“I’m Still Standing”: Elton John’s classic video featured leather boys, mimes & kissing clowns

By on October 6, 2017

Video Killed the Radio Star is a short-format documentary series which delves into a handful of the classic 80s-era videos and the people who made them, through in-depth and anecdotal interviews with music video directors and sometimes even with appearances by the artists themselves.

In this particular episode, Elton John and Russell Mulcahy — who directed more than twenty of his videos during the ’80s — discuss the splendor of spending several days in Nice, France, and cavorting on the sandy beach in Cannes, filming his classic video for “I’m Still Standing” on the promenade outside the Carlton Hotel.

Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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Elton John hated making videos, and his first efforts (“Blue Eyes” and “Empty Garden”) had been mostly-uninspired performances showing him sitting quietly at his piano.

“I’m Still Standing” was to be his first proper music video — even though, by 1982, he’d already released an innovative long-form video, Visions — but he wasn’t looking forward to the tightly-choreographed dance moves he was being asked to perform for Mulcahy’s video wild concept, which also had him moving and mugging for the cameras whilst surrounded by attractive French dancers in wild body paint.

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He’d brought with him a selection of wardrobe changes for the three-day shoot, including an all-white suit, which he wears with a black bow tie and a boater hat.

In Rob Tannenbaum’s and Craig Marks’ I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Mulcahy described the video this way:

Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’ was super, super, super gay. There was no holding back. We shot in Nice, in the south of France. My costume designer was in charge of body-painting all the boys. We had leather boys, and mimes, and kissing clowns. Bruno Tonioli, who’s a judge on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ was one of our dancers. I think he played one of the traffic policemen dressed in leg warmers and a leotard.”

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Read more about Elton John and the “I’m Still Standing” video below.

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During one day’s shoot, Elton ran into members of Duran Duran, who were also in Cannes at the time (Mulcahy had directed their first video, “Planet Earth, and several others, including 1982’s “Hungry Like the Wolf”).

Duran Duran’s guitarist Andy Taylor recalled what happened in his memoirs, Wild Boy: My Life in Duran Duran:

“This was before Elton became teetotal, so he was still a steaming party animal. We went up to see him at his hotel and spent the afternoon getting blasted on martinis. We decided it would be a laugh to get him drunk and we were literally slinging the drinks down him.”

‘Ooh, you are lovely boys’, he screeched, loving every minute of it.”

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John complained to them that he was very tired because he’d been up that day since four o’clock in the morning, and so they encouraged him to relax and have a martini.

John had six of them, Taylor recalled:

“We got him so drunk that eventually he went upstairs and threw a huge wobbler and trashed his suite, which was decorated with expensive antique furniture. The hotel weren’t very happy and Russell was shocked because it caused all sorts of chaos — but it was a great party.”

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John — who could be a “complete fiend” when he’d been drinking, according to biographer David Buckley in Elton: The Biography —  came back to the beach set and “did elaborate stripteases in front of the camera, rolling around on the floor naked, then running off, changing into the most outlandish costumes, coming back and doing another extraordinary striptease.”

John would recall later in Buckley’s biography: “I woke up the next morning and I had all these cuts and bruises all over me. I had destroyed one of the rooms and completely blacked out. Thank you, Duran Duran.”

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The career-encapsulating title of John’s cheerful comeback song — the second single from his 1983 album Too Low For Zero, reuniting the singer with his classic band of the 1970s — was meant to send a message that Elton John’s career wasn’t down for the count just yet and was, indeed, “still standing.”

When asked about the album at the time, John said: “There have only been a few times I’ve ever been totally confident about an album — Yellow Brick Road, maybe Captain Fantastic. And I’ve got that feeling again with this one.”

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“I’m Still Standing” — with its bouncy sing-a-long chorus, “Don’t you know I’m still standing, better than I ever did/Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid” – debuted at #56 on May 7, 1983, climbing into the Top Forty during its second week of release, making it the most-played new record on radio.

On July 9th, it reached its peak position on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, #12 (U.S.), and scored even higher in the UK, #4, following its debut on July 30th.

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Australian-born film director Russell Mulcahy’s pioneering video work — typically recognizable by its use of smash-cuts, tracking shots, glass matte shots, faux widescreen aspect ratio, glowing lights, spot color and body painting — created a visual look that helped define the “new wave” aesthetic of the MTV-era.

Director Marcus Nispel also appears here, providing additional background info on John’s “Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” Wrap Her Up” and “I Want Love,” which featured lip-synching actor Robert Downey Jr.

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The Video Killed the Radio Star series was titled after the Buggles’s 1977 hit video, which was also directed by Russell Mulcahy (it’s still best known for being the first music video shown on MTV on August 1, 1981).

If you’re a subscriber, you can watch Night Flight’s collection of Video Killed The Radio Star episodes whenever you want, they’re waiting for you over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.