Music Video Days
by Craig D. Lindsey
Remember when music videos were the televised equivalent of cinematic works of art? Four- to five-minute intervals of limitless imagination and visual wonder?
Music videos weren't always record-label promo tools, featuring such played-out cliches as rappers in a mansion pouring Moet onto the ass of some big-booty dancer, or emo rock bands performing a song about a girl who's one of the starlets from The O.C.
Lucky for us, three of the finest auteurs in the music-video genre--Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham--recently came together to release Director's Series, a trio of DVD collections.
All three volumes encompass each of the director's best work, so it's a welcome reminder of how sorely we need these guys to put some substance back into MTV.
I've been waiting for a Spike Jonze video collection to drop ever since I first saw his videos in the mid-'90s. There isn't a video director who excels in inventive craftiness and po-mo ingenuity quite like Jonze.
Whether he knows it or not, Jonze's videos carry a much more subversive bang than they let on. They all consist of one very simple, very clever premise: the Beastie Boys immersing themselves in a '70s cop-show wet dream in "Sabotage"; Weezer guest-starring in its own very special episode of Happy Days in "Buddy Holly"; Christopher Walken doing retro dance moves in a vacant hotel lobby in Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice."
Yet these clips show that Jonze gets inspiration from taking the oddness, kitschiness and mediocrity of American pop culture and throwing it back in our faces as campy yet stimulating pop art. Let's just say if Warhol were alive, he and Jonze would be like that.
In recent years Hollywood has called on Jonze to direct features--mostly movies scripted by another unique mind, Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation). So new Spike Jonze videos are now few and far between.
Happily, Gondry (who's also adapted two Charlie Kaufman scripts, Human Nature and the upcoming Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) has picked up the ball and become the go-to guy for imaginatively wild videos, as evidenced by his extensive resume.
The French-born Gondry may not be as subtle as Jonze, but a man who has his own sense of dazzling whimsy, like Gondry does, can't afford to be subtle. An animated anything-goes spirit is prevalent throughout Gondry's work, as he amazes the viewer with such sights as multiple Kylie Minogues walking around a busy shopping street in "Come Into My World" (trust me, it's better than it sounds), the White Stripes made up of Legos in their career-making "Fell in Love With a Girl" video, or anything involving his most consistently inspiring muse, Björk (who has also appeared in videos directed by Jonze and Cunningham).
If Jonze and Gondry revel in capturing the fun and imagination of music videos, Cunningham is hell-bent on showing viewers what can make music videos horrifying, disturbing and ultimately poetic.
Cunningham's collection consists of only a few videos, but it's a compilation of the most fuck-with-your-head ones you'll ever see--unless Mark Romanek comes out with a collection. Just the couple of clips he did for Aphex Twin--in which he had rambunctious kids and bootylicious bikini babes wearing masks of the menacingly grinning techno star--are enough to haunt your dreams until the day you die.
But not all of the dark-minded Brit's videos are scary as hell. Watching Madonna shape-shift in the desert for "Frozen" or seeing members of Portishead swim in the night sky in their "Only You" video proves that Cunningham can throw together a visually elegant video when he wants to.
The three discs also include bonus features like commercials, short films and other snippets from the directors. The Jonze disc is the only one that includes audio commentary, but not from the notoriously shy director.
Instead we get behind-the-scenes talk from the artists (the Beasties, the Chemical Brothers, P. Diddy) whose videos he directed. Jonze appears only as Richard Koufey, his goofy alter ego from Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" video, in a documentary chronicling the video's success. Cunningham is even more incognito, supplying only a voiceover interview for a documentary on one of his videos.
But Gondry is the most accommodating, explaining his video-making methods in a two-part documentary. He even appears in the main DVD menu, playing drums with his kids' heads in the kit.
Gondry may be the kooky, nutty extrovert of this band of outsiders, but they're all men with the same goal: to bring artistry to the music video--and to prevent pop stars from looking like easily manipulated puppets for record labels.