Music videos have traditionally acted as stepping stones for filmmakers. However, that’s not quite the case for Michel Gondry. The award-winning French director, screenwriter, and producer, who began his career by making strikingly original videos for his own rock band, Oui Oui, has indeed gone on to design major ad campaigns, work in television (including Kidding, his new Showtime series starring Jim Carrey), and direct generation-defining films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Still, he’s always returned to his music video roots between projects, never even hinting that his first medium, one that often gets treated as mere commercial work, is in any way a lesser art form.
And it’s that attitude, perhaps, that has driven Gondry to continue practicing music videos as high-concept art. Over the years, he’s continued to tweak and perfect a number of inventive styles that have allowed him to turn his videos into unlikely vehicles for surprisingly complex storytelling. It’s a calling card that’s not only allowed him to frequently work with acts as beloved and revered as The White Stripes, Björk, and The Chemical Brothers, but one that’s often resulted in creating visuals that have become permanently associated with these artists.
While his videography no doubt has plenty of highlights still to come, with the premiere of Kidding this weekend, we decided to take a look back and marvel at 10 times the singular talents of Michel Gondry have transformed a song by one of our favorite artists into a triumph of visual storytelling.
Sinéad O’Connor – “Fire on Babylon” (1994)
By 1994, most music video viewers likely still pictured Sinéad O’Connor as either the raven damsel wandering the austere grounds of the “Nothing Compares 2 U” set or as the bald and brazen protester tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II on SNL. However, Gondry’s treatment of “Fire on Babylon” casts the ballsy singer in a far different light. Dressed in a doll-like, floral print and bright, red sweater with brown hair grown out to almost pageboy length, O’Connor embraces the abused and fearful child that still lives within. Creating one of his famous cardboard cutout realities, Gondry places the isolated O’Connor and her girlhood counterpart in an interconnected, Coraline-reminiscent world, where the grown woman remains haunted by a childhood full of dollies being drowned in sinks, birthday cakes being allowed to burn to the tabletop, and physical and emotional abuse as cold and calculated as the terrible drilling and grinding torture machine she imagines. The little girl has the last laugh, though, as O’Connor, donning armor à la Joan of Arc, returns to vanquish the machine and burn down the hellish home of her youth.
Gondry Gaze: The trapdoor flipping of her home and spinning of her bedroom wall brilliantly use motion to demonstrate how much of that scared, little girl remains inside the adult O’Connor, but nothing screams Gondry more than the projected familial apparitions and memories that appear and fade throughout the video in the house’s backyard. As light and dark outside the window mark the passage of time and neighboring homes shift about all around the house in question, O’Connor’s existence remains stunted and haunted until she finally confronts her abusive past. Few videos compare 2 it.
Massive Attack – “Protection” (1995)
Whether it be Sinéad O’Connor’s girlhood window or the eye sockets of Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson after aliens have snatched his body, Gondry’s videos often ask us to look outward from the inside. That vantage gets flipped in the video for Massive Attack’s “Protection”. Taking an ambitious page out of the shooting script from Hitchcock’s Rope and borrowing his concept from Rear Window, Gondry, in one seamless camera shot, pans away from guest chanteuse Tracey Thorn and moves throughout an apartment building, peering into different flats and into the lives of her neighboring tenants. In a song about desperately needing someone to embrace, Gondry’s vision plays up the tragedy that Thorn is surrounded by people and yet utterly alone and isolated at the same time. It’s a visual concept that could be used to a number of lighter ends, or one that could easily lose its humanity in the process, but here Gondry opts for a sobering effect that perfectly fits Thorn’s quiet pleas.
Gondry Gaze: Sometimes the simplicity of a concept can belie just how ambitious or complex an actual video turns out to be. Not only does Gondry shoot “Protection” in one seamless shot, but our admiration increases when we learn that Thorn’s apartment building was built not six stories up but six stories flat. To accomplish the effect, the film was shot above from a crane, with most of the characters, including Thorn, on their backs and other motion effects being created by a system of pulleys and projection screens. All hail the master.
Björk – “Hyperballad” (1996)
The suicidal fantasy that is “Hyperballad” was born of a dream Björk once experienced. More specifically, the song talks about the parts of ourselves we sacrifice and the aggression we must release to go through our daily lives and be with someone after our initial infatuation with them has dissipated. By no means is it surprising, then, that she tapped Gondry, her longtime collaborator, to help her create the visual component to this composition. Much of Gondry’s work takes place in that space between waking and dreaming, and the idea of the fragmented self populates several of his videos from Sheryl Crow and Kylie Minogue to Wyclef Jean and Foo Fighters. Here, we find a sleeping, dreaming Björk gently swaying back and forth while a projection of her sings and a pixilated video game version absconds to the mountaintop, past buildings and communication towers, and leaps to her death (or emancipation as the case may be). As the chorus soars and Björk explains herself, we come to understand that it’s the artist, the frustrated lover, and the desperate individual all in one, each an undeniable ingredient of the woman that wakes every day and struggles to carry on.
