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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12. "Justify My Love" (1990)

"When I did my 'Vogue' video'...I'm wearing a see-through dress and you can clearly see my breasts," Madonna told ABC's Nightline in 1990. "Now, [MTV] told me that they wanted me to take that out, but I said I wouldn't and they played it anyways. So I thought that once again I was going to be able to bend the rules a little bit." She was definitely wrong. The Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed clip for "Justify My Love" toyed with S&M, group sex and even some bare-breasts in an outfit reminiscent of Nazisploitation flick The Night Porter — but all filmed with a gorgeous, gauzy, dreamlike black-and-white Euro art-house vibe. "We respect her work as an artist and think she makes great videos," said MTV executives in a statement about the clip. "This one is not for us." The resourceful Madonna spun the controversy into the best-selling "video single" of all time. "You know, she's a very clever woman and she said nothing could stop it," says Mondino. "I remember, at Tower Records, there were piles of the video being on sale. So, she even made money off with it — so it's brilliant."

Jean-Baptiste Mondino, director: That video was very special. That song was very, very progressive, very unusual. It was Lenny Kravitz who wrote it, he was singing, but he was almost talking, and he had that strange beat. You couldn't really dance to it. It was all whispering — it sounds more like an experience. Nobody would pick up a song like this and try to make a hit out of it, don't you think so? So it forces me—or it seduced me, in that sense—to be as courageous as the song is.

In fact what I did with that video, I did an experience. The whole idea was to lock ourselves into this hotel for three days and two nights. Without out any rules. We rent the whole top floor of that hotel. You know usually when you do a shoot, you have timing… So we didn't have none of this. This is the rooms that we were sleeping in, living in. Maybe 15 rooms. One room was [the] makeup room, one was the wardrobe. Nobody was allowed to go out. There were tables with food in it, and when people were starving, they were eating. There were no rules — we had alcohol, we could smoke. 

I didn't have any concept at all, except the idea that she was arriving in the hotel tired, broken; and when she was going to leave the hotel, she was full of life, she was full of energy, full of everything. It was a very strange experience; very interesting. For instance, the cinematographer, we said, "We're not going to use anything like we use usually when we shoot….It was very strange because we didn't know when we were doing the film or when it was real, you know? The whole thing was mixed up. The last morning when I woke up and had to go back home, I felt very strange on the sidewalk. I said, "Do I have to go home or not?" It was the first time in my life I didn't know what to do, because I had like a dream — it was not a shoot. You could tell that some of the scenes, they smell real. There's something about it. Things were just happening.

When are you free like this, you don't become savage — you become even more nicer. If you go to a sex club, where people are making sex, you would see less tension than you would get if you go in a normal club. There's less frustration. So it was very quiet, it was very gentle, we were all very sweet to each other....It was not like, "Madonna has a certain treatment" where you couldn't talk to her. She was very comfortable with people around. We were talking, chatting, laughing, playing the music, shooting and when people were tired they went to bed. That's all….Maybe there is more behind-the-scenes story to tell when you see a normal video [laughs].

Honestly, I was surprised that that video was that shocking because we don't see anything: We don't see any pubes hair, we don't see any tits almost, they don't do anything wrong. We're all here on Earth because our parents they make sex, right? So, I don't get it. I mean, porn for me is when people are killing each other. You go to see a movie, we see blood everywhere, but we never see a dick or a pair of tits. We are here because people fuck, so, we should be proud of the fucking thing.

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