written by David Steffen
This is the first in a new series that I’m very excited about wherein I examine a music video by a well-known artist as a short film, trying to identify the story arcs and the character motivations, and consider the larger implications of things that we get glimpses of in the story. My favorite art (whether music, painting, writing, crafting) has always been art that I can find a story in, so in this series of articles I aim to celebrate the story in music. If there are any any speculative fiction music videos that you would like to suggest for a future review, leave a link in the comments! Keep in mind the “speculative fiction” part, there should be something science fictional or fantastical happening, and it can’t just be people on a stage singing and dancing only or I can’t find a plot in that.
For this inaugural review I will be discussing the 2010 fantasy dystopia film Tightrope by Janelle Monáe featuring Leftfoot (aka Big Boi*), that takes place in the an asylum called The Palace of the Dogs. As the prologue says “Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.”. It’s not clear whether these things are forbidden in the asylum specifically or in the world in general, but the fact that magic is “illegal” seems to imply that there is enough evidence of it to necessitate legal structures that forbid it.
The opening shot shows two men sitting on a bench–one reading a book and the other tossing a ball in the air, and we witness the first magic of the film when the ball refuses to come down. Shortly after this we meet our protagonist, the young and dapper revolutionary Janelle Monáe (played by themself) confined to their room and avoiding the baleful scrutiny of the nurse distributing medications in the hallway (given the rest of the film, these are presumably sedatives to keep the residents under control), followed at a distance by a pair of ominous mirror-faced cloaked figures. Monáe quickly reveals themself to be a rebel in the eyes of the viewer because they are already dancing in the confines of their room, and we see images of other residents tapping their feet and hands in other rooms. Clearly our protagonist has a powerful influence on the other residents and the power to be a revolutionary in even such a confining environment. They are also clearly not just any resident, given that they have a copy of the blueprints of the asylum in their room–were they one of the architects of this place and allowed to keep the blueprints as a reminder of their debt to the other residents? Or perhaps the asylum’s power to confine them is limited enough that they can’t stop our protagonist from showing some degree of freedom as shown in the blueprints and their unlocked door.
Monáe gives themself a pep talk in the mirror before donning their tuxedo jacket (one can say any number of things about this asylum but its residents are certainly well-dressed and well-groomed!) and heading out into the hallway to wage war against the authority figures. They begin dancing in the hallway where anyone could see them, singing about the tightrope that they walk on every day, and their singing draws four more well-dressed revolutionaries from their rooms who are presumably her generals in this war. Despite flaunting their dance in the hallways they still show some measure of caution at this stage, as they pause their musical revolution when the mirror-faced figures pass by.
The action rises when the leader and their generals reach the large gathering space where the rest of the revolution has been waiting for them under the leadership of another leader (Leftfoot), and together they increase both their violations of the law and also their power generated from their illegal magical practices. The crowd seems to draw power from this illicit action.
Unfortunately, the crowd’s revelry draws the attention of the nurse who reports to the mirror-faced figures. Monáe, still calm, escapes them by walking through a solid wall (an ability which, while powerful, leaves an easy trail to follow in the form of an extra tuxedo plastered to the wall) and out into the surrounding woods and the mirror-faced figures follow them and back into the asylum.
The mirror-faced figures escort Monáe back to their room where the blueprints are now laid on the table instead of hung on the wall, and show Monáe’s name labeled in one of the rooms and with a note that says “Walls (…) finish FR. RES ROOM #1, WERE NEVER COMPLETED — NOT NEEDED”. This may explain why the asylum seems to be lacking architectural security features–it seems (to me) that this facility may have been built specifically with the goal of confining Monáe and, given their ability to walk through walls, the walls (and locking doors) provide no security at all, and so the mirror-faced figures themselves may be the only thing standing between Monáe and the outside world.
I get the impression that Monáe could leave, on their own, any time they wish, but they clearly have great affection for the other residents, and they do not want to leave their compatriots. The mirror-faced figures are there to keep Monáe in check and to remind Monáe of their responsibility, and to keep Monáe from simply leading a crowd out the front door, but in return Monáe also shows their own display of power to show them that the asylum’s control over them is shaky at best.
Even as Monáe is again confined to their room, the revelry continues in the gathering place, and Monáe is also there with them. Even physical isolation from the group cannot take away their power. As the film ends, Monáe’s generals dance openly in the hallway (the large gathering having apparently finally dispersed) and Monáe gives a long look at the camera as if to say “this isn’t over”.
I very much look forward to the sequel!
(Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be “Never Really Over” by Katy Perry)
*-In the original posting of this story I hadn’t realized Leftfoot was an alias of Big Boi, this is correct now–thank you for pointing that out in the comments Kurt!