A huge thanks to Sydney Urbanek for submitting this piece as part of our Guest Contributor Program. Check out Sydney’s work at Reel Honey.
For as long as there have been music videos, music videos have been saluting movies—in vastly different ways and with wide-ranging results. In today’s meme-driven world, an artist might reference a popular film to generate excitement ahead of a video’s release and/or cut through social media noise. Perhaps they wish to align themselves with a certain film or film character, triggering countless tweets and think pieces in which fans and critics make guesses as to why. Maybe they’re simply looking to give young people “a critically necessary sense of comfort and togetherness”—as Erica Russell wrote in Bustle—during a politically weird and gross time. Whatever the reason, I’m interested!
And as a classic film-lover with a potentially unhealthy interest in the lives and art of pop divas, I thought I’d share just five of my favorite odes to classic film in their music videos (in no particular order; otherwise, I’ll have nightmares).
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) in Madonna’s “Material Girl”
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of my all-time favorite films, and while Jane Russell’s Dorothy has always been the more compelling character, I can fully get behind the fact that Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei will do just about anything for some diamonds. Given that Lorelai’s a pretty textbook material girl, her “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number was a sensible point of reference for Madonna’s “Material Girl” video in 1985, which mostly depicts Madonna as a Hollywood starlet cruising around a studio lot. (She’s also technically pursued by a wealthy crew member who comes to realize that she’s not a material girl after all, wins her over with some flowers, and then—no joke—pays a poorer guy to borrow his pickup truck for their date.) It’s otherwise an extremely faithful recreation of the original scene, down to the some of the choreography and camerawork. I moreover love this one because it’s among the several Madonna videos that Pet Sematary’s Mary Lambert directed in the ’80s—others including “Borderline” and “Like a Virgin”—that guaranteed the star a decades-long career.
Funny Face (1957) et al. in Beyoncé’s “Countdown”
4 was my favorite Beyoncé album prior to the release of her self-titled one in 2013, and both of those rankings had a ton to do with the albums’ respective visual components. The Adria Petty-directed video for “Countdown,” which came out in 2011, is the only Beyoncé video where the star is visibly pregnant (that is, within the video’s diegesis itself and not in home video footage). Its multiple references vary in terms of directness, so every breakdown of them that’s ever been published says something slightly different. (I’ve seen Fame , Dreamgirls , and even West Side Story  argued.)
I can tell you with confidence that Beyoncé dresses and dances exactly like Jo Stockton, Audrey Hepburn’s Funny Face character, and also that Petty summed up the inspirations for the video as “Mod, and ’60s and ’80s iconic stuff that [Beyoncé] responded to and related to.” In other words, the concept was pretty loose. What usually gets interpreted as an ode to Flashdance (1983) is actually a direct reference to Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s work (though De Keersmaeker was unfortunately not down with the nod). (This Beyoncé photoshoot from 2016 is much, much, much more Flashdance-esque, if that’s what you’re looking for.) (But Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Glad” video is actually an intentional ode to Flashdance, so maybe that’s where you should head next instead.)
The Sound of Music (1965) in Gwen Stefani’s “Wind It Up”
I’m not here to argue that this is one of the best classic film references in a music video, but I’ve always admired how bonkers the whole thing is, conceptually speaking. I suppose if you’re going to sample “The Lonely Goatherd” in a piece of music, you may as well go all out for your video. Like any good Austrian-Canadian kid, I grew up watching The Sound of Music at least once a day. It’s arguably a bold film to visually reference in a 21st-century music video considering its subject matter, but I guess the choice was significantly less controversial in 2006 (and that such a reference would be invoked now for a very different reason). There’s also something to be said about the whole “Harajuku girls as accessory” thing that Gwen Stefani had going on around this time, but that wasn’t something my 10-year-old self really understood. I was mostly transfixed by Stefani portraying Julie Andrews’s Maria von Trapp in the Sophie Muller-directed video, albeit an alternate-universe (and slightly kinkier?) version who wields a riding crop and finds herself (inexplicably) chained to a gate.
Vertigo (1958), Metropolis (1927), et al. in Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi”
Lady Gaga is a known Hitchcock fan, but long before she ever sampled Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score in the “Born This Way” video or sang “I want your Psycho, your Vertigo shtick / Want you in my Rear Window, baby you’re sick” on “Bad Romance,” she included a brief reference to Vertigo in the video for “Paparazzi” in 2009. She evidently goes pretty hard for Vertigo. I’d argue there’s also something very Hitchcock Blonde-y about her whole approach to awards season looks (with A Star is Born, definitely, but arguably even when she was nominated for American Horror Story: Hotel and for “Til It Happens To You”).
“Paparazzi” was Jonas Åkerlund’s first Lady Gaga video, made about a year before “Telephone” with Beyoncé (a video that’s itself packed with tons of movie references) and several years before 2017’s “John Wayne.” (Many Little Monsters consider “Telephone” a sort of sequel to “Paparazzi.”) I particularly love this one because Åkerlund, a Swede, packed it full of other Swedish stuff: Alexander Skarsgård, Lady Gaga speaking Swedish, and so on. Some people have additionally read Gaga’s post-injury metallic outfit as a reference to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, so that’s just a bonus.
Sweet Charity (1969) in Beyoncé’s “Get Me Bodied”
If you’re someone who pays attention to Beyoncé, you might already know that she and her team love Bob Fosse. The “Single Ladies” dance, for instance, was directly inspired by “Mexican Breakfast,” a Fosse-choreographed routine that was performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. On her first world tour as a solo artist, aptly named “The Beyoncé Experience,” there was also a lengthy tribute to Chicago’s “Cell Block Tango.” But the most overt Fosse reference probably came in 2007, when Beyoncé recreated “The Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity for the “Get Me Bodied” video. (Why Iggy Azalea and Ariana Grande would try to do the same several years later with “Problem” is beyond me, I’m afraid.)
“Get Me Bodied” begins with Beyoncé writing her birthday on a mirror in lipstick (as one does) and then treats us to almost seven minutes of the star dancing and hanging out with various members of her inner circle, including Solange, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams. She’s obviously meant to channel dancer Suzanne Charny from the original Sweet Charity number, high pony and all. The only thing really missing is an Edith Head-designed costume. Head sadly died the year Beyoncé was born, but I like to think that she would’ve approved of what Beyoncé’s mother, Tina, came up with for her to wear instead.