If Justin Timberlake adds any more titles to his résumé, we're not going to be able to fit them all onto a single line. The singer/actor/dancer/producer/clothing designer has tacked video-treatment writer onto his long list of recent endeavors, courtesy of the moody new clip for the Johnny Cash song "God's Gonna Cut You Down."
The concept for the all-star video came to Timberlake while he was taking a break from recording with producer Rick Rubin, who helmed Cash's award-winning American album series and Timberlake's "(Another Song) All Over Again."
"We were in the studio and we took a break to listen to the new Johnny Cash album [American V: A Hundred Highways], which was not yet released at that point," Rubin said. "And when we got to that song, [Justin] said, 'Stop!' "
Timberlake then laid out a plan for a video to accompany the spare, moody song, which would feature a series of stars dressed in Cash's signature black. "And he said, 'I'm signing up to be the first one,' " Rubin said.
Timberlake tops a list of 36 stars who appear in the clip, including Iggy Pop, Kanye West, Coldplay's Chris Martin, actor Terrence Howard, Anthony Kiedis and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Chris Rock, Maroon 5's Adam Levine, Kate Moss, Sheryl Crow, Woody Harrelson, Amy Lee of Evanescence, Tommy Lee, the Dixie Chicks, Keith Richards, Bono, (+44)'s Travis Barker, Kid Rock, Jay-Z and Johnny Depp.
"I had no idea yet how to market the album, which I'd just finished, since Johnny [Cash, who passed away in 2003] was not there and I wasn't thinking about doing a video," Rubin said (see "Johnny Cash Dead At 71").
Inspired by Timberlake's brainstorm, Rubin called up acclaimed video director Mark Romanek, who helmed the award-winning clip for Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" (see "Johnny Cash Says Unlike Most Videos, 'Hurt' Wasn't Too Painful"). Though Romanek loved the concept and added some ideas to it, he couldn't sign on due to scheduling conflicts, so he suggested controversial director Tony Kaye ("American History X"). Kaye, who directed the time-tripping clip for the Chili Peppers' "Dani California" (which is from an album also produced by Rubin), hasn't directed many rock videos, but like many of the celebs in the shoot, he's among the luminaries in Rubin's thick address book of friends and professional acquaintances.
"I got together with Tony — he loved Johnny and he's really interested in the idea of music driving images," Rubin said. Once they agreed on the concept, Rubin asked a few friends to make a list of the 10 coolest people on the planet. "At least five of the people in the video were on everyone's list," he said, "and Iggy was on a lot of lists, so it just felt right to open with him. I don't know what that message is, but it just feels right."
Like the other stars, punk icon Pop is filmed wearing all black. The film's lightning-fast, blink-and-you-might-miss-it series of quick-edit shots (many of which are close-ups of the stars' faces) contrast with the slow tempo of the song.
The video progresses through a series of quick mini-dramas, most of which were improvised, including Howard in a limo reading a Bible, Rock singing along with the lyrics, Timberlake staring at the camera, Depp standing on a balcony playing guitar, and Bono leaning on a graffiti-filled wall between angel's wings and a halo while wearing a paper hat. The segments were filmed in Los Angeles, New York, London and (in Richards' case) Amsterdam.
Rubin said that for many of the artists in the clip — who also include Kris Kristofferson, Patti Smith, Q-Tip, Dennis Hopper, the Clash's Mick Jones, Sharon Stone, Shelby Lynne, Lisa Marie Presley, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Corinne Bailey Rae, Graham Nash and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson — their reactions capture reflective moments spurred by hearing the song for the first time. Lynne sheds tears in an intense closeup, and a serious-looking Kid Rock stomps and claps his hands along to the funereal beat. "Each person got to design their own moment," Rubin said. "But Tony was looking more for the instant emotional impact than a pre-planned skit. Nobody was asked to lip-sync, so pretty much everything was spontaneous."
After a slide-show-like recap of all the famous faces, the clip ends with Rubin and actor Owen Wilson sitting somberly in the back of a limousine.
We get Iggy and Bono, but what's Wilson's connection to the whole thing? "It just made sense that if I was honoring Johnny, I'd have a friend there with me," Rubin said.
He also said Kaye has directed a clip for the Cash tune "Help Me" that is not celebrity-driven, but is equally gripping and slated for release in the coming months.