Guns N' Roses took the art of the promotional video a step further than most bands when they decided to make a trilogy of short films that would eventually form one overall, largely autobiographical narrative. We trace the storyline of each individual clip and look at how they were made.
Guns N' Roses made their debut in the world of feature films, using full movie sets for the first time, with their Don't Cry video. The intention was that it would comprise the initial part in a trilogy of clips, each self-contained, but eventually forming a larger, overall story. AM explains, "if it works, it's like the first step towards bigger types of projects, not necessarily meaning just for videos, but if we want to film something feature length, this is our first try at it."
PART 1: DON'T CRY
The Don't Cry video was written by Axl and friend Josh Richman, and is full of metaphors for the rock 'n' roll experience. It tells the story of a rock star, his relationship with his girlfriend and his personal battle with the demons within him. It is intercut with footage of the Gunners performing the song live on top of a skyscraper, representing a band at the height of its success.
The opening shot zooms into a newborn baby's blue eye, then cuts to a frozen figure, a gun in one hand and a bottle in the other, staggering through a blizzard, a man trapped in time, perhaps in some past life. We move on to the present day and see the main character, played by Axl, in his bedroom holding a gun, possibly contemplating suicide or murder. The character's girlfriend (played by Axl's then real-life fiancé, Stephanie Seymour) bursts in and they fight for the gun, the girlfriend eventually taking it from him. The scene is
a dramatisation of something that actually happened to Axl. "It's really hard to put myself in that place and to think about it, because I was really upset that day," remembers Axl.
Afterwards the couple are seen underwater in a pool; the girl appears peaceful, but he is thrashing about on the surface, apparently a man being drowned by the relationship.
Meanwhile, the band blast through their performance on the rooftop, circled by helicopters with searchlights. They are accompanied onstage by another vocalist, Shannon Hoon, frontman with the fresh young band, Blind Melon. Axl first heard Shannon at an "open mic" night at the Record Plant in Hollywood, singing a cover of Don't Cry, and once he found out that Shannon was also a native of Indiana, he asked him if he would join him onstage for the song at a Guns' gig. Before Shannon realised what was going on, he was performing onstage with the Guns N' Roses in front of 14,000 people at the L.A. Forum! "I was so scared, my knees were really shaking," admitted Shannon. "It really shook me up, but I learned a lot that night."
BITCHIN' WITH SLASH
The next scene of the video sets the Axl character in a club, sitting at a piano with another girl (Danette Valco), His girlfriend walks in and, resenting the attention the other girl is getting, attacks her, beating her to the floor while the rest of G N' R look on with a mixture of delight and horror.
However, the other band members have problems of their own to deal with. Duff approaches a beauty (Claire Stansfield) on a stairway, only to have her smash a bottle over his favourite bass.
Meanwhile, Slash is racing in a classic white Mustang, with a cute girl (Brighdie) in the passenger seat, severely bitching him and throwing kicks and punches his way. Slash sensed that Brighdie was relishing the role: "It's in her eyes, and she's just got this attitude, and I was like, 'She IS a bitch!"' So he takes the obvious course of action - and drives her over a cliff! Then we see him at the barrier where the car left the road, playing a few wellchosen notes over the burning wreck below, before he throws his guitar over the cliff as well!
Back to the main character, and we next see Axl, lying on a bed in a clinic, presumably an asylum. In walks a second Axl, who points at the one on the bed. Then a third Axl appears, gestures to the other two and proceeds to walk through a glass wall. The scene is created using a technique called motion control, pioneered in the Star Wars films. The camera is controlled by computers and the scene is shot three times. The frames are then split and overlaid to show Axl appearing three times in one shot. Presumably, the multiple images represent the split personalities of the character. Afterwards, we see AM sitting with a female analyst, his hands shaking as if he is holding back some kind of nervous energy.
The last scene is in a cemetery. We see a funeral cortege, out of which steps Axl, guarded by heavily armed men. Using a stick, he walks to a grave and the tombstone says "AA Rose - 1962-1990". (Axl: "The reason it says 1990 is because 1990 was a very suicidal year.") The camera then cuts to below the grave and we see a demon spirit, a green man, who reaches towards the light coming from the underside of the tombstone. with shaking hands, at first hesitantly and then with growing confidence. Talking about this allegorical image, Axl explained, "There's a lot of things on the record, or the past records, that people call my demon voice, so I wanted to put that into an actual character. I feel like it's a part of me. It's also to do with reincarnation, whether anyone believes in that or not. It's to symbolise that if you didn't get it right, you get to try again, or you might HAVE to try again."
Finally, we return to the new born baby emerging from water. We zoom into its eye again. This time, it is green.
The video for November Rain is based on a short story, Without You, by the band's official biographer, Del James. James has been a friend of the band's since 1985, when he first moved to California and found himself sharing an apartment with Wes Arkeen, a song writing collaborator with the Gunners in their early days. Del recalls: "It was frightening to be around them. There was so much insanity, you know, that was brought upon by their love and their insecurities, that it inspired me to write the short story called Without You. This was before Appetite For Destruction was released." The story is inspired by Axl's relationship with his former wife, Erin Everly. It is the tale of a rock star who writes a song called Without You about the woman he loves, but can't really have. "it puts him on top of the rock 'n' roll world, but it also is his damnation," explains Del. Despite all the trappings of success, the main character in the video cannot achieve the basic things in life, like loving, stable relationships.
The clip begins with Axl in bed in a dark room, taking some sleeping pills and rolling over to get some rest. We then enter a concert hall, the band onstage, backed by a large orchestra and conductor, while AxI sits at a piano, playing the intro to the song. Images of Axl at the piano in a small church, together with a bleeding crucifix, are intercut with the footage.
As the vocal starts, we see a beautiful bride (Stephanie Seymour), walking up the church aisle towards Axl, who is waiting at the altar. They join each other for the wedding ceremony. The part of the priest was played by a friend of Axl's, Jean Antonio, who had in fact performed services eight years before in the very church where the video was filmed. "He just added such a sense of warmth and the right sense of spirit that we wanted to have present there," says Axl.
Next, we see the band, hanging out at the Rainbow, a famous club on Sunset Strip, drinking and having a good time. We cut back to the church and see Slash fumbling through his pockets, looking for the wedding ring. Duff gives him a nod and produces the ring on his little finger. Slash passes the ring to the priest and the ceremony continues. The couple put their rings on and then kiss. Slash strolls down the aisle and out of the church, to perform his solo standing in the middle of a huge prairie, while a helicopter swoops around him and the
tiny church behind.
We return to the wedding. This time we're outside the church; the married couple are leaving and the guests are throwing confetti and rice at them. As they get into a white Bentley convertible, the bride looks away, as if she is unsure about what she has just done. We then move on to the wedding party, where the couple cut the cake as children look on, everyone toasts the bride and groom and then they all begin to dance.
Suddenly, it starts to pour with rain, the wedding guests panic and scatter, tables are knocked flying and someone even dives headlong into the wedding cake The camera holds on a bottle of red wine, knocked on its side and spilling its contents like blood all over the table.
Back to the concert hall and Slash climbs onto the piano to deliver the outro solo. Axl wanted to have the orchestra in the video as a way of finding out what it was like to work with one and what it sounded like having them play something he had written. Although the sound on the finished video Is from the record, the band and the orchestra played live while shooting was going on, adding an edge to their performance.
We cut to the church again; this time, the bride is lying in a coffin and Axl sits listening to the funeral service. While filming this scene, Stephanie actually fell asleep in the coffin and when she woke up, the shoot had finished! Slash, Duff and rest of the band also had fun, bursting into uncontrollable giggles while the funeral service was being performed for the cameras. The coffin is carried out and we go to the cemetery for the burial. Again, the rain starts to pour, and the mourners leave.
Now we see Axl in bed again, waking from a terrible nightmare - only it's not a nightmare. He is left in the pouring rain, crouched over the open grave, as the bride's wedding bouquet lands on top of the coffin.
The final part of the video trilogy, Estranged, was completed at the end of last year and made to accompany the release of the last single from the Use Your Illusion albums. The clip is a nine minute epic, depicting the conclusion of the compelling tale of a rock star's battle with his inner demons and his search for love.
The song Estranged and the Del James story Without You are deeply interwoven. Axl had called Del at 4 am one morning and asked him to come over. When he got there, Del listened while Axl poured out his feelings about his unhappy relationship to his then girlfriend, Erin Every. Del wrote Without You, based on Axl's experiences, telling the tale of a singer in a huge rock band, who writes a song about the girl he loves, but cannot have. Later, Axl called Del and told him he had written the theme song to the story. "I'd never planned on that, never even thought of that," said Axl, "just it ended up fitting together, and I was on a different track, but the two came together." That song turned out to be Estranged.
For the video, Guns N' Roses played live on Sunset Strip. The whole of West Hollywood was gridlocked while filming took place, as the Strip was sealed by police for the duration of the performance. The Guns prefer to play for real during filming, to keep the edge and avoid the boredom of having to mime.
The video also contains a sequence in which Axl throws himself off an oil tanker and into the ocean, inspiring some amazing underwater footage, which includes him swimming with a group of dolphins, His encounter with them has inspired him to sponsor an environmental group dedicated to protecting marine wildlife and to keeping the oceans clean.
MASTER OF CHAOS!
Andy Morahan directed these videos for Guns N' Roses, revelling in the chaos involved in everything they do. "Andy puts up with more shit and handles the disorganisation of Guns N' Roses, all the time changes and scheduling changes, and stuff, so easily. He's just so into the project," says Axl. Morahan previously made videos for George Michael and is at present shooting the follow-up to the hugely successful Highlander films, a tough assignment, as the originals were created by the visual genius, Russell Mulcahy.