“Holy shit… I didn’t know how to handle it.”
This was producer Rick Rubin’s commentary after seeing the Johnny Cash Hurt video for the first time. Trent Reznor, who wrote the song, said (midst a few tears) “I wasn’t prepared for what I saw – I knew it… was not my song anymore.” Michael Stipe commented: “The power of [Hurt] is something I can barely talk about – it really had a profound impact on me. A four minute video – that amount of emotion… deeply moving.”
If you’ve seen the video, you’ll recognize that these type of comments are a common reaction to the iconic Hurt video, often touted as the greatest music video of all time. How is it that a four minute music video can provide the same wondrous experience and/or emotional impact as a full length feature film?
For starters, this is Johnny Cash we are talking about. Though director Mark Romanek only has four minutes to work with, Cash’s story had a lifetime to develop—one that most of us are already connected to. Romanek capitalizes on this reality and peppers the video with vintage footage of Cash throughout the piece. In addition, this footage is juxtaposed with dramatic close-ups of Cash’s aged skin – enabling us to actually experience the passing of a lifetime (even in a 4-minute span). Line this with the incessant pounding of singular notes and Trent Reznor’s haunting lyrics, and the unexplainable happens.
As this video embodies an array of obvious factors that contribute to an awe-inspiring experience, there is something to be explored here about the origin of a piece of art – or as we are interested in here – the art of wonder. In Reznor’s commentary on the video, he remembers the day he wrote the song, referencing a very dark and personal moment in his life. It is clear from Reznor (and the lyrics themselves) that the words accompanying this powerful short film came from a deep and authentic space. But the real beauty of this piece is that the inspiration does not stop at Reznor. U2’s Bono put it this way:
“Trent Reznor was born to write that song, but Johnny cash was born to sing it – and Mark Romanek was born to film it.”
When the three artists involved are all creating out of an authentic space, a little wonder is bound to surface.
In fact, Romanek’s approach to Hurt might be the single most significant factor in our pursuit of unraveling the subject of the transcendent amidst art. Cash’s team (primarily Rick Rubin) apparently did not even have Hurt on the radar as a possible video. The creation of this video actually started with Romanek. In a documentary on his own work, Romanek explains that after hearing the track, he called Rubin with the following command: “I’m doing the video for that track” – as if it were a threat.
As Reznor did not set out to write some compelling timeless song, Romanek did not begin with a wonder-filled music video. Both are results of a commitment to an authentic creative process. Wonder cannot be manufactured. Wonder happens. And it certainly did here.
See it. Then, see it again.
Joan Carter Cash was not suppose to be in the video, but Romanek captured her spontaneously during the filming of the video. She died a few months later. Hurt is the last music video Johnny Cash filmed before his death later the same year (2003).