25 Years Ago: R.E.M.’s ‘Man on the Moon’ Video Finds Deliverance in a Truck Stop
For years, Michael Stipe was reticent to lip sync in R.E.M.’s videos. In the ’80s, the frontman’s discomfort with the usual music video practice forced them to create clips that were often atypical, featuring bucolic footage, giant typography or mysterious imagery.
But after Stipe broke his no-syncing rule with Tarsem Singh’s masterful “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M.’s ’90s videos entered a new realm of conceptual possibilities. It wasn’t just that Stipe would do the standard syncing stuff (though he did), but the singer, the band and their director-collaborators would all play with the practice. One moment Stipe was mouthing the words, and another he was silently glaring (“The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”) or standing with his head just out of frame (“What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”) or being supplanted by an Asian cover band (“Crush With Eyeliner”) who were only too thrilled to mime for the cameras.
When R.E.M. filmed the video for “Man on the Moon,” they would take yet another approach to lip-syncing. The clip, which largely featured Stipe walking through the California desert, was crafted from a conception by the frontman, but under direction from Peter Care. The British filmmaker had become known for his work with Cabaret Voltaire, Fine Young Cannibals and Tina Turner in the '80s, before he directed his first R.E.M. video in 1991’s “Radio Song.”
The band – especially Stipe, who cared the most about R.E.M.’s videos – enjoyed working with Care and called on him again to direct the video for “Drive.” The first single from 1992’s Automatic for the People would set the tone for this era of the band, emphasized by its iconic black-and-white crowd-surfing clip. A little more than a month after shooting that video, R.E.M. asked Care to team up in October and shoot footage for the second Automatic single, “Man on the Moon.”
Given R.E.M.’s resistance for convention, Care was surprised to learn that Stipe wanted to display a literal interpretation of some of the song’s lyrics on the screen. Many of the words that Stipe had written for the song had connections to childhood games (“Let’s play Twister, let’s play Risk”), historical figures (Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin) or the tune’s main subject, comedian Andy Kaufman.
“Throughout my career, I never took the lyrics of a song as inspiration for an idea for a music video,” Care told UDiscoverMusic. “I always thought it too banal to illustrate the lyrics, especially in a literal way. So when I met Michael and he talked about specific ideas (walking with a staff of wood, stepping over a snake, etc.), of course I knew right away that we should illustrate every line as literally as possible.”
Care filmed Stipe walking in the desert around Lancaster, Calif. (an hour-and-a-half outside Los Angeles), then juxtaposed images of checkers, chess, Newton’s apple, an evolution flipbook and even an astronaut walking on the moon – as if they were dreams or faded memories. Scenes of Kaufman wrestling or impersonating Elvis Presley were double-exposed with Stipe in a cowboy hat, moving with purpose across the dusty landscape.
In the video, after Stipe starts “goofing on Elvis” on a desert highway, he hitches a ride on a big rig, which just happens to be driven by R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry. The singer disembarks once the 18-wheeler reaches the Easy-Rest diner, which it turns out, wasn’t a real business but a movie set that had been built a couple of years prior.
The roadside establishment, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere, was a set created for the 1991 Dennis Hopper film Eye of the Storm. The crew thought the structure was too interesting to be dismantled, so it was left standing and nicknamed it “Club Ed,” in honor of the caretaker. The set has gone on to be re-purposed by Beverly Hills, 90210, The X-Files and Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, among other film projects.
But in the fall of ’92, the set was R.E.M.’s “truck stop, instead of St. Peter’s,” with guitarist Peter Buck inside tending bar and bassist Mike Mills shooting pool. Before Stipe enters the diner and orders a plate of fries from Buck, he mouths his last line (the “truck stop” one above). As the singer chows down, his lip-syncing powers are transferred to the assembled denizens of the bar and grill, who take turns singing “Man on the Moon”’s chorus as if the lyrics were lines of conversation. Placed in the mouths of a grizzled old cowboy, a flirtatious young girl and an earnest trucker, the song resonates in a new way.
This wasn’t merely a nod to a Kaufman-style ruse (although the comedian lip-syncing to the Mighty Mouse theme comes to mind), but an expression of something more delicate, intimate and human. Legendary rock writer Greil Marcus was knocked out by the scene.
“The tableau expands – begins to construct itself as a feeling, something shared, the way a song on a jukebox can change a room – and suddenly you realize you don’t want this to end,” he wrote in 1993. “You get to know the faces, the people. The warmth in the room is as physical as the sensation of a cold lifting.”
During a second recitation of the chorus (the final go-’round, because the video employs a gently edited version of “Man on the Moon”), Stipe, having worked his magic, departs for the desert highway, strutting alongside a trail of sparklers. But visions of the diner’s regulars linger. Even though they were actors (with the exception of Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe), these diner “regulars” helped bring about an emotional climax.
“We wanted them to look like Midwesterners, salt of the earth types… people with an innate ‘R.E.M.-ness’,” Care recalled. “A couple of days ahead of the shoot, we gave them cassettes with the choruses and made them promise to learn the words, encouraging them to sing the song, not just lip-sync. They all came through. With this little desert town bar filled with the sound of the repeated choruses, and as we filmed each person in turn, the atmosphere and sense of camaraderie grew to become quite palpable. For me, it was very emotional. A unique moment in my film-making career.”
The video hit the airwaves around the time that R.E.M. released “Man on the Moon” as their new single on Nov. 21, 1992. MTV embraced the clip, helping the song go to No. 30 in the U.S. (No. 18 in the U.K.). It’s no coincidence that R.E.M.’s other two big hits from Automatic for the People – “Drive” and “Everybody Hurts” – each were paired with iconic videos of their own.
Nearly a decade later, R.E.M. would once more work with a bunch of actors who would allow the band to put Stipe’s words in their mouths. Although the video for 2001’s “Imitation of Life,” directed by Garth Jennings, would feature a gonzo back-and-forth concept, the clip (like “Man on the Moon” before it) would conjure notions of shared humanity. A crowd of people – and even formerly lip-synch averse Michael Stipe – sang along to R.E.M.