Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)


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Don Johnson's Heartbeat

I know what you’re thinking: Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat”? Are you for real? (Actually, what you’re probably thinking is Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat”? What the fuck? But I took the liberty of cleaning up your thoughts for you.)

Well, ever since I started this new Agonizer section where I can post short articles, I’ve been jonesing to do an in-depth review of a short piece of film. Like, say, a music video. And what music video could possibly be worse than Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat”?

Yes, I know the answer before you even can think of emailing me: R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet”. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be a good candidate for the Agonizer, because not only is the video completely insane, but the damn thing is over thirty minutes long. Add to that the behind the scenes doc, the commentary track (which is almost as hilarious as the video itself), the bootleg footage of R. Kelly spastically performing part of the song at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards, and the VH1 special that included interviews with the cast members—while they stayed in character—and it becomes obvious that “Trapped in the Closet” is worthy of no less than a full, extended recap. Presuming, of course, that I can tolerate one hour of the same two chords played over and over. (I know that I got through Night of Horror, but at least that was three chords played over and over for an hour.)

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So, for the purposes of the Agonizer, that leaves Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat” as the undisputed epitome of awful music videos. Famous for being completely incomprehensible, and an overproduced, self-indulgent mess, this video’s entire existence can be blamed on the fact that Miami Vice was a huge hit at the time, and a major pop cultural touchstone for the ’80s.

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

Lukewarm News Day

Don Johnson was the breakout star of Miami Vice, becoming a household name for his constant day-old stubble, his blazers worn over pastel T-shirts, and his complete avoidance of socks. (Johnson’s success didn’t happen overnight, of course. His career began with The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart way back in 1969. But probably his first notable role had him communicating telepathically with a dog in the 1975 cult post-apocalyptic film A Boy and His Dog.)

The impact of Miami Vice was so far-reaching, that when Don and co-star Philip Michael Thomas showed up on the Today show wearing blazers over T-shirts, and penny loafers with no socks, hardly anybody batted an eye. This is very nearly the equivalent of Patrick Stewart going on Live with Regis and Kelly in his Starfleet uniform, so that should give you some idea of how pervasive the Miami Vice style was in its heyday.

So, in the midst of all this mania, someone got the bright idea to cash in on Don Johnson’s fame in a new arena. Despite his less than stellar voice, and his inability to write songs, Don signed a recording contract with Epic Records.

In 1986, he released his debut LP Heartbeat, a collection of adult contemporary pop songs with mild (very mild) rock leanings. Someone was able to coerce actual musicians into appearing on the album, including Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, and Barbra Streisand [?]. And thus, Don Johnson followed in the footsteps of numerous non-musically inclined actors who tried to make it as singers, among them Eddie Murphy, Alyssa Milano, Patrick Swayze, Bruce Willis, and even Philip Michael Thomas, whose album came out a couple of years after Don’s.

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

Wow. That must have been quite the meeting of the minds.

But unlike those other actor-turned-singers, Heartbeat was a modest success, and Don even scored a Top Five hit with the title track.

I was going to include a full MP3 of “Heartbeat”, but I didn’t want Epic Records, or whoever owns the rights to the song these days, to come down on my ass. But just to jog your memory, and to make sure we’re all on the same page here, here’s a (presumed) “fair use” 30-second clip of the song. Remember it now? Yeah, I’m sorry for that.

At the time, Miami Vice was a hit largely because of its inclusion of pop music, and its MTV-inspired cinematic techniques. So it’s no surprise that Don’s video for “Heartbeat”, which completely abused those techniques well beyond reason, would get heavy rotation on MTV.

Of course, a network like MTV, priding itself on hipness, would never admit that it once gave that much airtime to Don Johnson’s music. So in 1999, “Heartbeat” cropped up again on MTV, but this time it was to mark the occasion of it being officially retired on the MTV special 25 Lame.

For those who didn’t catch one of 25 Lame‘s numerous airings back in ’99, it was a roundtable where comedians Janeane Garofalo, Chris Kattan, Dennis Leary, and Jon Stewart all sat around and watched the 25 lamest videos in MTV’s library. They mocked them heartily, all under the pretense that MTV was showing these videos for the last time, ever.

25 Lame was sort of a precursor to VH1’s entire schedule these days, what with their talking heads incessantly making fun of TV shows/commercials/music videos/whatever. But 25 Lame was different, in that it was mostly unscripted and unrehearsed. Which viewers quickly learned during one particularly ugly segment.

One of the retired lame music videos was for Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”, and so the producers asked Rob “Vanilla Ice” Van Winkle to sit in, and pay his final respects.

These days, we know from Surreal Life and various other VH1 specials that there was a time, not so long ago, when Rob Van Winkle was a bit less than mentally stable. Understandably, he was angry at the way people took advantage of him once “Ice Ice Baby” became a monster hit, and—when it was all over—the way people turned him into a walking joke and left him to rot in obscurity.

