The most powerful element of creativity is being inspired by an idea and having the ability to manifest it exactly the way you drew it up. The best music video directors have this trait in common, but nobody does it quite like Michel Gondry. The French filmmaker has a childlike imagination for his concepts, often drawing inspiration from his dreams and memories to make what’s surreal look and feel tangible.
Born in Versailles, Gondry is today best known for his work on the big screen, as a writer and director for films like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, The Science Of Sleep, and Be Kind Rewind (though lately, he’s making a mark on TV with Kidding). But it’s his highly influential work as a storytelling music video director that first etched his place in the mainstream pop culture canon. Bring up “That Lego video by The White Stripes!” and the reference to perhaps Gondry’s most well-known clip (for “Fell In Love With A Girl”) instantly comes to mind for anyone.
For many of us in the pre-YouTube era, we were properly introduced to Gondry and his defining videos in the cult-classic 2003 Palm Pictures Directors Label Vol. 1 DVD box set. The three-disc set (Spike Jonze and Chris Cunnigham were featured in the other two) mapped out Gondry’s work with artists like Björk, The White Stripes, Foo Fighters, The Chemical Brothers, and the ’80s French pop band he played drums for, Oui Oui. The collection is spellbinding. Gondry creates worlds and fantasies that come together fluidly through groundbreaking filmmaking techniques and through it all, the artist and their music are somehow always still front and center.
There’s a simple moment in Lance Bangs’ 2004 documentary on the director, I’ve Been Twelve Forever, where Gondry explains that he had a complex early on that he wouldn’t be good enough. “At some point, if you want to consider yourself as somebody who creates,” he says, “you have to just ignore that and say that what you’re doing is different because you put yourself into it.”
It’s the ability to let go and just create in the name of art and escapism that has made Michel Gondry an icon. The way his videos make you wonder exactly what the filmmaker was doing just as much as what you see, makes the images stay in our minds and be forever tied to our sensory perception of the songs. With that, we’ve compiled his eight most spectacular videos, with some tidbits on how they were made. The best of the best from perhaps the greatest music video director of all time.
Foo Fighters — “Everlong” (1997)
Gondry employs his classic dream sequence, storyboard concept on the comically outlandish video for “Everlong.” In two separate dreams, Dave Grohl plays a crust punk and a preppie, saving his damsel in distress from a gang of goons played by guitarist Pat Smear and bass player Nate Mendel. He triumphs by smacking them down with an extra-large supersonic hand, an effect Gondry later explored in The Science Of Sleep (and something he said he saw in a recurring nightmare as a child.) The twist here, is that the damsel is actually played by drummer Taylor Hawkins, who ended up cross-dressing for the role because Grohl told Gondry that both his ex-wife and girlfriend at the time would freak out if they saw him in a bed with another woman (even in a music video.) “Everybody thinks its the best video we’ve ever made,” Grohl explained in I’ve Been Twelve Forever. “To this day, we’ve tried to make videos that can top that one and I don’t think we’ll ever do it (unless we make another video with Michel.)”
The Chemical Brothers — “Let Forever Be” (1999)
Another dream sequence here, as Gondry blurs the line between reality and the dream by shifting recording technologies. He’d never operated with film recording before, but found a way to meld ’90s videos with that cheesy ’80s film quality. The brilliance here is in what Gondry calls “invisible transitions” from one to the other, by using actors who did a choreographed flaring effect instead of using video magic, but then flaring back with video effects into the video’s protagonist in an almost Matrix-like fashion. “This video inspired me to quit my job and start making music videos for a living,” says San Francisco-based music video director David Dutton (Bassnectar, SOBxRBE). “The quality shift is obvious, but it’s still mesmerizing. How It looks like VHS and then every now and then it diverts into a video shoot. It was contemporary and pop and even when Youtube came around in 2005, it still had that pop-ness to it.”
