Express Yourself: The Making of Madonna's 20 Greatest Music Videos

The directors who worked alongside the MTV-era maverick tell their stories

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16. "Burning Up" (1983)

Steve Barron was one of the most in-demand music video directors of 1983 after helming Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" and Toto's "Africa." Madonna had one single — "Everybody"— to her name, which didn't chart on the Hot 100, though Warner Bros. knew a superstar when they had one. Barron was going to stay on vacation rather than meet the virtually unknown singer about her latest song, "Burning Up," a track he says "didn't speak to me." "If something came along that was poppier, I wouldn't even know what to do," says the director, who recently released, Egg n Chips & Billie Jean, his memoirs of the video age. "It would just be all about pop, and I wasn't about pop." Nonetheless, his video stands as a great testament to the anything-goes era of early MTV, juxtaposing disparate images of illuminated busts and cars driving on water with Madonna writhing in the middle of the road. At the end, of course, she takes control of the wheel. 

Steve Barron, director: I got a call from [producer] Simon [Fields] in Los Angeles and he said there's a video to do for a reasonable budget and that this is going to be really big. I was on vacation and didn't really want to get my head into something at that time. But [Madonna] was really keen on the "Billie Jean" video and I eventually agreed, begrudgingly. I had gotten the track and said I wouldn't know what to do for that, because it didn't have the atmosphere that I always look for in a song.

The piece of paper was addressed as the "penthouse suite" so I thought she was rich or had a rich family. When the doors opened [on the top floor of her building], it was crumbled staircases and a paper plate that said "Penthouse Suite" with an arrow pointing up the stairs stuck with tape to a cracked wall. Music was pumping out of that top floor; it was so loud, I yelled out, "Hello!" and yelled again a couple of more times. I pushed a door down the hallway open and there she was, naked except for a pair of knickers, on the floor doing exercises in front of this massive speaker and amp. That was the only furniture in the place really. She seemed very confident with herself.

We shot for two nights in Los Angeles. I basically ended up doing a bunch of ideas from my ideas book as opposed to from the song mainly because I didn't connect with it too much. It was a bit of a mish-mash of a video. She trusted me, definitely. She handed it over, which she probably shouldn't have done in retrospect. But she obviously wanted to be very much in control of how she looked and how she was dressed. Her dress was the most important thing that she wanted to talk about.

We were doing shots of her at night lying in a boat as she was singing. We had a seven-ton crane that stretched out over the lake with a camera on it, me and a grip. I was arranging to go right out over the top of her so that we could look straight down on her. The boat was anchored into position and the base of the crane was sitting sloped on this little boat ramp with massive wheels. I was asking, "Let's get out right over the eyes" and we were about 15 feet above Madonna. I looked back at the ramp and the two back wheels had lifted off by about a foot and a half. No one had noticed. I looked back at it and yelled at the crane operator to stop. The thing teetered; just dropped backwards-and-forth, and he quickly jumped on the switch and started pushing us back, but he didn't move very fast because you felt if you made any kind of movement, it would have taken that crane down. We were right on the midpoint balance and we would've come down on her. She would have been 100 percent dead. It was so close, and I never told her that night because I didn't want to scare her. We would've been in a hospital for six months and she would've been dead. Definitely.

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