2020 Music Essays

The Cinematic Stylings of The Weeknd

The Weeknd in After Hours Short Film

“Life’s such a movie / Filmed independent / Us against the city” — The Weeknd, “Loft Music” (2011)

Abel Tesfaye — aka The Weeknd — is a man of taste, whose choice in movies have shaped the brooding shadows of his music. He received a 2016 Best Original Song Oscar nomination for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack (“Earned It”) and made a cameo as himself in the Safdie brothers’ 2019 hit Uncut Gems.

When the self-proclaimed King of the Fall released a short film promoting his new album After Hours — which shares the same name as the 1985 Martin Scorsese film about an office drone’s misadventures in New York City — what made the video so immediately interesting was the nocturnal aesthetic that derives from The Weeknd’s more stylish fare. It’s pretty cinematic, to think of no better word. The artist walks off the set of his Jimmy Kimmel Live! performance, then becomes literally dragged at a subway before presumably murdering a couple in an elevator. One of the victims has the same blonde hair style as the cross-dressing murderer in Brian De Palma’s 1980 erotic thriller Dressed to Kill . Most of The Weeknd’s movie nods bring attention to his stylish modernity, which contains a bit of ambition and camp that overlaps with his songs.

Dressed to Kill isn’t the only illusion you’ll find in a video by The Weeknd, as the list of movie citations range from sci-fi to horror. There’s the TV swallowing scene from Videodrome in “Party Monster,” and there’s The Zone from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in “The Knowing.” In the rollout to After Hours, there are homages to Scorsese’s Casino, and the antics from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are in the music video “Heartless.” Sam Pilling, a director who worked on one of The Weeknd’s music videos, stated that the artist would give him stills from selected films, such as Only God Forgives, Collateral, Enter The Void and A Prophet.

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Many pop artists, both past and present, take cinema as inspiration in crafting their sound, but few modern performers have created music videos that are as truly distinctive and influential as The Weeknd’s collective videography. He plays a character who embodies decadence, one who’s often secluded and has drug-fueled one-night stands. Once the effects wear off, the cycle repeats and he becomes more numb. The Weeknd’s pop tunes, like “Blinding Lights” and “Starboy,” would not be out of place in a movie soundtrack produced by Giorgio Moroder, who once said that he would love to collaborate with the singer. Lyrics like “My serotonin’s gone a while ago / Girl, it’s gone ’cause of you” (“Heaven or Las Vegas”) could have been copy-pasted from the tongue of a Bret Easton Ellis character. 

Much of The Weeknd’s music borrows many elements from genre fare. His debut album Kiss Land takes inspiration from David Cronenberg, John Carpenter and Ridley Scott — and it’s framed (if awkwardly) like a soundtrack to a schlocky, ethereal B-film set in the 80s. 

The songs “Belong to the World” and “Tears in the Rain” both make reference to Blade Runner, with the former containing the shot of the futuristic billboard, while the latter directly borrows from the iconic speech uttered by Roy Batty. The Weeknd’s booty call anthem “The Hills” take its name from Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, and he lyrically embodies a villain that’s typically found in a slasher. Its bombastic hook effectively sells the idea of a scumbag who is coming to devour you in sexually carnal ways. 

YouTube video

In interviews and profiles, The Weeknd often expresses his love for cinema, going so far as to compare his life as a movie, usually gritty and urbane. He tells The New York Times that his childhood was like Larry Clark’s 1995 film Kids, but without the AIDS. When The Weeknd was interviewed by Pitchfork, he stated that the Joker was his favorite villain, because “you don’t know his past. You just know what his plans are.” In an interview with The Wall Street Journalhe cites Scarface and Carlito’s Way as movies he viewed while making his 2016 album Starboy.

Scarface is often appropriated by The Weeknd’s hip-hop peers, and not as a cautionary tale about excessive individualism that the film intended to highlight. By design, The Weeknd persona is perhaps an ode to Tony Montana and his excesses. The musician dives into the usual anti-hero route where an anxious young man is pulled into fame, and later takes on villainous personality. In contrast to other hip-hop musicians, the Scarface references at least hints at the shallowness of the character persona.

The Weeknd’s tastes are further revealed in a recent profile for CR Fashion Book, a new fashion magazine from former Vogue journalist Carine Roitfeld. He speaks of his love for Der Fan, an 80s German horror movie about a deranged teenybopper fan, a television movie called Poor Devil (the inspiration for a red and black costume worn by Sammy Davis Jr.’s Devil character) and Trouble Every Day, Claire Denis’ thriller starring Vincent Gallo that’s ostensibly like Last Tango in Paris slowly evolving into a vampyric gorefest. 

Trouble Every Day Movie Film

The reference to Trouble Every Day becomes more apparent in the music video for Blinding Lights,” currently one of The Weeknd’s biggest hits and perhaps the most meaningful homage. The musician drives around the city, presumably having a bad drug trip, and gets himself beaten up. The intro that comes before is a bloody affair, where The Weeknd’s face continually bleeds and it’s unclear whether he is crying or laughing. As the CR Fashion Book profile notes, it calls back to Beatrice Dalle’s body fluctuations from Trouble Every Day, borrowing the violent existentialism that made the film rather interesting. The song, after all, is about isolation and having the time of your life. 

The Weeknd’s cinematic roots inform listeners about his storytelling approach. He tells a rollercoaster narrative that’s seductive at first and then becomes terrifying because it won’t stop. But given that his story hangs on one single concept, it can be a bit repetitive. But The Weeknd shows that for music, movies ostensibly matter in adding a visual eye to the sound. And it can be endearing when your tastes enhance your style and turn it into something distinguishable. And you better be high for this.

Adrian Nguyen (@lackoftaste) is based in Sydney, Australia, where he has been published in Arc Digital and Areo Magazine. Adrian also regularly contributes to REBELLER.