Unsung Auteurs: Tamra Davis

August 18, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: music video innovator and off-the-wall comedy helmer Tamra Davis.

The list of feature film directors birthed in the medium of music videos is a long and storied one, with the likes of Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Michel Gondry, Michael Bay and many others kicking off their careers with short form music promos. Female filmmakers from the medium, however, are far fewer, which makes the ever underrated Tamra Davis an even more essential talent. Like so many female directors who showed massive early promise, Davis now works primarily in television, helming episodes of shows like Stargirl, Empire, Younger, Santa Clarita Diet and many more.

Tamra Davis’ entrée into the film industry came through an apprentice position at Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, where she watched and studied the famous director at work on his infamous 1982 commercial disaster, One From The Heart. Davis also studied at Los Angeles City College, where she started making short films on Super 8, which eventually led to her shooting a music video for legendary US band Husker Du. Davis’ gritty, street-level style soon saw her tapped to direct over 150 music videos throughout her career for a host of cooler-than-thou artists like The Smiths, Sonic Youth, The Lemonheads, Depeche Mode, Luscious Jackson, Young MC, NWA, The Amps, Boss Hog, Ben Lee, Veruca Salt and Beastie Boys.

Tamra Davis

“I was prepared to do a feature,” Davis told Decider earlier this year of her start in music videos. “That’s what I came out of film school thinking, but I was basically laughed at. There was no way that they were going to give a 26-year-old girl her first feature; it was not even a thought. Immediately I got jobs doing music videos, and I worked my ass off and I made short films. It wasn’t like I was planning on being a music video director. I created the new look that changed music videos and they didn’t care if a girl directed it. They were like, wow, you came up with a new style. Here’s a job. I got to do alternative bands, The Smiths, Depeche Mode. I was doing all college cool.”

The hip, cutting-edge style that Davis brought to her video clips was front-and-centre when it came to her eventual 1992 feature film debut, Guncrazy. A grungy, downbeat take on the young-couple-on-the-run crime subgenre (and a loose remake of John H. Lewis’ pulpy 1950 cult classic Gun Crazy), the film features Drew Barrymore (in one of her best performances) as an abused-and-confused teen who kills her rapacious stepfather and then embarks on a violent crime spree with her just-out-of-prison pen-pal (1990s indie legend James LeGros). Funky, gritty, uncompromising and highly original, Guncrazy was a powerful debut from Tamra Davis.

Drew Barrymore in Guncrazy.

Davis expertly mined her history in music video for 1993’s satirical comedy CB4, a This Is Spinal Tap-style takedown on the often absurd and obscene world of hip hop. While a white director would likely be allowed nowhere near material like this today, Davis finds the dollops of humour here with pithy glee, and is aided immeasurably by leads Chris Rock, Allen Payne and Deezer D. Funny and distinctly of-its-time, CB4 showed of Davis’ flair for comedy and her understanding of the inherent ridiculousness of the music industry.

After being thrown off the 1994 female-led western Bad Girls for applying too high-toned a feminist touch to the material (she was replaced by Jonathan Kaplan, and the resulting film was utterly desultory), Davis delivered the most enduring and successful film of her career with 1995’s Billy Madison. Boasting Adam Sandler’s first leading role, this is knucklehead comedy at its best, as the comedian and Saturday Night Live favourite plays an idiotic man-child who has to go back to primary school. The laughs roll in thick and fast, and while the reviews might not have been stellar, Adam Sandler can certainly thank Tamra Davis (who was brought in as a last-minute replacement on the film) for getting his big screen comedy career off to a flying start.

Adam Sandler in Billy Madison.

“When I say or hear that name, I’m flooded with memories, as if I’m recalling an old boyfriend,” Tamra Davis wrote for The Washington Post in 2015. “Billy Madison turns 20 this week, and it remains the most surprisingly resonant project I have ever directed. I can’t believe how much of an impact it has had over the years. When I walk by crew members on a set, I often hear them quoting the film, typically repeating Billy’s classic ‘I am the smartest man alive’ exclamation or making a Veronica Vaughn reference. I’ll think that they’re doing it to be kind to me. Then I realise they have no idea that I made Billy Madison.”

After Billy Madison, Davis reteamed with Drew Barrymore for the uneven, largely forgotten but still worthy 1997 crime comedy Best Men, a strange mix of violence and humour co-starring the unlikely crew of Dean Cain, Andy Dick, Luke Wilson and Sean Patrick Flannery. She teamed with another comedy tour de force on her next project, directing the great Dave Chappelle to a hilarious performance in the winningly, hilariously stoned-to-the-hilt 1998 gut-buster Half Baked. “Those actors were never stoned during the whole thing,” Davis disappointingly told Yahoo in 2018. “But in those days, Dave used to think like, ‘Wow, after I make this movie, I’ll be able to smoke weed everywhere. I’ll be able to do this walking into a restaurant.’ He thought this would give him carte blanche to smoke weed everywhere.”

Jim Breuer, Dave Chappelle and Guillermo Diaz in Half Baked.

After 2000’s barely released oddball family dysfunction comedy Skipped Parts (which starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mischa Barton and Davis fave, Drew Barrymore), Tamra Davis worked with pre-meltdown pop music superstar Britney Spears on 2002’s tepid road trip comedy Crossroads. Though Davis injected some of her casually cool and knowing hipness into the Shonda Rhimes-penned film, it unquestionably lacks the edge and loopiness of her other films. And that, unfortunately, is where the big screen feature film career of Tamra Davis was put on a disappointingly long-form pause.

Tamra Davis’ Cooking Show

Though she currently has two features in various stages of development (Slinky and 13: The Musical), Tamra Davis has enjoyed a variety of other interests over the past couple of decades: raising her sons with ex-husband Beastie Boy, Mike D; hosting an online cooking show; writing the cookbook Make Me Something Good To Eat; directing lots of television; crafting the 2010 doco, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child; and mentoring young women breaking into the film industry. “I love, love, love my job,” Davis told Decider earlier this year. “You get to work with incredibly talented people, and deliver content that has a beautiful impact on the audience and moves the audience to a social way that you want the world to go. That’s why I do things, and also to help support other women and to give them that opportunity. If you see that there’s a woman’s name there, there’s some little girl that saw that and was like, ‘Oh, I maybe can do this job.’”

Considering that she revolutionised music video in the 1990s, directed Drew Barrymore to one of her finest performances, and helped to launch the big screen careers of Adam Sandler and Dave Chappelle, the gifted Tamra Davis is due a lot more credit, praise and attention than she’s currently receiving.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Norman Taurog, Jennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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