The Director’s Label DVD Series
2003Director: Spike Jonze/Chris Cunningham/Michel Gondry
re we finally ready to accept the music video as an art form? It’s been 20 years since “Thriller,” and yet the music video form is still rarely given much more than a second glance critically. While it’s true that the medium is a great spawning point for cliché, and most of the major video stations are filled with flashy, overdone and uninteresting product (I mean, besides all the obvious non-video programming), in what way is that any different from your average mainstream radio station or movie theater? Both of those formats are taken seriously because there are constant figures that deliver regular quality, and music video has more than proven itself capable of that, with artists like Björk, Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, Blur, Madonna, The Chemical Brothers, and Beastie Boys, none of whom settle for the mediocre in their music videos, instead offering visually stunning, frequently humorous clips that serve as short films as well as musical advertisements. But equally responsible for the canon of great music videos that have infiltrated the major networks over the years have been the directors, whose achievements have gone largely unrecognized by anyone besides the experts and fellow filmmakers.
This is why the idea of the Director’s Label DVD series is such a great one. Most of the artists listed above have had their own music video DVDs, where they are applauded for the risks they took and the creative decisions they made. However, this is the first time that the directors behind many of those great videos have been recognized individually with their own video collections. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham have, between the three of them, been responsible for a large chunk of the truly great videos that have circulated in the last decade or so. Watching their DVDs, it is evident that they are deserving of mention with any of the great filmmakers of recent years—in video or film.
Of the three directors featured here, Spike Jonze is probably the most well known, and the closest thing to a superstar in the music video directorial world. Several of his videos (Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”) were among the most popular of the music video era, and as it is pointed out the DVD’s booklet—each of the three DVDs comes equipped with an awesome booklet full of stories, video treatments, stills, and other goodies—his repertoire makes up a truly formidable 90s jukebox. Of the sixteen videos here, only two or three were not afforded some sort of major airplay on MTV or the other music networks, and even those were small triumphs in their own right. His work here is not confined to one genre, either—the artists featured here span from superstar rappers like Beastie Boys and The Notorious B.I.G. to indie favorites Dinosaur Jr. and The Breeders to big beat monsters Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers.
Spike’s videos are the loosest set of the three DVDs. Rarely lofty or inaccessibly pretentious, the videos usually take one hysterical concept and ride it out for four minutes—the Beastie Boys as a 70s cop show in “Sabotage,” Björk as a starlet in her own 40s musical in “It’s Oh So Quiet,” and a bunch of kids as The Notorious B.I.G (along with Puff Daddy, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, Faith Evans, 112 and Li’l Kim) in “The Sky’s the Limit.” The appeal of watching The Pharcyde shed their clothes in reverse in “Drop” or Christopher Walken dance around an abandoned hotel in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” never really rises above novelty, but the true achievement of Jonze’s work is how well that novelty extends to repeat viewings and critical analysis. These are still advertisements at heart, after all, and the key to a great advertisement is how memorable it is. No one knows that better than Spike, whose videos here made superstars out of Weezer, Fatboy Slim and The Breeders, and kept one-timers Wax, Fatlip and MC 900ft Jesus from being completely swallowed up by the 90s. And that’s not to say that Jonze couldn’t handle a greater concept—the videos for “The Sky’s the Limit” and Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” both have novel concepts, but approach something strongly resembling poignancy upon repeat viewings.
As with all of the Director’s Label DVDs, the Jonze DVD contains all sorts of goodies beyond the standard videos. The most immediately appealing are the commentaries, with most of the major artists featured on the DVD providing commentaries for their videos. Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis and The Chemical Brothers seem a little bit out of it, but sound commentaries are provided by Daft Punk, The Pharcyde, and the ever reliable Beastie Boys, who appear, in a separate section, to offer commentary on not only their two videos but several of Spike’s others, but spend most of the time joking about what a cheapskate Jonze is and threatening him with legal action. What is far cooler, though, are the commentaries offered not by the artists, but by the stars of the videos. Tony Maxwell offers commentary on the torture that playing the dogboy in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” was, and explains the technicalities of Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” for which he was an extra. The miniature Biggie and Puffy from “The Sky’s the Limit” drop by for a chat, along with full-size Puffy, who delivers the highlight of the DVD when he answers the question “do you think that Biggie would’ve liked this video?” with “I know for a fact that he does.” And of course, Christopher Walken offers his perspective on his stunning performance in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” (“a very catchy tune”), quite possibly the greatest music video cameo ever.