See, we know all about this. Here in 2006. At the time, the producers of 25 Lame didn’t. So once the showing of “Ice Ice Baby” was over, they asked Rob to do the honors of officially retiring the video. They handed him a big bulky video tape, supposedly the last remaining copy of “Ice Ice Baby”, and also, much to everyone’s later regret, a baseball bat.

With the gift of hindsight, you can probably guess what happened next, but at the time, it was an astonishing thing to watch: Rob swung wildly at the tape, missing Chris Kattan’s head by mere inches. Then he laid waste to a coffee table, sending popcorn flying. Then he attacked various other set decorations, including a mannequin dressed up as Debbie Gibson. He very nearly destroyed a VCR, until Jeanne Garofalo pleaded with him to stop.

He was quickly asked to leave the set; The show continued on, with Garofalo feverishly chain-smoking for the rest of the commentary.

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

Suitable for hanging (in more ways than one).

So by the time they viewed the #1 most lame video in MTV history, which, of course, was Don Johnson’s “Heartbeat”, the comedians were mostly sitting in stunned silence. Was this post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the Vanilla Ice incident? Or were they just completely stupefied and confounded by what they were watching? I vote the latter.

The big problem with “Heartbeat” is that it originally aired as part of an hour-long HBO special. Somehow, Epic Records was conned into pouring a significant amount of money into a mini-movie, that would contain all the videos from Heartbeat, along with a nonsensical storyline supposedly “linking” them. I don’t think this needs to be said, but: Tommy, it was not.

Heartbeat the movie was indeed lavishly expensive, and the video for the title track was the big finale set piece. It drew together all the various themes and threads from the previous hour and brought them together into one big, explosive ending.

Unfortunately, when “Heartbeat” became the radio hit, they pulled this clip out of context to show on MTV. Thus, the video lost whatever tenuous plot it may have had. All that’s left of “Heartbeat” is an incoherent mess of random images.

Now, I’ve seen the full, hour-long video. When watched in context, “Heartbeat” does, in fact, make a tiny bit more sense. But thankfully, I’ve already forgotten most of what I saw on the rest of the special. And so, I’m free to view this music video the way most of you will view it, the way people saw it on MTV way back when, which is completely and bewilderingly out of context.

One last note about who wrote this song. The first person responsible is Eric Kaz, a former member of ’70s folk group American Flyer, who would later help Michael Bolton co-write “That’s What Love Is All About”. The other credited writer is Wendy Waldman, who had a promising career as a singer-songwriter in the ’70s, but eventually won a Grammy for co-writing the Vanessa Williams hit “Save the Best for Last”. (Yes, she’s responsible for lines like “Sometimes the snow comes down in June”. I wonder how that song goes over in the southern hemisphere?)

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

Army green instead of pastels. It’s Don’s paramilitary look.

The video for “Heartbeat” begins with thundering drums and smoky guitar riffs. Don Johnson, in sunglasses and white blazer and army green T-shirt, walks the crowded streets of, oh, let’s say, Los Angeles. A WALK / DON’T WALK sign randomly flashes.

Cut to a pair of hands playing—gack—a lime green guitar. Which decade are we in, again? Oh, yeah, right. There are random shots of Don Johnson on the street, standing around some kind of protest, which is full of guys wearing skeleton costumes and carrying signs with slogans. There’s only one sign I can read, and just barely, and it says, “STOP NUCLEAR”, and the rest is cut off. Or maybe that’s all it says. STOP NUCLEAR!

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

Also in berry and tangerine flavors!

And here, Don Johnson appears to be pointing a light meter [?] at the protesters. This is explained a moment later when we see Don filming the same protest with a large, TV newsman camera. Okay, so I guess Don is a cameraman, but the way they explained that was confusing as hell. Why not just start with him holding the camera? And why is Don filming an anti-nuclear protest in the first place? This smattering of extras wandering around in a circle can’t possibly be newsworthy, can it? Even for a typically fluffy, content-free local L.A. newscast?

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

So, which f-stop is good for filming plastic skulls?

Now we’re descending upon a white tile floor. This, as we’ll soon learn, is Don’s “performance space”, as he takes us through his musical quest for a heartbeat. The remainder of this video will be pretty evenly split between clips featuring “Don in the real world” and “Don in the performance space”. And at the moment, we’re like kindly spirits staring down on Don and his guitar player (and his lime green guitar) from above. Random signs of the city life are superimposed over them, including that flashing DON’T WALK sign.

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

And while you’re at it, don’t sing, either.

There’s a quick clip of hands playing the drums (and wearing black, fingerless gloves, of course), and then Don, microphone in hand, looks over his shoulder at us. Well, not at us, exactly. Unless we happen to be lying on the floor, somewhere near his left shoe. He’s got his back to the camera, and he stares down to the left, and he sings, “I don’t care what you say! You give it away!” Well, damn. How did Don know that about me?

