Thursday, December 2, 2021

One of the Best Music Videos Ever Made – All Too Well (Ten Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault): The Short Film (2021)

Sadie Sink and Dylan O'Brien in All Too Well: The Short Film (2021), directed by Taylor Swift.

That’s right – despite its name, All Too Well (Ten Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault): The Short Film (2021) belongs squarely in the genre of the music video. But that the level of craftsmanship and resources on display is on par with that of short films just serves to emphasize the significance of its achievement. In this sense, it’s a perfect synecdoche of Taylor Swift, the song’s singer and co-writer, and the music video’s writer-director and one of its actors.

The 2012 version of “All Too Well” is remarkably cinematic. Co-written with veteran Nashville songwriter Liz Rose, who mainly just edited down what Swift walked into the writing room with, the heartbreak ballad’s structure is a polished gem. The four lines of the intro are a framing device: “I walked through the door with you, the air was cold / But something ’bout it felt like home somehow” finds the speaker at the moment her relationship with the addressee grows serious, while “And I left my scarf there at your sister’s house / And you’ve still got it in your drawer, even now” brings us to the narrative present. (I assume that the speaker is a woman and the addressee is a man, but technically neither gender is specified in either version of the song.) This pattern is repeated up till the bridge: verses 1 and 2 tell the story, the pre-choruses draw us back to the present, and the choruses each present a different scene in flashback that the speaker remembers “all too well.”

Verse 3 recounts the breakup, which concludes with the addressee intentionally keeping the scarf. The speaker speculates that this is to remind him of their relationship, and that, in a further leap of imagination, he cherishes the relationship so much because he has never been able to find another relationship as good. In a classic Swift move, it’s now the addressee who remembers it “all too well,” and the last run through the chorus now presents his memory of the relationship.

Then, in a summative outro that mirrors the foreshadowing intro, the speaker repeats the most evocative line of imagery from each of the three choruses: “Wind in my hair,” their dancing “down the stairs,” and that the relationship was “rare.” The music video practically writes itself.

But there never was a music video for this version, because Swift only makes music videos for singles, and her label at the time didn’t designate the song a single.

This crystalline structure, the rush of vivid imagery, and Swift’s anguished crescendoing vocal performance have led fans and critics alike to consider the song the pinnacle of her enormously talented songwriting. Even when a Swiftie or critic professes to have a different favorite, none denies that this song is a technical masterpiece.

Taylor Swift and songwriter Liz Rose accepting the Grammy for Best Country Song in 2010. (Photo: Kevin Winter)

So why did Swift feel the need to release a ten-minute version of her highest songwriting achievement? Rose revealed in 2014 that what Swift walked into the writing room with was originally about twice as long; and in 2020, Swift herself mentioned that the song was first born as a heartbroken rant-on-guitar during rehearsals for her Speak Now World Tour (2011-12), in support of her third album, Speak Now (2010), that her sound guy had happened to get on tape. It was the first song she wrote for Red (2012), her fourth album. With this imprimatur of Swift’s signature authenticity, the so-called “ten-minute version” of “All Too Well” became Swifties’ holy grail. Fans would from time to time half-jokingly ask her to release it, and the flames were only stoked by Swift’s release of the first-draft and final-draft (though not actually final) lyrics from her personal diary as part of the bundle for Lover (Deluxe Edition) (2019), her seventh album, and the first one she owned the masters to.

Since each of Swift’s albums from Red to Folklore (2020), her eighth album, sounds nothing like the previous one, nobody really expected her to actually release it until, perhaps, she was old enough and left with a weak enough creative spark to start issuing retrospectives and compilation albums. Then she got (allegedly) fucked over by her label and decided to rerecord her first six albums, and among the extra tracks that she picked up from the cutting room floor and put on Red (Taylor’s Version) (2021) is a ten-minute version of “All Too Well,” formally titled “All Too Well (Ten Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version) (From The Vault)“ – or, as Swifties have hilariously abbreviated it, ATWTMVTVFTV.

I say a ten-minute version, because some of the new lyrics seem to have too much distance from the heartbreak to have belonged to the rehearsal improv session. It’s likely that Swift rewrote and edited the material before meeting with Rose. And it’s not unfathomable for her to have continued to rewrite and edit for the 2021 release. After all, Rose described what Swift brought to her as 10, 12, or 15 minutes long, and Swift herself described the rant as having around seven more verses.

ATWTMVTVFTV, on the other hand, has but five verses, and only reaches past the ten-minute mark due to its unusually long repetitive fade-out. As we’ll see below, the fade-out is integral to the premise of the song, but it’s still striking to find that the length isn’t as exuberantly excessive as previously intimated. In all likelihood, what Swift has released isn’t any earlier draft, but yet another version whose additional lyrics are more revealing and emotionally raw, but still deemed fit for public consumption. For a celebrity so conscious of and careful about her public image, we would expect no less.