The DVD’s flipside is split between Jonze’s rarities and documentaries. On the rarities side, you get to see a couple interesting short films with Mark Gonzales, a half-made video for Oasis’s “Stand By Me” (the band, naturally, were too big wankers to do their end) and a film of Spike Jonze giving a solo “Praise You”-type dance to Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafella Skank”—which, as Fatboy explains earlier in the DVD, Spike sent to Fatboy without explaining that he himself was the crazed dancer, a development that eventually leading to the “Praise You” video. The documentaries are slightly more interesting—I didn’t give much of a damn about the two boys in Amarillo By Morning, Spike’s doc about two suburban teenagers who are wannabe cowboys, but Fatlip proves himself an engaging, fascinating character (delivering on the promise of his “What’s Up Fatlip?” video earlier in the set) with the similarly titled What’s Up Fatlip? documentary. Best of all, though, is Torrance Rises, a half-hour faux-documentary detailing the (fictional? It’s impossible to tell, everyone plays it so straight faced) journey of the Torrance Community Dance Group leading up to the performance of “Praise You” at the 1999 Video Music Awards. At some points, it’s absolutely hysterical—watch for Group leader Richard Koufey (a.k.a Spike) squaring off against a New York posse in an old school dance-off to “Planet Rock”—and Jonze’s willingness to make a complete ass out of himself is always endearing.
Needless to say, this is one jam packed DVD. Watching straight through, there is about six hours worth of material here, nearly all of it of the highest quality. And as Jonze’s DVDs are the most fun, accessible and popular, watching the DVD makes for a great communal activity—sing along with your friends to “Buddy Holly” and “Sabotage,” reminiscing about the first time you saw the videos on MTV and still knowing all the words. They’ll probably recognize at least half the videos.
They’re far less likely to recognize the videos on the Chris Cunningham DVD, however, in part because of the fact that the adjectives “fun” and “accessible” do not really lend themselves here. Chris Cunningham is in fact one dark, twisted motherfucker, and on his DVD, he lets you into his psyche to explore his fascinating dementia. You get to see a man stripped of his limbs by a cruel, insensitive world, before literally being shattered into thousands of little pieces (Leftfield’s “Afrika Shox,”) sex becoming interchangable with horrific violence (the Aphex Twin-soundtracked flex short), and a woman visibly drowning in midair (Portishead’s “Only You”), among other pleasantries.
Chris Cunningham is the man responsible for two of the most bizarre, horrifically beautiful music videos ever to make daytime rotation on MTV—Aphex Twin’s “Come To Daddy” and Madonna’s “Frozen,” the two videos on the DVD the average video watcher is likely to have already seen. The “Come to Daddy” video is frequently cited, in fact, as the most fucked up music video ever made, an analysis that is fairly apt. The miserable, grey-toned video starts with a dog pissing on an old woman’s leg, climaxes with a bunch of kids and midgets wearing freaky Richard D. James masks and tearing shit up, and ends with some horrific monster emerging out of a television and howling in the face of the old woman. It’s the only video that a song like “Come To Daddy” could deserve. Madonna’s decision to have the guy who made “Come to Daddy” do the first video off her Ray of Light album made about as much sense as pulling “Frozen” as the selected single—the song is a cold, eastern-influenced ballad with no visible commercial potential. It was a big hit (it was a Madonna lead single, after all) so the video made the rounds quite a bit in 1998, sticking out like a sore thumb with its creepy goth-Madonna-in-a-dessert-turning-into-a-bunch-of-ravens visuals. These videos are great thorns in MTV’s side, but they’re not even the best videos on the DVD.
That honor goes to Portishead’s ultra-claustrophobic “Only You,” a supremely gorgeous eternal midnight of a music video to fit a song that could not get any slower ‘n lower. And, to prove that Cunningham is not without a sense of humor (albeit an extremely sick, black sense of humor), also included are Squarepusher’s “Come on My Selector” and “Windowlicker,” the second Aphex Twin video in the set. The former is like Yoshimi Enters the Cuckoo’s Next, a bizarre tale of an ass-kicking kung fu tyke in an insane asylum-type hospital of sorts, and the latter is a much overdue sendup of the greatest video cliché of all—that of the bling-blinging rap music video. Included here in its obnoxious, ten-minute, profanity strewn full form, “Windowlicker” is Cunningham’s nastiest creation, wickedly hysterical and pure evil. The video section of the DVD wisely ends with Björk’s “All is Full of Love,” the most three-dimensional video Cunningham has made to date. It is replete with his themes of mechanization and desolation, but is nonetheless an undeniably warm music video, his most visually stunning creation to date, and one that perfectly matches Björk’s futuristic love song.
And then…that’s about it. Eight videos in total. You get a couple of extras—a semi-interesting “making of ‘All is Full of Love’” documentary, a couple cool commercials, some shorts, the edited version of “Windowlicker”—all in all equal to about 1/10 of the length of the Jonze extras alone. You can get through the entire DVD in under an hour and a half. Even the booklet consists mostly of just pretty pictures, offering little in the way of actual insight. At absolute least, the DVD could’ve included any of the many videos Cunningham made in ’96 or ‘97; barely half of his repertoire is represented here. So while the quality is universally high throughout the DVD—even the extras are pretty awesome—the quantity is sorely lacking, resigning the DVD to “the other one” status, the only unessential one of the three. Still, Cunningham’s DVD is quite an experience; it’s the kind of product that should be shown as a midnight movie around college campuses nation-wide.
The last of the three, the work of director Michel Gondry, finds the perfect halfway point between Cunningham’s dark, boundary pushing, artistically profound pretensions and Jonze’s humorous, easygoing, populist tendencies. When he tried, Gondry could paint a truly beautiful, meaningful music video—check out Massive Attack’s “Protection,” a stunning six-minute masterpiece of color, theme, image and movement, or Björk’s “Bachelorette,” a similarly breathtaking work of startling emotional complexity, one that defies simple analysis but craves further discovery. This is a set of videos whose concepts are so out there and forward-thinking that watching it, you can actually feel your mind being expanded. Consequently, watching the DVD all the way through is highly inadvisable—it’ll very likely give you a large headache.
But on the other hand, several of these videos were also fun enough to garner heavy rotation on MTV. The video for The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” rocketed Jack and Meg to the mainstream just like Spike Jonze’s videos put Weezer on the map, and Michel’s videos for The Chemical Brothers, The Foo Fighters and Björk were relatively popular in their day as well. Gondry could play a gimmick as well as Jonze could—witness the 1 minute and 48 second lego frenzy that is the previously mentioned “Fell in Love With a Girl,” the signs around the streets of France that spell out the lyrics to Jean Francois Coen’s “La Tour De Pese,” or Jack White’s memories playing like a movie on the walls of his destroyed home in “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.”
So most of the time, Gondry ends up in the middle, with videos that are fun and eminently watchable, but also succeeded in expanding the limits of what a music video could do in four minutes. One of Gondry’s particular specialties (and one that, to a slightly lesser extent, Cunningham shared as well) was the synchronization of sound and image—yes, just about every music video does that, but few as meticulously as Gondry’s videos. Nearly every one of the videos on this set has some immediate and direct correspondence between image and sound, whether it be the multiplying amps and drum sets to the strains of The White Stripes’ “Hardest Button to Button,” or the dancers acting out the instruments in Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” or the most extreme (and impressive example), the jaw-droppingly detailed synchronization between a train ride through industrial England and the music to The Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar.”
Another one of Gondry’s recurring themes was the idea of what you could do with a music video in just one shot. Five of these videos were taken without any cuts, and with about 100 times more activity than Spike Jonze’s impressive-but-not-as-impressive “California” video. In “Lucas With the Lid Off,” by the titular Lucas, Gondry’s camera fluidly slides from one set (and one set of characters) to the next, fucking with our perceptions by suddenly changing angles or displaying mirrors or TV screens. In Kylie Minogue’s “Come Into My World,” the video starts out as one shot, and never cuts that shot, but in fact is a four-shot video, with four shots piled on top of each other, for an effect that creates not only four Kylies, but four of everyone and everything in the video’s original take. The camera in the previously mentioned “Protection” weaves in and out through the missing walls of a color-coded apartment complex, invading the characters’ much needed privacy and providing a choking sense of claustrophobia. As far as one shot videos go, these are hardly Alanis Morissette’s “Head Over Feet.”
Six of the videos on this DVD belong to Björk, the endlessly imaginative and quirky muse to each of the three directors, and the only artist to be featured on all three DVDs. But the relationship between Gondry and Björk is clearly a special one, one comparable to, say, Krzystof Kieslowski and Irene Jacob in the film world. “Isobel” and “Hyperballad” aren’t incredibly special, and “Joga” is visually staggering but not terribly novel, but “Bachelorette,” “Army of Me,” and “Human Behaviour” certainly rank as some of the best videos of the 90s. All reflect a different side of Björk’s kaleidoscopic personality in a totally different, utterly unique way—the first places her as a fish-out-of-water literary celebrity form a rural life who ends up yearning to go back to nature, the second has her as a Tank Girl of sorts, beating up gorillas for diamonds and bombing art museums to wake people up, and the last has her eaten by a gigantic teddy bear. On these sets, Björk proves herself to be quite possibly the greatest music video artist of our time, with a wide spectrum of videos that is constantly changing direction, but is always engaging and enlightening. Interestingly, her only rival for this title, Radiohead, does not appear once on any of the sets, though Gondry did a video for recent RH single “Knives Out,” which would certainly have been more welcome than the sixth video from Oui Oui, the band with which Michel Gondry got his start.
The extras on the DVD are considerably better (and more plentiful) than those on the Cunningham, but fall short of the great fun and great number of those on the Jonze DVD. There’s a 75 minute documentary on Gondry himself, a whole bunch of short movies and a couple commercials. The documentary is quite fun, giving you valuable insight into the psyche of Gondry, the most sympathetic director of the three (shy, introspective, and quirky) and offering valuable commentary from some of his best artists. The shorts aren’t that useful, mostly consisting of some early, primitive Gondry shorts that would never have seen the light of day had they been done by someone else. There are a couple exceptions, however—the heartbreaking French coming-of-age short “La Lettre,” the Gondry-playing-drums-around-the-city “Drumb and Drumber,” and “Pecan Pie,” which consists of (now listen closely) Jim Carrey riding along in a bedcar, mugging along to some fake Elvis Presley song while the people at a gas station fill up his car and fluff his pillows. I really want to hear the backstory behind that. However, although there is not as much content as the extras on Spike’s DVD, the videos alone would be enough to give the DVD permanent watchability. These videos can’t ever be fully understood—you just need to just keep watching.
This first round from the Director’s Label DVD series is an inspiring move in the right direction towards music video being taken seriously as an art form. All three are fairly necessary—though the lack of content keeps the Cunningham DVD from being truly essential, it is still of extremely high quality and is an advised, if not forced at gunpoint, purchase. Let’s just hope this isn’t the last round, however, as there are plenty of other directors that are more than worthy of these similar tributes—Mark Romanek, David Fincher, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, Hammer & Tongs, Hype Williams, and Jonas Akerlund, to name a few. Hopefully their day will come, but for now, let’s enjoy the first of the fruits—tributes to, say, the Billy Wilder, the Orson Welles and the Alfred Hitchcock of the music video industry. Good job, boys.