Mark Romanek, director of the 10-minute short film for Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby,” recently spoke about the inspiration behind the project, which is scheduled to air on HBO tonight (August 2).
For Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film, Romanek and Jay-Z planned a 6-hour performance piece with Jay performing “Picasso Baby” for different individuals inside of an art gallery in Manhattan, New York on July 10. Their short film documents the one-to-one interactions that took place during those hours.
Their work together for Magna Carta…Holy Grail began 3 months ago, as they prepared Samsung ads which announced the album and the album’s release strategy. That’s when ideas for Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film also began to form.
“About 3 months ago, Jay-Z called me and invited me over to his office to listen to his new music with an eye towards some sort of creative collaboration,” Romanek said, in an interview with The Playlist. “We ended up doing that series of Samsung spots and had a good time and he said, ‘I’d really like you to do a video.’ And ‘Picasso Baby’ was the first single…My reaction was, I definitely want to work with Jay-Z. It’s very exciting. And something about making a ‘music video’ in a traditional sense, didn’t seem very interesting to me. The song name-checks a lot of fine artists and I thought, what could we do with that fine art world that isn’t a traditional musical video but is part of the zeitgeist—something unpredictable and [that] utilizes social media? I didn’t want it to be a hermetically sealed experience.”
That’s when Romanek thought of Marina Abramovic’s Artist is Present, a performance installation and film. In the piece, Abramovic, who also appears in the film about “Picasso Baby,” sat at a table for hours while other people sat in front of her, staring at her.
“The idea of performance art came to mind. I was aware of Marina Abramovic’s Artist is Present, even though I was in London shooting ‘Never Let Me Go’ and didn’t get to go. And the idea that Jay-Z regularly performs to 60,000 people at a time, I thought, ‘What about performing at one person at a time?’ He absolutely loved it. He interrupted me and said, ‘Hold on! I’ve got chills. That idea is perfect.’ He thinks, like me, that the music video has had its era. I also wanted to make sure we had Marina’s blessing. So she attended the event and took part in the event. She couldn’t have been more happy or enthusiastic about us using her concept and pushing it forward.”
Jay-Z’s 6-hour performance was a “tsunami of joy,” Romanek said.
“I was continually surprised,” he said. “And that’s what’s so joyful about watching it, too. It’s kind of an endlessly inventing, surprising thing. It’s a tsunami of joy. Everyone is having such a good time, Jay is having such a good time. Some people came and sat and absorbed the experience. Other people felt the need to perform or collaborate or come up with some sort of gag. There’s no one encounter that is similar to another. It’s a whole range of surprises. We had 30 hours of film, because we had 8 cameras going.”
A trailer for their HBO special can be seen below.
Jay-Z did not lip synch during the 6-hour performance, according to Romanek.
“It was never meant to be lip synced,” Romanek told Huffington Post in a separate interview. “At no point during the day did he lip sync. He did live vocals for 6 hours. The finished piece was always intended to be live vocals. I mean, that was the whole point of it. Otherwise, it would turn into a music video. He had a lavalier microphone on his chest that captured a beautiful vocal. It’s completely obvious when you see the piece that it’s not lip synced. Because every inflection and emotion that he performed on that day is different than anything like what’s on the album. He’s laughing. And one woman in her 60s showed up who was so elegant that he literally became speechless. He said, ‘You’re making me lose my flow, but I’m gonna get it back in a minute.’ So we kept that in the video. He stopped singing at times and just talked to people, he kissed people. What you’ll see is that it’s like a tsunami of joyfulness. It’s sort of the opposite of the tough-guy street-rapper cliché. Everyone is having such a good time and none of it is feigned. There’s not a single fake moment in it. It’s just a document of people having a really good time, Jay included.”
Romanek’s involvement with Jay-Z began in 2004 when the two worked together on Jay’s “99 Problems” music video. Their work on Samsung ads leading into Magna Carta…Holy Grail was followed by the filming of Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film. Photos of the filming of Picasso Baby can be seen below, via Vogue, starting with an image that also features Marina Abramovic.