BEVERLY HILLS, California — On Friday (April 30), an icon of pop culture returns to the silver screen in fedora-clad, striped-sweater-sporting serial killer Freddy Krueger. The “Nightmare on Elm Street” reboot may mark the directorial debut of Samuel Bayer, but he’s no stranger when it comes to iconography.
“I guess sweaters have a lot to do with my success,” laughed Bayer when we caught up with him recently. “Whether it was the green-and-yellow sweater of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ or [Freddy's] red-and-green sweater.”
That’s right — Bayer was the man behind the camera 20 years ago, when three little-known indie-rockers reluctantly collaborated with him for the first video off their new album Nevermind. A graduate of New York City’s School of Visual Arts, Bayer was a painter beginning to realize that film and video would help him deliver his art to a wider audience. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his first gig — and would go on to become arguably the most famous music video of the past two decades.
” ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was one of the first things I’d ever directed,” Bayer recalled of the video, whose debut was once ranked by VH1 as among the “100 Greatest Rock & Roll Moments on TV,” and was later chosen by the station as the fourth-greatest music video of all time. “I would love to see a new Kurt Cobain for a new generation. I really would.”
Back in those days, Bayer had his differences with Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, who were intensely determined to not be perceived as “sellouts.” Nevertheless, Bayer has nothing but praise for the legendary rocker.
“I hope kids today still remember who that guy was,” Bayer marveled. “Because I’m very lucky to have hung out with him and seen him play and watch them be there in the day. We did that video, and he was the real deal.”
As if to prove the point, Bayer unleashed his favorite Nirvana story, one about how the awe-inspiring anarchy of the clip came to be captured on film.
“The riot at the end of the video was real,” he smiled. “Yeah, that’s true. The kids in the video were recruited from the Whisky A Go Go, at a show that I had seen Nirvana play, and we didn’t pay them,” Bayer remembered. “I didn’t have no money to pay them. And they stayed there all day and they hated me.”
As one might expect from a band who pushed the envelope by wearing dresses on talk shows, playing forbidden songs during awards programs and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in a T-shirt mocking corporate magazines, Nirvana chose to fan the flames of discontent.
“The band was egging them on because they didn’t like making the video either,” Bayer remembers of that long day on a Culver City, California, soundstage dressed to look like a high school gym. “I was exhausted at the end of the day. I’m like, ‘OK, you guys want to destroy the set? Go, destroy the set!’
“And the kids come down off the bleachers, and it’s under my lighting, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!’” Bayer recalled. “I was like, ‘God is on my side.’ The camera is there with a full mag of film, and I looked through the eyepiece and I flipped it on.”
All these years later, Bayer’s clip of intense teenage angst — sandwiched between the opening shot of a toe-tapping Chuck Taylor and the closing image of a screaming Cobain — ranks among the most influential videos of all time. “And that riot,” he remembered, “became the last minute of the video.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
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