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The best commentary on “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” remains Niki Harris and Donna De Lory, backup singers for Madonna, captured in Truth or Dare doing vocal warm-ups by belting the song out while beating on their own chests to produce a warbly Minnie Mouse effect. (“Those girls annoy me,” Madonna responds.)
In the opening chorus of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” we hear the vapid title sentiment expressed three times, along with the companion sentiment “They say in heaven love comes first” (who says this? Yahweh’s marketing team? The Teletubbies?) and the unconnected thought “Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?”–a lyric that seems to be included only because of the songwriters’ difficulty in finding words that rhyme with “earth.”
Director Diane Keaton matches the awkwardness of songwriters Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley. (Keaton also directed Carlisle’s “I Get Weak” clip, which has issues, but is not as much of a mess as this one.) Keaton’s introductory images are all of girls in gray smocks, white socks, and black domino masks, holding translucent Earth globes lit from within. It’s comically bad, like a parody of low-budget MTV surrealism. Splash! One of the globes falls in the water. In slow-motion, perhaps? But of course.
The Globe Squad, a phalanx of nine, thrust their globes up in the air. As the opening concludes and the guitars kick in, we cut between the camera zooming towards twenty-one globes arranged in a triangle, and Belinda Carlisle dancing. Well, really, Belinda Carlisle making dance-like movements while leaning against a wall, but she looks adorable (black bustier, purple shirt, good haircut) and seems enthusiastic, which counts for a lot.
As Carlisle starts to sing, we get a glimpse of her slow-dancing with some guy next to a reflective pool. Keaton turns off most of the lights, leaving just a diagonal stripe of light across Carlisle’s face. Carlisle responds by repeatedly singing to the wall and leaning her head to one side or the other, suffering from floppy head syndrome. We cut back to Carlisle singing “you lift me up in a wave of love”; she raises her arms, as if she were a flight attendant helpfully demonstrating how in the event of an emergency, you could lift up your fellow passengers in a wave of love.
Back to the Globe Squad, who are spinning around–and in a different shot, lying down, doing globe calisthenics. Cut to Carlisle, now obscured by a mesh screen. Keaton is clearly trying to make Carlisle into a figure of mystery, but it’s hard to turn a former cheerleader into Garbo.
The Globe Squad spins faster. We see that they’re inside a cylinder, pinned to the wall by centrifugal force (unless it’s centripetal force–I can never keep that straight), like they’re on a ride at Six Flags. Since they’re all dressed identically, they should really be acting out a kinescope animation. We also see some members of the Globe Squad watching the spinners through high glass windows. Maybe those are the ones in heaven?
More quick cuts between the Squad and Carlisle, ending with the illuminated globes spinning into blurry streaks of light. We dissolve to another spinning image: a grid of light and shadow that Carlisle whirls into. (New outfit: shoulderless black dress, with a purple fabric flower over her heart.) Carlisle keeps turning around and singing over her shoulders: somebody wants to make sure that her back gets equal time in this video.
Abrupt cut to an overhead shot: Carlisle is wedged into a thirty-degree corner. Since Keaton is basically shooting down Carlisle’s dress here, I guess she’s abandoned the whole Garbo approach. The globe splashes into the water again; the Globe Squad starts jogging in place, as if that will get them to the end of this video faster.
Carlisle keeps spinning and quasi-dancing. I find myself thinking of this video (and song) as something that was inflicted upon Carlisle, rather than something she was responsible for–which is both fannish and patronizing. We reach the bridge, during which Carlisle leans back blissfully on a bed while a guy kisses her neck and a black scrim obscures our vision.
What “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” has going for it: a catchy melody and (mostly enjoyable) bombastic pop production. What’s particularly annoying about it: the backing vocalists and the lyrics. I know it’s just trying to express the sentiment “let’s all be real happy,” but I can’t help but think that heaven on earth would transform this world into an unchanging theocracy. As it happens, Diane Keaton directed a lavish documentary in 1987 called Heaven, interviewing people on what they thought about the afterlife–presumably, that’s how she got this job, although you’d think after making a whole movie on the topic, she’d have a more interesting visual conception of heaven than “lots of glowing beach balls.”
A synthesized drum break, accompanied by the silhouette of a kiss (Carlisle and her handsome love interest). As we head to the fade-out, there’s lots of kissing, which is a boon–the whole video has felt impoverished, both in terms of budget and ideas, but the kiss looks like a genuine human connection.
“Heaven Is a Place on Earth” topped the singles charts (it’s Carlisle’s only #1 hit). You can watch it here.