Recently, The Recording Academy announced some rule changes to their ever-evolving and ever-controversial Grammy Awards. While a number of changes were revealed, there was one particular amendment that tied in perfectly to the revival of Grammy Rewind. Via the official Grammy website, The Academy revealed that for all future Grammy ceremonies, the criteria for Best Music Film is now the following:
“Music-related documentaries must contain a minimum of 51 percent of performance-based material or individual music videos that together create a visual album (if videos are packaged and entered together as one cohesive film). While dramatic feature films and biopics are not eligible, films with fictional elements are eligible.”
Although the Best Music Film category isn’t as scrutinized as the General Field or the more popular genre categories, this is still an exciting and extremely important change. In the past five years, Best Music Film has been home to two of the most controversial Grammy upsets outside of the Big Four categories. Naturally, all things circle back to Queen Bey. In 2017, to the shock of most Grammy watchers, Beyoncé’s seminal Lemonade lost the Best Music Film category. Again, in 2021, her similarly seismic Black Is King also faced defeat. In both cases, Beyoncé and her collaborators lost to music documentaries, a trend that exposes how narrow the definition of the Best Music Film category was, and how important it is that the eligibility for this category has since been expanded.
Like most Grammy categories, Best Music Film went through multiple iterations before it was solidified as the category that we now know today. In 1982, the Academy introduced the Video of the Year category to keep in line with the budding music video market. The category remained for the following year before it was separated into two categories in 1984. The first of these two categories, Best Short Form Music Video, aims to recognize standard length music videos. The category is now simply known as Best Music Video and notable winners include Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson’s “Scream” (1996), Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (2011), and Lil Nas X & Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” (2020). The category that we now know as Best Music Film, however, was initially called Best Video Album. Fittingly, Duran Duran’s eponymous video compilation album was the inaugural winner of this category under this criteria. From 1986 to 2012, the category was renamed to some variation of Best Long Form Music Video. In that time period only three winners in this category were not a concert film or documentary:Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1990); MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em: The Movie (1991); Annie Lennox’s Diva (1993). Since the category’s renaming to Best Music Film in 2013, only concert films and documentaries have triumphed.
Of the three aforementioned winners, the films from Janet Jackson and MC Hammer are the closest kin to the visual albums of today. The two films incorporate multiple music videos from their respective albums as well as screenplays to connect overarching themes. Diva is more aptlydescribed as a music video anthology album. After the back-to-back triumphs of Jackson and Hammer, the Academy quickly shifted to exclusively rewarding documentaries and concert films with the occasional video anthology album thrown in. Coincidentally, no Black musician won in this category until Beyoncé in 2019 with Homecoming — a concert film/documentary hybrid. It should be noted, however, that Rashida Jones won the year before as a producer on Quincy, a documentary about her legendary father Quincy Jones. More innovative approaches to the music film format, like Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, garnered nominations which they unsurprisingly lost. Black artists have been instrumental in pioneering the concept of visual albums, and with this recent Grammy rule change, it looks like they (and the artists they’ve influenced) will finally get their due.
In 2017, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a film that incorporates a music video for each of the album’s songs and is connected through poetry, lost to the third Beatles film to triumph in this category: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years. In 2021, Black Is King, her interpretation of The Lion King as told through music videos, poetry, and new fictional elements, lost to a documentary about Linda Ronstadt titled The Sound of My Voice. Lemonade, which earned 4 Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award, seemed like a shoo-in to win, but when looked at in the context of past winners, it sticks out like a sore thumb. The same is true for Black Is King. In both years, Beyoncé lost Best Music Film, but won Best Music Video for standalone music videos from each film/album: “Formation” from Lemonade and “Brown Skin Girl” from Black Is King. In this way, it truly is bittersweet that Beyoncé’s first win in this category came courtesy of a more traditional entry like Homecoming.
Since the release of Beyoncé’s eponymous 2013 album, the “visual album” format has exploded in popularity. There are a slew of recent projects ignored by the Academy that lean closer to “visual albums” than video anthologies, concert films, or documentaries. Some of these projects include Florence + the Machine’s The Odyssey (2016), Justin Bieber’s Purpose: The Movement(2015), Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer (2018), Kanye West’s “Runaway” (2010), Solange’s When I Get Home (2019), Childish Gambino’s Guava Island (2019), and Petite Noir’s La Maison Noir (2018). Of course, some of these projects may not have met all the necessary requirements for a nomination, but the point still stands. The truth of the matter is, the convergence of film and music videos happened too quickly for the Recording Academy, and, as usual, they needed to play catchup. The previous criteria didn’t explicitly ban visual albums or more conceptual approaches to the format, but the definition did prioritize concert films and music documentaries. The ineligibility of dramatic feature films and biopics has remained constant, but projects that did not fit into any of the aforementioned molds were always at a disadvantage. A visual album that incorporates fictional elements like Black Is King or an “emotion picture” like Dirty Computer would have always lost to more digestible and traditional concert films under the old criteria. As an institution that prides themselves on being the premier awards ceremony for the music industry, the Academy is consistently behind the curve. Visual albums have been around for decades, it should not have taken two massively controversial snubs to officially recognize the validity of visual albums in this field.
Looking back on the 2017 and 2021 races, Beyoncé should have added two more awards to her ever-expanding Grammy collections. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city should have been nominated in 2017, and his God Is Gangsta short film should have been nominated the following year. Furthermore, Solange’s When I Get Home should have scored a nomination in 2020, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer should have won in 2019, and Kanye West’s “Runaway” should have won in 2012. Winners and nominees like these are much more representative of the evolution of the music film format.
Photo courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment