As soon as it was reported that Spike Jonze had something to do with Frank Ocean, I knew it was going to be something special. What exactly they were teaming up on still isn’t entirely clear, but I do know that Jonze was behind the live video feed during Ocean’s recent performances at the London-based Lovebox Festival, FYF Festival in Los Angeles, and New York’s Panorama Festival. Jonze’s filmmaking style and the musical musings of Ocean work together perfectly, both providing beautiful and acute insights into the minds of the ones behind them.
Up until the release of Endless and the subsequent release of Blonde, Frank Ocean disappeared completely from the public eye, with the exception of a few images that came courtesy of the paparazzi. Even Ocean’s appearance on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo — originally the closing verse of “Wolves” that was then given its own short track as part of the album’s constant evolution — seemed like it was recorded into a GarageBand mic in a basement somewhere. Finally, in August 2016, Ocean finished building the steps and Endless was revealed. Then, a week later, he delivered Blonde, which was quickly crowned our single best album of 2016.
The most important part of this pairing of Spike Jonze and Frank Ocean — especially in the festival setting — is the way that Jonze’s imagery expanded Ocean’s insular universe to the thousands of people gathered to watch him perform tracks from Endless and Blonde live. Ocean’s appearance at these festivals wasn’t much of a performance per say; there were no light shows or pyrotechnics or fireworks. Rather, it consisted solely of a man — a man with immense talent and presence — and his band, performing songs that were created by a man who found himself suddenly alone, meant to be listened to alone, but in the company of a vast multitude of onlookers. For these festival performances, Jonze was the missing link that made them spectacular, giving us our best glimpse into Ocean’s aforementioned beautifully personal and reflective world.
Consider Jonze’s last large-scale production, his Academy Award-nominated 2014 film Her. The film essentially depicts one man experiencing the many facets of loneliness after losing the woman he loved. (Also, yes, he does fall in love with his computer, but that’s beside the point.) It’s almost indescribable, the way that Jonze captures the emotion of these moments of isolation. Somehow, you feel it too, deep down in your gut. You see the character, and you feel what they are feeling. Not to mention the composition of every shot is just beautiful as all hell. Check out a clip below.
“How do you share your life with somebody?” the human-minded A.I. Samantha asks Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore, before a series of flashbacks depicts a lost love that can only be described as realistic. Gone are the overblown, fairytale visions of what it means to be in love, replaced with images and dialogue that just feels… real.
With Blonde, Frank Ocean did something similar. As Steven Hyden wrote in the wake of the album’s August 2016 release:
Ocean specializes in love songs that revisit bygone revelries and lament lingering regrets. (The already highly praised Blonde standout “Solo” somehow does both simultaneously.) But the reflection extends beyond just Ocean’s words — the very form of the music on Blonde, which is spare to the point of feeling fragmentary, requires the audience to fill in the empty spaces themselves with whatever data they have on hand. Ocean’s ghostly falsetto, the wispy guitar licks, the Quaalude fog of the synths — on Blonde, they all shape-shift to accommodate whatever environment you put them in, and in fact don’t fully reveal themselves until they mind-meld with those physical/mental/emotional landscapes.
If you’ve heard Blonde and seen a Spike Jonze film — whether it be Her, the short film he directed for the deluxe edition of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs or the pieces he shot for the LCD Soundsystem documentary Shut Up And Play The Hits — you can probably understand why these two visionaries make the perfect pair to match music and visuals.
Luckily for me, I was able to witness the culmination of this collaboration at the Panorama Festival, where the Jonze-directed visuals were projected in HD onto an utterly massive panoramic screen in front of hundreds of thousands. The shots were close-up, intimate, and absolutely astounding, showing the graffiti on the stage and the set’s most insular moments that had Ocean kneeling over a keyboard that was placed on the floor of the stage.
Similar to the above scene from Her, Jonze was able to capture complete isolation, despite being in the “presence” of others. At Panorama, thousands (including Justin Timberlake and Aziz Ansari) were looking on as Frank put together something beautiful onstage, though the footage on the screen made it feel like the audience were watching him tinker alone in a bedroom, despite it happening in front of thousands.
It does seem like these three Jonze-directed performances might be culminating in something that could see release sometime in the near future, as there seem to have been some “staged” events taking place during the track “Close To You.” At FYF Fest, it was the appearance of Brad Pitt; at Panorama, it was asking a couple to kiss during the track, with the camera holding on them for nearly 30 seconds.
Perhaps there is some sort of story being built into the performance with the appearance of Pitt and the kissing couple… though what it is can’t quite be estimated. What we do know, however, is that what ever it turns out to be, the resulting release is going to feel like a beautiful stab in the heart, spectacularly vibrant and ecstatically evocative. It can’t come quickly enough.