisting the MTV aesthetic for the first two decades of his feature film career, Anderson has found his way back to the language of music videos with his new film Licorice Pizza

Examining Anderson's full-length films for traces of music video style — still a common influence when he was a young director — reveals why he might have been slow to embrace the form. The flashier moves of his early films are stolen from pre-MTV heroes like Martin Scorsese (in Boogie Nights) and Robert Altman (in Magnolia). In recent years, his work has become more controlled, sometimes even subdued. In other words, he's moved even further away from the hopped-up feel once associated with a music-video sensibility. Meanwhile, music videos have seen their cultural prominence decrease. While the internet has made them more accessible than ever, the slow-motion collapse of the music industry assures that only a few artists have the money or means to make truly eye-catching clips. 

Licorice Pizza, out Friday in limited release, stars Alana Haim, of the same-named band Anderson has spent so much time with these past few years. She plays a character named Alana, and her real-life family, including bandmate/sisters Danielle and Estee, play those parts onscreen as well. And while the movie has echoes from throughout Anderson's impressive career like the romantic intoxication of Punch-Drunk Love and the shagginess of Inherent Vice, it also takes cues from his Haim videos beyond the presence of Alana and her sisters. 

To wit: Several of the teen hangout settings in the film resemble the locations used in Anderson's video for the Haim song "Little of Your Love." One of his hallmark shots, where the camera tracks alongside his protagonist sprinting across the frame, gets a workout in Licorice Pizza — but it's accompanied by a variation on this image that features more heavily in his Haim videos, where the camera follows one of the sisters walking down the street in a confident strut (usually Danielle, though here she hangs back as Alana's scrappy little-sister energy shines). The film's other lead character, Gary (played by Cooper Hoffman, the lookalike son of Anderson's late muse Philip Seymour Hoffman), has the surname Valentine, which is also the name of a short film Anderson directed featuring three Haim performances.

Perhaps some of those connections are my overthinking. The movie is set well before even the formative years of the 51-year-old Anderson — it takes place in 1973, when he was a toddler — so scouring such a delightfully episodic youthful ramble for Haim connections can feel like missing the point. And though Alana Haim gives an instantly charismatic and gradually revealing performance here, Licorice Pizza is not a slice of her autobiography. It's not a feature-length Haim equivalent of "All Too Well," the short film/music video from their pal Taylor Swift that became a sensation last week. 

Yet in a roundabout way, Licorice Pizza is still Anderson's long overdue music video movie. It's generous with its imagery, whether the frame is bustling with unidentified bit characters or boiled down to just Hoffman and Haim staring at each other with confused longing. (Hoffman's character isn't yet 16, but romantically pursues Haim's drifting 25-year-old.) These aren't qualities invented by MTV, of course. They are, however, the kind of expressive shorthand directors bust out when they only have three or four minutes to make an impression. 

Licorice Pizza is not three or four minutes, though. It's 133 minutes, and occasionally prone to letting scenes overstay their welcome. But within those scenes, Anderson's use of music video tropes — young people screwing around and hanging out, depictions of wistful infatuation, and the general tendency to let music and mood prevail over spoken explication — is a welcome flip from modern marquee music videos, like "All Too Well," which tend toward the over-literal and will even stop the music cold to dramatize something the song already explained. 

Like Haim's music, the film pulses with youthful exuberance, including in its moments of longing. Their music videos are at their best when they play like vivid, expressive dreams. And with Licorice Pizza, Anderson keeps dreaming for as long as possible.

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