He turns to the right shoe for the next line, with his back still to the camera, and still looking down at the ground. He sings, “Your money don’t mean much to me!” Yeah, otherwise you would have made an album that I actually wanted to buy. So, well-played, Don.

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

“Um, do you mind? I’m trying to sing to my drummer here.”

“But I’ve been out on my own,” he declares, still with his back facing us, as he rears back and sings to the heavens. Gosh, there was certainly one music video director trying to be an artiste on that day. I have to say that of all the phony, staged, contrived poses seen in music videos back in ’80s, “singing with your back to the camera” would have to be about the phoniest, stagiest, and contrived-iest.

Don says he’s gonna “go it alone now, ’cause that’s the way it’s got to be!” And as he sings this line, there’s crossfade upon crossfade, and we’re staring at about four images of Don at the same time. In one of these images, Don’s in the editing room, carefully examining a strip of film. It’s Don Johnson in The Zapruder Story! Or, perhaps, he’s the one responsible for hacking up that Dharma Initiative training film.

More Krazy Krossfade action shows Don staring pensively out a window, and then we cut to a jeep on fire [?] in a remote jungle village somewhere [?]. Hey, makes perfect sense to me. I mean, what would music videos in the ’80s be without flaming jeeps in jungle villages? I would dare say Duran Duran’s entire video catalog wouldn’t even exist.

Guys in fatigues run past, carrying rifles. Now, as far as we know, this could be anywhere in the world, from Vietnam to Sudan; the video will never really give us a clue. But I’m guessing we’re somewhere in South America. Because this is the ’80s, and back then, South America was synonymous with “troubled hotspot”.

And then… what the hell? Is that Giancarlo Esposito? In fact, it is Giancarlo Esposito, who guest starred on several episodes of Miami Vice. He’s been in over a hundred films and TV shows, but I doubt I could pinpoint any one role that he’s particularly famous for.

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

Beware of Giancarlo and the Espositos!

We watch as Giancarlo whips a doorag over his head with one sharp motion. He begins tying it on, while a young white guy with a very strange hat watches. The hat looks like one of those giant old-style biker hats that were all the rage around the time Brando made The Wild One. Now, I couldn’t tell you whether Mr. Esposito is currently supposed to be in “South America” or not, but it does appear that two people in Mylar suits [?] are standing behind him, looking on.

And now we’re with Don again, and he’s hoisting a camera on his shoulder and racing through the generic South American village. Stuff blows up around him and helicopters cruise overhead, while guys in fatigues run past. Oh, and every few frames, the picture turns negative, but that should only follow, right?

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

Hey, these were state of the art special effects. In 1969.

So, while we watch what appears to be the anti-Don Johnson in an antimatter universe, we learn from the lyrics that “everybody” has been telling Don how he “can beat the odds for now”. “Everybody” being Don’s producer, manager, and agent. In the footage, Negative Don Johnson (he must be the one who can actually sing) dives behind a bunker just in time to avoid a negative explosion nearby.

Then it’s back to Don in the Performance Space, with the white-tiled floors. We see more of this bizarre set, where the back wall is made up of randomly placed white crossbeams, with each tile outlined in black. I’m probably not describing it very well, so just picture this: A large, life-size, three-dimensional crossword puzzle.

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

“3 Across: A nine-letter word starting with H, meaning ‘hopelessly confusing’? Who can figure out this stuff?”

As Don stalks around the giant crossword puzzle, he says he’s been “standing by the fire”, but he “just can’t feel the heat”. No, he “can’t feel the heeeeeeeat”. Maybe he needs to pay his gas bill. Hilariously, on this line, he holds out his hand, almost like he’s desperately trying to feel the heat. His motivation is that he needs to feel the heat.

This launches him into the chorus at last: “I’m looking for a heeaaaartbeat!” Even if you’ve never seen this video, you can probably guess how he initially delivers this line: Crouching down on one knee, fist clenched, in front of his drummer’s Tama drum kit. Meanwhile, his stereotypically mid-’80s backing band—all hair spray and (I’m guessing) leather—gyrate behind him.

Don Johnson's "Heartbeat" (part 1 of 2)

“I’m lookin’ for my… contact lens! I dropped it around here! Contact lens!”

Oh, and there’s a guitar perched on its stand [?] right in front of him. What the hell? In case Don is spontaneously seized by the urge to wail on it? Or maybe this guitar is going up for auction later. Along with the world’s largest crossword puzzle.

And here, Don’s outfit makes itself known. And… I don’t think I can even fully do it justice, but here goes: It’s all black, and it seems to be made up of a silk shirt and silk pants, and he’s got a black sash tied around his waist. It’s almost like some kind of weird martial arts jumpsuit, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Steven Seagal wearing. (Actually, after the gold muumuu, would you be surprised to see Steven Seagal in anything?) This outfit might have possibly doubled as pajamas, for when Don crawled into bed with Melanie after the shoot.

Multi-Part Article: Don Johnson's "Heartbeat"

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