Gondry Gaze: The electronic bleeps and bloops of Björk’s composition are perfectly complemented by Gondry’s use of projections, blinking bulbs, and flecks of light. Not only do they gorgeously distinguish between the various Björks appearing in the video, but they create a sort of static confusion and breakdown in communication that you can imagine existing between the dream and waking states and between the smiling outward self and the secret self that we keep tucked away.
Beck – “Deadweight” (1997)
The video for “Deadweight” pushes Beck through the looking glass into a world of opposites. There the ’90s slacker prince holds down a desk job (behind a literal desk) at the beach and later holidays in a beach chair and leisure attire as a proper business office buzzes around him. If Gondry’s antithetical hijinks aren’t stimulation enough, the video also serves as an ad for Danny Boyle’s film A Life Less Ordinary, the soundtrack to which includes “Deadweight”. This is where Gondry raises the art form to another level. Instead of simply splicing clips from the film into the music video, he creates a premise in which Beck’s world and Boyle’s movie interact with one another, in a sense competing for the claim to being the true reality. So, when an annoyed beachgoer tosses a child’s toy truck into the ocean, we see a similar-looking truck go flying off a cliff in Boyle’s film. Likewise, when a punch gets thrown in A Life Less Ordinary, it’s Beck who absorbs the blow rather than the film’s star, Ewan McGregor. The entire struggle brilliantly resolves itself when Beck goes into a theater to see Boyle’s movie and instead finds himself and what he thought to be his reality (no longer a world of opposites, though) onscreen before a popcorn-munching audience.
Gondry Gaze: The director spares no visual expense to capitalize on the irony of Beck’s ocean-side clerical work (the rubber stamp tree is a beautiful touch), and it never gets tiresome watching Beck wading ankle-deep in the carpeted floor of a corporate office. Still, no moment is more memorable than when McGregor calls not Beck, but Beck’s shadow at a payphone. In the next shot, we see the shadow trudging down the sidewalk now dragging Beck on the pavement behind him. What a loser, baby.
Daft Punk – “Around the World” (1997)
Despite a critically acclaimed and hit-laden debut album, Homework, there still remained plenty of mystery surrounding French house duo Daft Punk back in 1997. It’s also fair to say that the Gondry-directed music video for their No. 1 dance hit “Around the World” didn’t shed much additional light on the pair. What the video did do, however, besides help launch Daft Punk further into the stratosphere, is demonstrate the director’s uncanny ability to combine repetition and motion within a complex minimalist context to make visuals that look how music sounds. Here, using only a rotating set (or camera) and several choreographed dance groups – including four b-boy skeletons 20 years prior to David S. Pumpkins — Gondry ultimately creates a human (as in made of humans) wave-style visual output for the song. Elements of this video, such as the use of a small, circular space and visuals replicating the accompanying sound would evolve to greater storytelling effect in future videos like Radiohead’s “Knives Out” and The White Stripes’ “Hardest Button to Button”.
Gondry Gaze: The absurdist flair of having skeletons, astronauts, mummies, and creatures in tracksuits with oddly extended torsos all dancing together surely checks a stylistic box for Gondry; however, what stands out more are the director’s retreats and cuts that pull back from the action one second and have the viewer on the floor with the dancers the next. More is always going on than you think in a Gondry music video, and part of the overall impact is being forced to see and absorb both the forest and the trees of the video. Oftentimes, music videos aren’t prepared to let us see both; it reveals too many cracks in the concept or craftsmanship.
Foo Fighters – “Everlong” (1997)
Twenty years on, “Everlong” remains arguably the finest alt-rock song of the ’90s. From its equally melodic and unnerving preamble to its full-throated hopes that the earliest feelings of falling in love can last forever, it’s the type of universal rock song that strikes a chord with anyone with a detectable pulse. As a video, it’s equally memorable and allowed Gondry a chance to playfully depict frontman Dave Grohl and band newcomer Taylor Hawkins as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, pay homage to The Evil Dead, and once again indulge his fascinations with the look and nature of dreams. Whether intended or not, the surreal, satirical video does echo what’s at the heart of Grohl’s song, as he and Hawkins, long married by all accounts in the video, though on different wavelengths now, still fantasize about the other in their respective dreams and turn to one another when those dreams get out of control. Beyond all the fun and allusions, the video does suggest that there’s something worth hanging on for once initial passions fade in a relationship. The jam session and burst of color at the very end of the video even hint that things might still turn out pretty good from time to time.
Gondry Gaze: This is without a doubt one of Gondry’s funniest music videos, and no laugh comes more heartily than when Hawkins phones Grohl from his dream and Grohl, rather than immediately coming to the rescue, instead goes back to his Sid and Nancy dream where he’s on a bed surrounded by beautiful women. Of course, Grohl’s conscience catches up with him, and he finds himself suddenly not holding legs anymore but logs just outside of Hawkins’ besieged cabin in the woods. The high heels on the firewood are a priceless touch.
