It's been said there are only two sure things in life: death and taxes. Well, you can probably add another item to that list: massive first-week numbers for Coldplay albums.
The band's much-anticipated third album, X&Y, moved more than 730,000 copies in its first week of release (see "Coldplay Beat Peas And Stripes By A Mile With X&Y"), only further cementing Coldplay's status as one of rock's few sure bets in an era of bling, Bentleys and general un-rockingness. In fact, you could make the argument that they are such a huge act that they don't even need to make a music video to sell records. And you'd probably be right.
This only made director Mark Romanek's job a whole lot more difficult. Tapped to helm the video for "Speed of Sound" (see "Coldplay Shoot Video, Announce Trio Of Club Shows"), the first single from X&Y, his mission was to make a beautiful, stately, emotional video for a band that didn't really need a beautiful, stately or emotional video. Or a video at all, for that matter. But Romanek's talent lies in his ability to read between the company lines, somewhere beneath the profit margins. He knew that while Coldplay really didn't need a video, their fans did.
After all, they'd been waiting for almost three years for the follow-up to the band's mega-smash A Rush of Blood to the Head, and had stayed loyal to the band though X&Y's initial recording — and subsequent scrapping (see "Coldplay: The Quiet Revolution"). To them, the video for "Speed of Sound" needed to be beautiful, stately and emotional, and a whole lot more.
And obviously he succeeded. "Speed of Sound" is nominated for four Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year (see "Green Day, Gwen, Missy Nab Most Nominations For MTV Video Music Awards"). But back then, he had no idea how the whole thing would turn out, which is why, when he's asked about it even now, Romanek can still remember the unique kind of pressure he was feeling heading into the shoot.
"I guess I did feel a little extra pressure on this one," he says. "There was a lot of anticipation for this CD, and the band took a long time recording and mixing it. They also put a lot of trust in me, so I guess with all these things, the pressure was definitely there. I do videos pretty rarely these days. I kind of wait for something special to come along, so I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself anyway. I do try and make something sincere, interesting and well-crafted each time."
And just how would he choose to address all that pressure? Well, for starters, he eliminated everything flashy and over-the-top. Not the band's style, he says. And then, just for kicks, he decided to eliminate pretty much everything else. For a guy who's made a career out of taking risks — from Jay-Z being gunned down at the end of the "99 Problems" video (see "Jay-Z: 99 Problems, Hundreds of Rumors") to placing a fragile Johnny Cash front-and-center in the powerful "Hurt" clip (see "Johnny Cash's 'Hurt' Delves Into Life Of Former Hell-Raiser: VMA Lens Recap") — this was par for the course.
"I really didn't see a way to convey the subtle theme of the song with conceptual imagery, so I decided to just let the lyrics speak for themselves. Instead, I tried — using light and color — to create a visual analog to the band's soaring, ecstatic sound," he says. "Since the entire video was to be comprised of shots of the band performing, I felt like a little mystery should be created, so that you don't see everything all at once too early."
And so "Speed of Sound" opens in the pitch-black, followed by a single, solitary light framing frontman Chris Martin as he reaches skyward — Prometheus-like — out of the shadows. As the song begins to pick up steam, slowly building to its anthemic, Ebola-catchy chorus, viewers begin to notice a few soft twinkles of light framing the silhouetted bandmembers. Once the chorus hits, the lights erupt, swallowing the band in a very surreal, very expensive, luminous shower courtesy of a two-story-high LED wall.
"This was the first time this many of these particular LED fixtures have ever been assembled anywhere. We had 640 of these meter-long fixtures. They were imported from Hong Kong," Romanek says. "They're not rentable, so we had to purchase them all. It took three days to construct and wire up the wall, and another four days to program the 'show.' We got an isolated track of Chris' vocals so that some of the animations could be literally triggered by his voice."
If Coldplay were a bit unsure of Romanek's directorial decisions, they sure didn't show it. In fact they went with his pitch without even reading a proper treatment. Which is, well, very Coldplay of them.
"The band were pretty trusting of me. I told them about it over the phone, and said there was really no way to describe it. They said, 'Sounds great!' " Romanek laughs. "They didn't see anything until they showed up the day before the shoot for their wardrobe fitting. It's not that they didn't care. They cared deeply. They just trusted me, which, as I said above, was a lot of responsibility."
And Romanek rewarded their blind faith by producing a Video-of-the-Year-nominated clip. Though it's little more than the band performing before a massive wall of light, that doesn't take away from its austere-yet-awesome beauty. And for Romanek, who's gone flashy, high-tech and grimy in the past, making the clip was an exercise in shimmering restraint. The end result is a video that he's endlessly proud of.
"The video is really just a document of the band performing the song with striking state-of-the-art lighting effects. By shooting hand-held, there were several instances where the band's movements and the camera's movement created these little elegant surprises," he says. "I do like the shot of Chris spreading his arms out in this ecstatic way with the lights changing in a rainbow of hues behind him. And the close-up images of [drummer] Will [Champion] are quite striking I think. I just tried to make something that created its 'meaning' using more abstract, less literal means, which, for me, is how Coldplay's songs impact the listener."