The Ballad of Cable Television: Sam Peckinpah, Music Video Director

sam peckinpah

The last time the legendary Sam Peckinpah – maker of many classic westerns and contemporary crime dramas that all shared a penchant for shocking violence and tragic underlying themes of men out of their time running out of time – took his place behind the camera it wasn’t to orchestrate another visionary display of sweaty, balletic brutality.

During the final months of 1984 the man unreasonably (yet somehow justifiably) granted the nickname “Bloody Sam” was hired by Charisma Records and British humorist, television personality, and producer Martin Lewis to direct music videos showcasing a duo of songs by Julian Lennon that would be aired on MTV at the time when the cable channel that would one day subject the world to the horrors of Carson Daly, Pauly Shore, Jesse Camp, Jersey Shore, and Teen Mom was barely three years old.

“I didn’t want one of these young whiz-kids out of film school, I didn’t want a slick music-video director,” Lewis said of hiring the volatile director. “I wanted to find somebody who would bring something to it, I didn’t know what, but it had to be some texture, some perspective.” Prior to approaching Peckinpah for the assignment Lewis plead his case to other filmmakers like Alan Rudolph (Trouble in Mind) and Robert Altman (Nashville), but the idea of hiring Peckinpah was put forth by Lewis’ friend Dennis Delrogh, a film critic for L.A. Weekly.

Lewis was hesitant to the idea at first: “Are you kidding me? I can just imagine what he’d do, open the film with a slow-motion recreation of John Lennon’s murder.” Delrogh persisted in convincing the producer that he was allowing the director’s infamous reputation to cloud his judgement. Peckinpah’s melancholic 1970 western The Ballad of Cable Hogue had been one of Lewis’ favorite films, and it was a personal favorite of the director’s as well.

Peckinpah had begun his career in television in the late 1950’s writing and directing episodes of shows like The Rifleman, The Dick Powell Theater, and his own creation The Westerner. One of his most critically-acclaimed efforts as a director was an episode of ABC Stage 67 entitled “Noon Wine” that aired on November 23, 1966 and starred Jason Robards and Olivia de Havilland. Peckinpah’s last work for TV prior to directing the Lennon videos was a February 1967 episode of Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater. By that time his big screen filmmaking ambitions that had nearly been permanently decimated by the chaotic production of Major Dundee were revitalized by The Wild Bunch and for the next 17 years he would work strictly in cinema.

The Lennon video idea was originated as a prospective documentary designed to help the musician promote his debut album Valotte. As initially conceived, Peckinpah’s cameras would follow the Beatle spawn through rehearsals, recording sessions, and later, concerts. Lennon balked at being filmed performing before a live audience, so the documentary idea was scuttled and the dual music video idea started taking shape. Lewis wanted the videos to be visually low-key, just Lennon being filmed in the recording studio. They would be filmed over a three-day period in a small studio in upstate New York.

The songs being immortalized in MTV-acceptable video form were “Valotte” and “Too Late for Goodbyes”. Peckinpah was paid $10,000 for the job. At this point in the mercurial filmmaker’s brilliant but troubled career it was a king’s ransom compared to the wooden nickles Hollywood was offering him for projects that never came to pass. Peckinpah hadn’t made a film worthy of his celebrated reputation since 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and that one had been torn to shred by most critics and ignored by moviegoers. Forgettable follow-ups like The Killer Elite, Convoy, and his final film The Osterman Weekend offered precious few glimpses of the greatness in Peckinpah’s finest films that had been slowly eroded by a self-destructive dependency on alcohol and cocaine.

Leading crews of hundreds through blistering hot conditions in Mexico on his various film shoots and matching wits with the most duplicitous studio executives Hollywood could vomit up didn’t make Peckinpah as nervous as the thought of having to work under such restrictive conditions for little money. He was encouraged to give the videos every remaining ounce of his creative energy by film editor Lou Lombardo, a close friend and frequent collaborator. Lewis didn’t have to concern himself with the potential nightmare of dealing with the unpleasant side of Peckinpah many have had the good misfortune of experiencing in the past; his chosen director worked diligently on the video shoot for all three days, even going all the way to 3 a.m. on the final day of filming.

The man who brought scenes of slow-motion death and devastation to unsuspecting American audiences in the late 1960’s was surprisingly reserved in his approach to the youthful format of the music video. That didn’t stop him from energizing the shoot with some helpful ideas on the fly. In David Weddle’s 1994 biography of Peckinpah, If They Move….Kill ‘Em!, Lewis remembered observing Peckinpah’s spontaneous creative up close:

“When we were shooting ‘Too Late for Goodbyes’ Sam found a doorway behind the band at the back of the stage that he thought would be interesting. He had the door removed, had a light put behind it, like heavenly light, bright. He had Moses Pendleton, an excellent modern dancer and close friend of Julian’s, get in the doorway. He did a whole series of short shots, which in editing he interspersed in the video, of Moses dancing in and out of the doorway. Moses did his own moves, with Sam making suggestions: ‘Can you do something that’s funny?’ ‘Can you do something that’s sad?’ It was a combination of mime and dancing. Then Sam shot Julian reacting off of him, which brought Julian to life.”

Both videos had been shot on 35mm film and transferred to videotape, allowing Peckinpah to make use of advanced computerized editing equipment that was beginning to become the industry norm, but for the first time. Experimenting with new technology reinvigorated him even more and he managed to edit the videos in three days. Though the Phil Ramone-produced album Valotte wasn’t a hit with the critics it did very well with record store consumers, peaking at #17 on the Billboard 200 and eventually going platinum. Sales were helped immeasurably by the fleeting popularity of the singles and Peckinpah’s videos: “Valotte” peaked at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but “Too Late for Goodbyes” made it to the #5 spot and became the most successful single of Lennon’s career.

The only real critical praise given to Valotte was reserved for the videos, with the young Lennon and his veteran director receiving the lion’s share of accolades. Lennon was nominated for Best New Video Artist at the second MTV Video Music Awards ceremony on September 13, 1985 (Eddie Murphy hosted). As a bittersweet ending to this unusual creative partnership he was not only denied the award, but the iconic wild man of the cinematic West who made them didn’t even live to see him receive the nomination: Peckinpah passed away from heart failure at the age of 59 on December 28, 1984 – about two months after filming and finishing the videos. They weren’t the final masterpiece many of the director’s fans felt he still had in him, but at least he was able to pass from this world having partially rebuilt his damaged reputation and proven to the world that even though his body was dying there was nothing that could kill Sam Peckinpah’s love of pure filmmaking.

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