Video thrills the cameo stars

From Kate Bush to the Beastie Boys and beyond, musicians are once again turning to actors and celebrities to spice up their promos

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The Independent Culture

From a hiding place in the woods, Bigfoot's cuter, blue-furred relation spies a woman flagging down a car. The forlorn figure spots his chance for escape and tries his paw at hitchhiking. A car slows and the driver emerges – it is none other than Jon Hamm, better known as the Mad Men advertising mogul Don Draper.

This is not the opening scene of an off the wall arthouse flick – it is the latest music video from the French indie stalwarts Herman Dune, the latest act to get a recognisable figure to help plug a new release. Along with the Beastie Boys and Kate Bush, the US-based duo are helping celebrity cameos enjoy a resurgence, after a period in which directors have been more keen to use sex and violence to attract attention.

Since music videos began, famous faces have been persuaded to add glamour or curiosity value to someone else's three-minute wonder. In 1976, Bryan Ferry got his then girlfriend, the model Jerry Hall, to swing a tail for "Let's Stick Together", but the tactic became properly entrenched in the 1980s. In 1984, Tracy Ullman persuaded the Labour leader Neil Kinnock to play a political canvasser in the video for her Madness cover, "My Guy". Kinnock failed to persuade the youth vote he was "with it" and politicians have since stayed away from such stunts, but the use of big-name pulling power took hold. For "You Can Call Me Al", the first single from the Graceland album, Paul Simon called on the services of Chevy Chase. When George Michael refused to do promotional duties for his second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, the "Freedom! 90" director David Fincher used a bevy of lip-synching supermodels, among them Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford.

Subsequently, the actor Robert Downey Jr starred in the promo for Elton John's 2001 release "I Want Love". The actor's demanding role, in a production by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood (the video was one long shot), was his first job since being treated for drug addiction.

Music videos have also allowed film stars to show different sides to their on-screen personas – think Christopher Walken dancing in the Spike Jonze video for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon Of Choice", a Grammy winner in 2001.

In recent times, though, such appearances became rare, as promos lost their glamour. Attempting to connect with their audience, music acts have become more likely to invite their fans to a shoot – this has been tried by indie bands and by the US hip hop stars 50 Cent and Soulja Boy.

With family-friendly chart shows in short supply, despite the plethora of television channels available, blanket coverage of a glossy video is hard to achieve. Artists and directors have thus come to rely on shock value, turning promos into viral hits that look to be banned by MTV, in order to generate controversy. MIA was probably pleased when YouTube limited access to her video "Born Free", which saw redheads being gunned down, and sexual content has become nigh-on essential, from naked dancers with The Cribs to Shakira grinding away in a cage.

If there have been celebrity cameos in such videos, they have been mere adjuncts to the main aims of titillation and attention-seeking. Beyoncé, for instance, cropped up in the short film that accompanied Lady Gaga's "Telephone", though the piece's lesbian kissing and murder scene garnered most column inches. The professional gossip Perez Hilton has a crawl-on part in the video for Rihanna's "S&M", which caused complaints over its explicit depiction of leftfield sexual practices and earned censure from the broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, when it was shown before the watershed.

Recent weeks, however, have seen a more playful use of famous names, who have become the headline rather than the content. The Beastie Boys corralled a studio-full of stars to appear in a 30-minute film, Fight For The Right Revisited. With Adam "MCA" Yauch being treated for cancer, the hip-hop trio needed something different to promote their new album, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. To commemorate 25 years since their first hit, "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)", they came up with a follow-up, in which Elijah Wood, Seth Rogen and Danny McBride play the Beasties' younger selves, facing off against present-day versions played by Will Ferrell, Jack Black and John C Reilly. The film also features blink-and-you'll-miss-'em cameos from (among others) Steve Buscemi, Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom.

Kate Bush has gone down a more gentle route on her long-awaited comeback. To accompany "Deeper Understanding", a song originally from her 1989 album The Sensual World, Bush, who directs her own videos, has used Robbie Coltrane, Frances Barber and Noel Fielding.

Both projects have been given event status. Bush's film was "premiered" on YouTube, following a teaser, and the Beastie Boys' offering was given a slot on terrestrial television. The video for Herman Dune's "Tell Me Something I Don't Know" has gone straight to the clips website Vimeo, but its impact should still be measurable.

For the writer and singer Yaya Herman Dune, the idea was to get somebody unexpected but recognisable to take the blue bigfoot puppet to a gig in Austin, Texas. Hamm "is funny, can say a lot of things with his face and is also a great father figure, looking so manly and all", according to Yaya, a Mad Men connoisseur. He continues: "Now, Jon might have liked that he was a candid and honest man as The Driver in the video... I'm not sure," before adding that Hamm would not have taken part if he did not like the song.

That might explain why stars continue to crop up in music videos. Regardless of their own status, they can be big fans, just like the rest of us.

Herman Dune's single "Tell Me Something I Don't Know" is out 23 May on Fortuna POP!