Radiohead – “Knives Out” (2001)
It’s not so much that Gondry goes back to the well in his music video work; it’s more the case that he revisits elements of his style and finds new ways to incorporate them and evolve. In a song that usually gets interpreted as being about cannibalism (at least metaphorically), here Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke plays the part of a worried husband holed up in a hospital room as his ill wife (laid out like a human version of the classic board game Operation) suffers the poking and prodding of an emotionally cold series of doctors and hospital employees. To tell the story, Gondry returns to his screens, claustrophobic spaces, and rotating camera. While a lot is open to interpretation in this world of heart-shaped heads, guitar-slinging skeletons, and mouse microphones, it remains a wonder how Gondry makes us feel so much while seemingly doing so very little. Of course, that’s the power of minimalism.
Gondry Gaze: While this bizarre video can be considered minimalist in the sense that an entire story takes place in a single hospital room, one thing that doesn’t get skimped on are the details Gondry uses to tell us about the couple. One entire side of the hospital room is full of keepsakes and photos. Even the television VCR is cued with footage from the couple’s tumultuous romance. It’s the degree of detail a husband might undertake to convince his wife everything will be alright or, as Yorke once suggested, comfort her when the shine leaves her eyes and you know death will be the next visitor through the door.
Queens of the Stone Age – “No One Knows” (2002)
Has a music video ever been more synonymous with a band than “No One Knows” is with Queens of the Stone Age? It’s extremely difficult, almost impossible, to hear the band’s name and not, at least momentarily, have a flashback to Josh Homme, Nick Oliveri, and Mark Lanegan strapped to the front hood of a jeep as a vengeful deer drives them towards their mounted fate. It’s one of those rare occasions when all the elements of a music video perfectly encompass a song and its creators. The bumpy, jerky footage approximates one of the sickest grooves in alt-rock history, the Gondry style that began way back in Björk’s “Human Behaviour” video culminates in the bizarre deer rampage, and the overall darkness of the tale perfectly captures the dangerous, rebellious nature of the band. Whether he knew it or not at the time, Gondry had basically created a visual resume perfectly tailored to Queens of the Stone Age. This video tells viewers all they need to know.
Gondry Gaze: Too often the clips of the band playing in this video get overlooked. It’s a shame because rarely has Gondry’s use of color and simple effects been more aesthetically powerful. Whether it’s a cool blue outlining guest drummer Dave Grohl, a white smoke curling around Oliveri, or a reddish dust baking on Homme, it feels like the band’s aura is emanating from them as they jam, an effect made all the more striking by the pitch-black background they appear against. It’s almost impossible to look more bad-ass.
The White Stripes – “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” (2002)
Like Björk and The Chemical Brothers before them, The White Stripes owe much of their enduring visual aesthetic to their video work with Gondry over the years. And while fans may adore the Lego lunacy of “Fell in Love with a Girl” (what’s not to love?), rarely has Gondry’s vision yielded a more poignant result than in the video for “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”. When Jack White returns home from travels, not only does he find his house absolutely trashed but that Meg’s gone as well. As White goes from room to room to assess the damage, Gondry projects the footage of the partgoers forcing their way into the residence and destroying everything within. It’s a gorgeous use of projections to unite the past and present in the same space, but the video goes deeper. We also get flashbacks to happy times of Jack and Meg hanging a painting together, jamming on earlier tunes, and joking in the bathroom mirror while Jack shaves. When Gondry shows us the final footage of Meg packing her bags, including the painting that she hung with White, we get the distinct sense that more has been lost than just the broken possessions strewn across the front lawn.
Gondry Gaze: So many video directors might have looked at the same concept and tried to present all the footage separately, but Gondry not only understood that he had only about three minutes to work with; he also, throughout his video work, demonstrates a deep appreciation for the complex, messy, and claustrophobic relationship between past and present. So, instead of tidy, separate segments pushing the narrative forward, we see White’s current emotional state sharing the same cramped space with both the house’s demise and the memories of the moments that made it not just a house, but a home for Jack and Meg in the first place.
Flight of the Conchords – “Carol Brown” (2009)
Many of Gondry’s earlier videos — like Thomas Dolby’s “Close but No Cigar” and Donald Fagen’s “Snowbound” — made frequent use of screens to tell their stories and convey more of what was going on at any one time. However, as time passed, Gondry’s idea of what constitutes a screen began to evolve. The director’s unofficial video for Flight of the Conchords’ “Carol Brown” — a play on Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” that finds Jemaine Clement bumbling through his spotty history as a boyfriend — uses the entire first story of a building front to project the images of all the ex-girlfriends revisited in the song. The humor, of course, apart from the terrific lyrics and delivery, comes from the fact that Jemaine, with the help of bandmate Bret McKenzie, is supposedly operating this video of his dating history with his instrument — a videotape editing console attached to a guitar neck — and still can’t control the narrative and make himself appear in a favorable light. The imperfections of Gondry’s projection, due to the uneven surface of the building’s facade, even serve as real-life manifestations of the cracks in Jemaine’s account.
Gondry’s Gaze: Throughout the video, Gondry uses rudimentary special effects to alter Clement’s color, size, and composition. Think the types of effects and segues you see in an amateur PowerPoint presentation. Jemaine’s wingman, Bret, is actually the one manning these controls and unintentionally making his friend, already badly outmatched by his exes, look even more foolish. These special effects glitches only amplify the joke that we’re listening to a less than credible and competent source. Shut up, girlfriends from the past!