Indeed, the new lyrics, suspiciously, also have a crystalline structure, albeit slightly messier. Some additional material adds detail to the speaker’s relationship, some expounds on the mental space of her heartbreak, and both of these make the addressee look worse. Among the laments (“I’m a soldier who’s returning half her weight”) and sick burns (“I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age”) are a couple of lyrical gems, notably “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.” This particular line leads into “Sacred prayer and we’d swear / To remember it all too well,” which nicely explains why the speaker can so audaciously imagine the addressee remembering her in the present day.

There’s a third kind of additional material that counterbalances the extra emotional heft to create the crystalline structure. In the middle of the downtempo fifth verse, the speaker starts asking the addressee questions such as “Just between us, did the love affair maim you, too?” This note of uncertainty is new to the song and changes its entire premise. Whereas before the speaker treated the addressee’s memory of her as a fait accompli, now we see her mental process in reaching that cathartic bit of wish fulfillment. In order to maintain her sanity, she has to try to believe that he’s suffering at least as much as she is. This is less a question and more a hope.

And it’s a hope that can never be fully realized; even if he admits it, how does she know that he’s not just trying to comfort her? This is why the outro gently fades out with the same strategy as the original outro (still in the song and redesignated the fourth chorus) of repeating extracted lines of evocative imagery, but now seasoned with the repeated assertion, “You remember it.” It’s the vulnerability forever hidden behind the song’s bravado. What the new song loses in structural perfection it gains in emotional power and depth.

It’s also still very cinematic, and so I was thrilled to hear that Swift had made a short film based on it. Shot by Rina Yang in academy ratio with rounded corners on lush 35mm film and edited by Ted Guard, with production design by Ethan Tobman, ATWTMVTVFTVTSF has impeccable craftsmanship. Swift has written and directed some elaborate music videos of her own music before, so the amount of thought and planning seen here should be no surprise. Each cut and camera movement is motivated, and Sadie Sink delivers an engrossing performance as Her; Dylan O’Brien is fine as Him. But it’s mostly physical acting, as there’s only one scene with audible dialogue.

Most of the soundtrack is just the song, and that’s one reason I call it a music video. But the deciding factor for me is that most of the scenes are just direct dramatizations of the lyrics, and as we have seen above, only the verses unfold chronologically. Without the song, the film would be mostly incoherent; case in point: part of the cast is credited as “Dream Girls,” but I have no clue which characters this is referring to. The film tries to establish narrative coherence by adding title cards from time to time, but there are still short scenes that fall through the cracks, like the one showing Him conversing with Her entertained father (Shawn Levy) over coffee.

The ending has a more cinematic narrative, but the devil’s in the details. Thirteen years later, Her (Swift) has written a book about the relationship and is about to read at an event that’s much more formal than the one that starts off Before Sunset (2004). The cover of the book resembles that of The Giving Tree. (By the way, no author at any book event ever signs a book “on the go” like that, Taylor.) When she starts reading, again there’s no sound, but by reading her lips we can deduce that she’s reading first two lines of the song itself. The song is a poem; is the book a poetry collection? The Shel Silverstein-like cover says yes, but Her earlier writing process employs a typewriter, which argues for a novel. It’s distractingly unclear. And with Him (Jake Lyon, also a gaffer) standing outside the door window looking in, the music video’s ending shuts down the hesitation and vulnerability opened up by the song’s new ending.

The one dialogue scene is predictably the most cinematic. The couple are fighting in the kitchen after a dinner party with His friends that leaves Her feeling neglected by Him. The instigation and development are all done in one take, with a cut appearing only when they begin moving toward reconciliation. Perhaps too pointedly, She’s doing the dishes, while He keeps adding dirty ones to her stack. It’s a powerful scene, but once you learn that it was entirely improvised, you immediately see that the minor hesitations and verbal cul-de-sacs that at first seem to signify their mental search for the next hurtful barb are actually the signs of two actors trying to emotionally negotiate their way through the scene. When Sink’s retort comes a quarter-beat too slow, or when O’Brien repeats himself, they’re not trying to come up with a better argument; rather, they’re actively feeling their way toward an avenue of reconciliation. That they find one that feels so realistic testifies to their acting chops. Swift may have everything all planned out, but she could use more experience directing actors.

The music video proves that Swift’s excellence in songwriting isn’t readily transferable to other media. We know from the poetry she wrote for her sixth album, Reputation (2016), included in the two special release magazine bundles, how essential melody is to her artistry; now we see how songwriting flow dominates her filmmaking.

Above the formal aspects, the project itself is quite uncanny. Swift compulsively writes a song from her memories and experiences of a real romantic relationship, then dramatizes the lyrics, casts the actors, and directs the whole thing herself. Where’s the thin veneer of poetic license and plausible deniability? She actually had to tell an interviewer at the music video premiere that the argument scene isn’t autobiographical. Well, what about everything else? Swift has had to face such voyeuristic questions for most of her songwriting career, but this time I’m asking precisely because I don’t want to be a voyeur.

– CJ Sheu has a PhD in contemporary American fiction from National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cj_sheu.

1 comment:

  1. Intriguingly observed and insightful, even though I'm still of twelve minds regarding the whole phenomenon of Taylor Swift, about whom the (potentially addled) songwriter Billy Joel recently said somewhere that she was "The Beatles of her generation." I mean...okay maybe, but that's depressing.