Poster for Delta Spirit’s What’s Done is Done which made its debut at SXSW 2022
Over the past few years, the issue of disability representation and including more disabled talent in the film and TV industry has come under the spotlight and rightly so.
Yet, insufficient attention has been paid towards greater disability inclusion within more niche and stratified segments of the media and entertainment industry – music videos being a prime example.
This is a colossal pity because music videos provide an entirely unique and special opportunity to enhance on-screen disability portrayal that is unrivaled by any other medium.
Firstly, although the old school dedicated music channels on TV may lack the glitz and novelty that accompanied their launch in the 1980s, they have been somewhat usurped now by online streaming and social media.
Music videos are today more readily available than ever and constitute 95% of the most popular YouTube videos. Their short length makes them infinitely shareable and requires far less buy-in for today’s casual limited attention span surfer on Facebook or TikTok seeking a snappy, bite-size entertainment snippet.
Equally, the non-verbal nature of the genre, where the musicians take on the responsibility for the sound and vocals, opens the medium up to so many, hitherto invisible, segments of the disability community to convey their presence and physicality in unique ways with the potential to rapidly go viral and capture the imagination of millions.
In recent months, two videos showcasing the talents of the disability community have stood out in particular but took very different approaches to tackle the same issue.
The first, Spaces released in November 2021 is an homage to the Spinal Muscular Atrophy Community.
SMA is a genetic disorder resulting in mobility and sometimes respiratory difficulties. It affects over 25,000 Americans and is the leading genetic cause of death in infants.
Sponsored by San Francisco-based biotechnology company Genentech, the song is performed by James Ian a 39-year-old musician with SMA and was directed from his bed by Dominick Evans, a disability consultant to Lionsgate and Netflix, with the same diagnosis.
The catchy tune is an uplifting anthem and unashamed shout-out to the global SMA community and the video features those living with the condition of all ages.
The song’s lyrics and imagery align perfectly as a call to action for the viewer to sit up and pay attention to a group that is all too often overlooked and underrated.
“I’m not invisible. I’m an original. I’m so much more than what you see and what you bargained for,” belts out Ian as he sings about the many spaces the community members imprint with their love, talent, humanity and self-worth.
Taking a very different approach is the music video for California-based indie rock outfit Delta Spirit’s What’s Done is Done.
Making its debut at SXSW last month and directed by Michael Parks Randa (Best Summer Ever), the song and video tell a timeless and classic love story of a couple who have grown apart over the years but rekindle their love when they move past their hurt to remember what’s most important.
The lyrics and story have nothing to do with disability per se, save for the fact that the protagonists portrayed by Zack Gottsagen (The Peanut Butter Falcon) and Jamie Brewer (American Horror Story), both have Down Syndrome.
Gottsagen and Brewer have since been nominated for Best Performer at the Berlin Music Video Awards due to take place in June.
Commenting on his experience filming the video for What’s Done is Done, Gottsagen says, “This was my first music video. I love to learn. For me, it does feel different to not have lines and making movies takes a lot longer and you have to be very patient. I love to be a part of something special. It was totally inspiring. “
“For me, being in a love story with Jamie was so fun. We had a blast and really just love to be together.”
In possessing a template for unique incidental disability depiction, Parks Randa had a huge head start on other directors with his work on Best Summer Ever.
The 2020 feature production alongside Zeno Mountain Farm relays a High School Musical-style love story where one person in the couple is disabled and the other is non-disabled. The movie is packed to the rafters with characters with disabilities at every turn seamlessly blending in with able-bodied performers to evoke a bubbling diverse melting pot of unquestioned universality.
For the single that was timed to be released on World Down Syndrome Day, Delta Spirit took inspiration from watching Best Summer Ever and Parks Randa admits he wanted to create the same vibe of unqualified inclusivity.
“It’s a steep hill to climb when you make a 90-minute feature film and you’re asking busy people to watch it but with Best Summer Ever, it’s such an important message.
“I wondered if I could condense that into a three-minute music video with the same message and a more concise narrative. The shareability of that is so vast that I felt like it could have an impact,” says Parks Randa.
Parks-Randa, who grew up in Massachusetts with his parents running a day program for people with disabilities, says, “I wanted people to see an authentic relationship on screen that you don’t ever see and I wanted to normalize it through a really beautiful universal love story.”
One of the video’s producers Amanda Booth, whose seven-year-old son Micah has both autism and Down Syndrome draws attention to the fact that intellectual and communication disabilities represent a newer dimension to on-screen disability representation.
“The idea that we’re talking about romantic relationships within this specific neurodivergent part of the differently-abled community has truly never been done before,” says Booth.
“I hope people that see this video will have their eyes opened and seeing the beauty of that kind of love for the first time will become part of their subconscious.”
Sometimes, it’s easy to see the media as a vessel for drip-feeding disability representation into wider society, helping those with no lived experience and little contact with disabled people appreciate fresh perspectives.
Regardless of this, circulating the right kind of messages back into the disability community itself is important too.
As Brewer, What’s Done is Done’s female co-star explains, “This video shows people in the disability community that we can have the same things, the same dreams, the same goals that everybody else has.”
A catchy tune can get stuck in one’s head for a long time but fortunately, due to stand-out and innovatively directed music videos, the same can be true of the sentiments and ideals it carries alongside it.