There was a time in the mid-to-late-'90s when I worked at a video store that was part of a regional chain. This chain had been operating pretty much since the beginning of the videotape rental business in the late '70s. Although the location where I worked was fairly new, I noticed that the owners had decided to use our back storage area to warehouse a couple thousand ex-rental titles that had not been sold off since their new release heyday. I found all sorts of goodies back there that I convinced my manager to put back on the shelves, like the Firesign Theatre's Hot Shorts and other random sketch comedy tapes.
In my explorations, I also came upon two tapes which were marketed as "video albums" by Warner Home Video: Devo's The Men Who Make The Music and Blondie's Eat to the Beat. These "video albums" were just what they sounded like: a collection of music videos with a bit of interstitial material to hold them together. To me, they were fascinating artifacts of a more experimental age of video production and distribution. They must not have been that successful, though, because I can only find online evidence of three "video albums" from Warner, with the third one being The Cars' Heartbeat City.
When I heard that Heartbeat City was getting a manufactured-on-demand release from the Warner Archive Collection, I was over the moon. This is exactly the kind of oddball release that deserves to resurface, even if it's just as a studio-burned DVD-R.
The program consists of six music videos from The Cars' 1984 album Heartbeat City, plus one video each for the title songs of their two prior albums, Shake It Up and Panorama. The program ends with an MTV-produced making-of for their "Hello Again" video, which was co-directed by Andy Warhol. There is a disparity in the quality of the featured videos that is sometimes drastic, which makes this a weird collection to watch straight through. But, it still has a lot to offer on a clip-by-clip basis, and it is quite amazing as a time capsule.
Opening and Interstitials - Directed by Charlex:
Designed by the same firm responsible for the look of The Cars' signature "You Might Think" video, these pieces share the same look and feel -- sort of like the '80s video response to the album covers of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis. Gaudy neon drawings interact with sexy models. Lead singer Ric Ocasek gets picked up by a massive woman and dropped into her purse, which turns out to be a pastel bar tended by a man with a television head. It's style over substance, maybe, but it's great to look at.
"Hello Again" - Directed by Andy Warhol and Don Munroe:
A mix of fashionable and odd New York scenesters sit around in a bar, looking like mannequins. Andy Warhol is tending bar, watching a newly-shot Super-8 redux of his 1960s movie, Kiss. A young, unknown Gina Gershon glowers and sticks her tongue out at the camera. There's a dude with a snake. This video doesn't have much to say, but it's got verve and a sense of humor. This is a different cut than what aired on MTV. That version opened with a mock-interview show where teens were interviewed about sex and violence in music videos and then a car crashed through the wall. This version loses that opening and but adds R-rated stop-motion shots of bare-chested women and men, with toy cars driving around their body parts.
"Magic" - Directed by Tim Pope:
This video starts with a decent premise: a parade of whack-jobs has decided to worship Ric Ocasek -- maybe because he can walk across the water of a fancy swimming pool -- but then it never develops beyond that initial premise. Maybe once the crew rigged up the walking-on-water effect, they realized they didn't have enough time to execute anything else interesting.
"Drive" - Directed by Tim Hutton:
Actor Timothy Hutton takes a crack behind the camera and gives this video an appropriately arty and somber feel. There's another bar and more human mannequins, plus some of the video is in black-and-white. Bass player Benjamin Orr takes lead vocals, which frees up Ric Ocasek to act in the video. He and future wife Paulina Porizkova play a fighting couple who presumably break up. This video is not the most brilliant evocation of relationship strife, but it pretty much works with the tune.
"Panorama" - Directed by Gerald V. Casale:
An attempt at a low-budget spy thriller, starring the band and directed by one of the members of Devo. While the funky look pleasantly evokes Devo's first film effort, The Truth About De-Evolution, the story is pretty much incomprehensible and the acting is purely home-movies quality. It doesn't help that the song is not catchy and goes on forever. It's cool that they got a helicopter, though.
"Heartbeat City" - Directed by Luis Aira:
This essentially looks like an uninspired in-studio performance for an '80s German TV show (I don't think it actually is, though). The director sends a camera on a dolly careening back and forth, and he tries to capture images of the band members at odd angles, but the whole thing is still super boring to watch.
"Shake It Up" - Directed by Paul Justman:
This video sticks to the essentials of what one expects to see in a Cars video: the band, some sexy models, and some cars. And, by keeping it simple, the video is surprisingly successful. Ric Ocasek and Co. drive around in their convertible, picking up various passengers: an old lady, a kid using spray paint, a gangster, a cop. Eventually, they all end up in a garage. The passengers all take off their costumes and reveal themselves to be sexy models. Everybody dances around. Mission accomplished.
"Why Can't I Have You" - Directed by Peter Richardson:
This video toes the line of self-parody, and certainly many modern viewers will find a lot of dated ridiculousness to snicker at, but this one strangely worked for me. The "Why Can't I Have You" video is all about design, lighting, and movement. The band performs in a lit-up oval in the middle of a dark wall, while Ocasek sings and a dancer moves, both appearing in variously shaped spotlights. While the style is aggressively dated, the video has a confident rhythm that makes it consistently fun to watch.
"You Might Think" - Directed by Charlex and Jeff Stein:
"You Might Think" is just an all-time classic music video. It combines the unique proto-Photoshop video-effects style utilized by the design company Charlex and the visual wit of director Jeff Stein, who also helmed the classic Alice in Wonderland-referencing video for Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More." Ric Ocasek pesters sexy model Susan Gallagher for attention, like Bugs Bunny in a Chuck Jones cartoon. The gags fly fast and furious as Ocasek turns into the space gorilla from Robot Monster, he becomes his conquest's alarm clock, he invades her prom photo and kicks out the guy who was originally there, he becomes King Kong, and on and on. While the worst of the videos in this set suffered from a dearth of good ideas, this video seems to have enough of those to fill five other videos.
Making of "Hello Again" - Produced by MTV:
A cool glimpse behind-the-scenes of the "Hello Again" video that pretty much confirms the suspicion that Andy Warhol's contribution as co-director was mostly just getting fashionable people and a fashionable bar to participate. Co-director Don Munroe, who apparently worked on Warhol's TV show at the time, seems to be doing most of the heavy lifting.
The Cars: Heartbeat City comes as part of the Warner Archive Collection series of manufactured-on-demand DVD-Rs.
The Video & Audio:
Heartbeat City comes with a standard 1.37:1 image and Dolby 2.0 stereo audio. This is obviously just taken from the original analog video master, without going back to film for any of the film-shot material. As I was watching it, I had no qualms. The quality felt pretty period-accurate, and I didn't notice any additional video-compression issues. Only later, when I starting making screencaps did I realize how noisy, smeary, and lacking in fine detail the image truly is. Considering the source, this is probably the best you're going to get picture-wise though. The music all sounds excellent and seems potentially like it was taken directly from the album recordings. With its 192 kbps bit-rate, the audio is pretty much the equivalent quality of an mp3 rip from the CD with the same bit-rate.
None. Although the Making of "Hello Again" piece behaves like a special feature, it is technically part of the main program.
If you are neither a fan of the band The Cars nor a vintage video archaeologist, you can probably skip this one. The best videos can be streamed a la carte on Youtube, after all. But if you do actually meet one or both of those unique requirements, this hodgepodge will definitely provide you with some fun. Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and lifelong movie buff. Check out his new experimental music project, Duck the Piano Wire.