Small Beginnings is a new feature focusing on the early days of feature film directors, most frequently their music videos and advertisements. Many directors who got their start in these fields still return to their old stomping grounds, despite moving on to new, larger scale pastures. Music videos and advertisements are a perfect proving ground for up and coming directors, as they require stylistic flair, technical and choreographical know-how, and a solid understanding of narrative, all squished into the space of a few minutes, or even seconds. They also require management and understanding of less interesting but equally important aspects of filmmaking, namely budgeting and finance; if you can’t stay within the bounds of a modest budget to make a music video, you’re unlikely to be trusted with the money to make a feature film.
One of the most significant names in the music video world is Spike Jonze. By the time of Being John Malkovich, his 1999 feature debut, Jonze had already churned out an impressive back catalogue of memorable videos for artists as diverse as Björk, Beastie Boys, Weezer, Puff Daddy, Sonic Youth and Fatboy Slim, to name but a few. Along with Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham he founded ‘Directors Label’ in 2003, which releases compilation DVDs of their own videos, and those of other notable directors, many of whom will feature in upcoming articles in this series. He’s also directed numerous adverts for clients like Adidas, IKEA and The Gap, even being nominated for an award from the Directors Guild of America in 2006 in the field of “Outstanding Achievement in Commercials”. He’s pretty good at this stuff.
This first instalment of Small Beginnings will focus on a classic music video from 1999, the ultra low budget masterpiece from Jonze – Fatboy Slim’s Praise You. The video is comprised entirely of a dance routine by the fictional ‘Torrance Community Dance Group’, filmed guerrilla style, without permission, in the foyer of a cinema in Westwood, California. The budget of $800 supposedly went on food for the crew and a replacement boom box for the routine. It certainly didn’t go on a high quality camera, as the video appears to be filmed on a consumer grade handycam, but this all adds to the charm.
Charm is something Praise You has in spades. From the very beginning, the wonderfully shonky title card naming the dance group and the title of the song in swirly neon pink and green letters, and ‘Richard Koufey’ (a.k.a. Jonze) saying “let’s make tonight’s performance the best performance” in his little voice, you instantly find it adorable. The mismatched outfits and amateur dancing skills of the group are outshone by the sheer enthusiasm for their routine, which whilst relatively simple is clearly very well rehearsed, even if they are all slightly out of time with one another. Their floaty hand movements and funny little jumps can’t fail to make you smile, and Jonze leaping about the place like a deranged grasshopper is a sight to behold.
As the routine goes on, the at first perplexed crowd clearly become taken with the group; when cinema staff come to turn the music off (which Jonze responds to by jumping and clinging onto him like a baby monkey) the crowd boo and call for more. When Jonze starts it up again, they applaud and cheer when he busts out some insane and legitimately life threatening b-boy moves, so clearly an on-the-spot improvisation. By the time Norman Cook himself wanders into the background near the end, you’re gearing up to watch the whole thing over again, it’s such a wonderful, delightful little oddity, a perfect visual accompaniment to one of the all time great summer anthems.
Looking at this video alongside Jonze’s feature film debut released later the same year, the two pieces perfectly represent his career; Being John Malkovich shows his chops as a feature film director, whilst Praise You illustrates how much he enjoys making smaller pieces, almost for his own enjoyment as much as anything else. He is more than capable of bringing Charlie Kaufman’s uniquely creative brand of heavy philosophical concepts and musings to the big screen with Malkovich and Adaptation, as well as his writing and directing his own Oscar winning screenplay, Her. At the same time as creating such high concept and high profile features, however, he is still very much involved in producing and appearing in ongoing projects like Jackass, a franchise he originally co-created and produced, and still produces skateboard videos, the scene in which he first got his start in filmmaking. He’s also happy to appear in very, very small cameo roles in friends’ productions such as The Wolf of Wall Street, Moneyball and comedy television series The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. Essentially, Jonze is someone who knows and respects where they came from, sees the value in those fields, and continues to work within them on a regular basis. And as this series will show later on, he’s not alone in that.