The Work of Director Spike Jonze

My real introduction to Spike Jonze came during my freshmen year in college. Two doors down from my dorm room was the floor’s TV lounge, a magical place where I spent most of my first year in college. I didn’t have cable TV when I was growing up, and I made up for lost time with a vengeance, absorbing USA, The Cartoon Network, and of course MTV (this was right before the channel made the transition from videos to crap).

At the time, there were a handful of music videos that had everyone on the floor talking. Towards the top of that list were the videos for The Beastie Boys’ ​“Sabotage” and Weezer’s ​“Buddy Holly.” People just couldn’t shut up about them. And MTV’s VJs were raving about their director, a young maverick named Spike Jonze who had seemingly come out of nowhere.

Simply put, Jonze’s videos were a blast to watch (and still are, as this DVD reminded me). Sometimes they made no sense (such as the video for Daft Punk’s ​“Da Funk,” in which a dog-man limps around New York at night with a ghetto blaster), but they perfectly captured the mood and energy of the song. There’s no better example of this than ​“Sabotage,” the video that really put Jonze on the map, and arguably one of the greatest music videos of all time.

You’ve probably seen it a bajillion times already, but that doesn’t diminish its brilliance one bit. Using the theme of an old ​‘70s cop show (à la ​“Starsky & Hutch), the video follows the exploits of three maverick police officers — played to perfection by the Beastie Boys — as they rove their beat and take on all manner of scum. Of course, the Beasties have always been known for their flamboyant videos (“Hey Ladies,” anyone?), but nothing tops ​“Sabotage,” even the Beasties’ own directorial efforts (e.g., ​“Body Movin’,” ​“Intergalactic”).

And then there are the two Weezer videos on the disc. “(Undone) The Sweater Song” introduced Weezer to the masses, and it still remains a great power-pop hit. But Jonze transforms the video into a slacker masterpiece. In the video, Weezer looks less like a band and more like a group of garage kids pretending to rock out to their favorite songs… which is probably how it all started for them. But ​“Buddy Holly” is an altogether different kind of genius, and along with ​“Sabotage,” cemented Jonze’s reputation.

I’m sure that, at the time, it probably raised a few eyebrows when Jonze inserted footage of the band into scenes from a show as decidedly un-MTV as ​“Happy Days.” Yet it comes off without a hitch, feeling more nostalgic than kitsch. Or maybe it’s so kitschy that it turns kitsch inside out and becomes nostalgic. Whatever the case, the integration is so seamless that I thought I was watching some longlost episode of the show the first time I saw the video. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that ​“Buddy Holly” sounds just like the sort of pop gem you could totally see Richie Cunningham and his pals bopping along to. Plus, it has the Fonz, and you can never go wrong with that!

Although Jonze got his start working with indie bands (The Breeders, Dinosaur Jr.), the disc showcases his work with a number of artists and genres. He’s worked with hip-hop artists like Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G, and The Pharcyde. He created a delightful musical number for Bjork’s ​“It’s Oh So Quiet,” where everything from a tirestore clerk to a mailbox burst into song and dance alongside Bjork. His video for MC 900 Foot Jesus might be the only video in which a cardboard box was a prominent character, and famed gymnastics coach Bela Karoly served as inspiration for The Chemical Brothers’ ​“Elektrobank” (which starred future wife Sofia Coppola).

Some of Jonze’s most creative work has come from his collaborations with electronic artists, such as the aforementioned Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers. And of course, Fat Boy Slim. The disc includes ​“Weapon Of Choice” (you know, that video with Christopher Walken dancing and flying through a hotel lobby) and Jonze’s most ​“controversial” video, ​“Praise You.” Filmed on camcorder, the video consists of Jonze and a group of extras (billed as ​“The Torrance Community Dance Group”) doing an interpretive dance of ​“Praise You” in front of a movie theatre while bemused and annoyed bystanders look on. The video left a lot of people scratching their heads, and depending on how you look at it, it’s either a brilliantly subversive send-up of music videos as a whole, or it’s one of the dumbest, most idiotic things MTV ever aired.

And that’s just Side A. Flip the disc over, and you get even more goodies from the brain of Spike.

First, there are a couple of short films that seem more like fun little one-offs between Jonze and his friends than anything else. Of these, the best is ​“How They Get There,” in which a guy and a girl do their own ​“Ministry Of Silly Walks,” with twisted and hilarious consequences. There’s Richard Koufey’s (Spike Jonze, as the leader of The Torrance Community Dance Group) video audition for Fat Boy Slim (if you hated ​“Praise You,” you can skip this), plus ​“The Oasis Video That Never Happened,” an interesting short on an Oasis video that Jonze was concepting but never got to actually do.

Side B also contains three short documentaries. The first two, What’s Up Fatlip and Torrance Rises, revolve around Jonze’s video work. The former follows Fatlip on the shoot of Jonze’s video for What’s Up Fatlip, and seeks answers as to why Fatlip left The Pharcyde. The latter follows The Torrance Community Dance Group on the road to their performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.

However, the third documentary, Amarillo By Morning, might be the most intriguing piece on the entire DVD. While filming rodeo footage down in Texas, Jonze encountered a group of teenagers training to become professional bullriders. Jonze follows them around for a day, as they drive around town, practice their bullriding, talk about their friendships, and share their plans and dreams. At first, I was a bit worried that Jonze might play it all up for yucks at the expense of these ​“hicks,” that it might be one long ​“white trash” joke, but that’s far from the case here.

In fact, Amarillo By Morning is actually quite heartfelt. There are certainly plenty of humorous scenes, but Jonze doesn’t use them to poke fun at the kids. Rather, the kids come off as very earnest and sincere, which, when combined with Jonze’ evenhanded approach, makes Amarillo By Morning a very winning piece. It reminded me quite a bit of Spellbound, another great documentary that treats its odd subject with a great deal of respect, resulting in a very rewarding and entertaining piece.

All in all, a great set of extras that wraps up a great set of videos. Sadly, there’s little, if any mention of Jonze’s work as a film director. It would’ve been nice to get some glimpse into how Jonze’s videos influence his films (and vice versa), how working on one compares to working on the other, etc. But I suppose that’s what the film DVDs are for.

The Work of Director Spike Jonze is one in a series of DVDs titled ​“The Directors Label DVDs” which spotlight some of today’s most innovative directors. The other two discs in the series, which come out later this year, will spotlight Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham. Admittedly, when I first heard about the series, I was much more interested in the Gondry and Cunningham discs, but only because I’ve had less exposure to their work.

However, I got a real thrill when this arrived in the mail, and it proved to be a very entertaining and informative disc (especially with the 52 page booklet full of photos and interviews). There’s no doubt that Jonze is a real talent, but what’s more, and this comes across time and again throughout the disc, he’s a very passionate one as well. Which is what makes his work so distinctive and enjoyable… as much now as it was back then in the old TV lounge.