Daft Punk — “Around The World” (1997)
Gondry had never really incorporated dance into his videos until “Around The World.” He knew he needed help to enact his vision and brought on decorated Spanish choreographer Blanca Li to help define the movement of the videos dancers, flowing to the beat of Daft Punk’s breakthrough opus. But Gondry never takes the easy way out and his vision was for each quartet of dancers to be costumed loosely based on the element of the music that they each represented: Mummies for the drum machines, disco gals for synths, guitars became skeletons (because Gondry thought them to be “itchy”), tiny-headed athletes in tracksuits for bass, and robots for the Daft Punk vocoder, cause duh. Each group moves around the stage to the beat of their instrument’s track in perfect harmony, with superimposed circular lights flickering behind them. “It’s not about pulling your guts out,” Gondry said in I’ve Been Twelve Forever. “It’s more about expressing shapes with your body without expressing the emotion in your face.”
Björk — “Bachelorette” (1997)
In the realm of Björk’s many gorgeous albums, Homogenic was incredibly autobiographical, namely documenting her ideals and laments as an Icelandic woman falling in and out of love. So it’s no surprise that “Bachelorette” — the sixth of her eight videos with Gondry — saw Björk playing herself in what felt almost like an extension of the album’s themes. In the video, Björk finds a book buried in the forest that as she flips the pages, is writing her destiny as she’s living it out. The “Bachelorette” video was a marvel of set design and is filmed at a pace that’s equal parts frenetic and methodical. It’s Gondry’s most extravagant mise-en-scène, taking this vastly epic piece of music and building a story around it with the same triumph and tragedy that can be felt from the orchestral arrangement of the song. Through all their videos, Björk and Gondry have had an incredibly collaborative relationship in relation to their ideas, but this is their finest product.
Kanye West — “Heard ‘Em Say” Feat. Adam Levine (2005)
If you’ve had a hard time finding a high-quality version of this video online in the past, it’s because upon its completion, Kanye West wanted it taken down (chances are the one above might disappear soon, too.) The video was filmed after hours at the 34th St Macy’s in New York City and features West as a homeless man watching over three kids on Christmas Eve. Adam Levine is the nightwatchman who lets them in and as they frolic through the empty department store, beds move like race cars, mattresses become giant pianos, the kids fly over carpets and the theme of childhood glee rings throughout. But Gondry (who played drums on the recording of West’s “Diamonds Of Sierra Leone,”) was left disappointed and in an interview with Dazed, blamed West’s entourage for influencing how he felt about it. Which is unfortunate considering the first time West met Gondry, the director said that “…he bows down to his feet and he kisses my feet because he said I was his video idol.”
Kylie Minogue – “Come Into My World” (2002)
On the “Come Into My World” video, Gondry uses a motion control recording technique that essentially programs the camera rig to capture the same 360 movement path through the video’s four layers of one long take. In each layer, Minogue walks through a town as things happen around her: A woman throws her ex-lover’s belongings out of a window, a kid does a skateboard trick, someone is balancing on a stone, cyclists zip by, Minogue ducks under a ladder and spins around a pole and so on… And as each of the song’s four verses unfold, Kylie begins to multiply and so do the townspeople performing slight variations of the original activity until there’s two, three, and four of each. It’s genius precision post-production work and feels like nothing short of a magic trick. Minogue is so perfect, smiling as she ducks under the ladders with fun written all over her face as she glances at the camera. Gondry is a master at reflecting a song’s sonic climax with an equally crescendoing visual accompaniment and much like he did this in the “Around The World” clip, he does it really well here.
Cibo Matto – “Sugar Water” (2005)
The concept for this one is of a visual palindrome of sorts, where the story happens the same forward as it does backward. Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda both roll out of bed and begin their day, Miho showers with sugar, Yuka with water. They have to cross paths at the exact midpoint of the story for the palindrome effect to work and it’s just brilliant how Gondry makes it all happen. “One mistake could destroy everything!” Hatori said in I’ve Been Twelve Forever, illustrating the complexity of the filming.
The White Stripes – “Fell In Love With A Girl” (2002)
This very well might be the greatest two minutes in music video history. Gondry’s son opens the film building the beginnings of a Lego Jack and Meg White, showing the interplay between the child-like themes of Legos and Gondry’s manifestation of his own nature in his offspring. Half of the video was done in stop-frame animation and it took two months to get every frame captured. That means shifting each individual Lego piece for each shot (hopefully we can appreciate the monotony that went into something so colorful and engaging.) The other half of the video is actually footage of Jack and Meg digitized into square pixels and much like the “Let Forever Be” vid, it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins.