Though the 90s didn’t have the honor of being the decade that housed the MTV revolution or music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” that shook the world and announced the arrival of the art form, I’d still argue that that decade, and not the 1980s, stands out as the most important era in the history of music videos.
The 90s saw the continuing popularity of music television, the slight rollback of parental puritanism (because who could weather the deluge?), the ascension of hip hop into the mainstream, the brief grunge takeover of pop with its heavier messages, the explosion of powerful singer/songwriters, and a generation of filmmakers who brought a hunger and a sense of creative ingenuity to the medium. Filmmakers like F. Gary Gray, Michel Gondry, David Fincher, and Spike Jonze.
Of those filmmakers, only Jonze has continued to walk in both worlds on a somewhat regular basis, but while he has found immense success on the big screen with films like Being John Malkovich and Her, it’s still hard to think of him as a feature filmmaker first thanks to his long list of iconic music videos in almost all genres that elevated the form.
How long is the list? In truth, it’s probably about 40 deep, but here are 15 of the most iconic Spike Jonze music videos from 1992 to 2011.
Sonic Youth – “100%”
Jonze had Half Baked director Tamra Davis as a co-pilot on this video while he co-starred in the video with Jason Lee, who appears in black and white flashbacks of skater days gone by while playing a friend who gets murdered near the video’s conclusion. The video and song are a tribute to Joe Cole, who was friendly with the band before he was shot dead during a robbery. Though it’s a bit on the nose, Lee’s jump over the chain at the video’s conclusion is sort of beautiful when you think about it.
The Breeders – “Cannonball”
If you were alive and alert in the 90s, Josephine Wiggs’ “Cannonball” bass riff is grafted to your soul but this video is, depending on your view of it, either wonderfully manic or busy as hell, mixing shots of a literal rolling cannonball and Kim Deal’s underwater shout-singing with a bunch of weird transitions, wardrobe changes, and mirrors.
Dinosaur Jr. – “Feel the Pain”
Am I reading too much into things when a song’s chorus is a chant of the words “I feel the pain of everyone, then I feel nothing,” and I assume that the song and video are a send-up of politicians that pretend to empathize with people and then play their games right in front of, around, and on top of them with indifference to their existence? It’s tricky to nail down a song’s meaning sometimes, so I might be wrong, but that’s what I see. If that’s so, then like a lot of Jonze’s other videos, “Feel the Pain” does an amazing job of both showcasing the director’s skill and matching the tone of the song in question perfectly. If I’m off-base, then f*ck it, it’s still an awesome music video and a great song.
Beastie Boys – “Sabotage”
With The Beastie Boys signed on as willing accessories, Jonze gave in to narrative ambition and turned a solid rap/rock song into an homage to gritty 1970s cop dramas. This is the video where we start to see Jonze transition from a great music video director to a great filmmaker and visual storyteller. The video also has bonus content in the form of the Jonze directed Ciao LA.
Though Jonze still directs the occasional music video, it’s doubtful that his relationship with The Beastie Boys, which lasted from 1992 to 2011’s “Don’t Play No Game That I Can’t Win” action figure opus (that nearly got its own slot on this list because of how awesome it is), will ever be matched in terms of longevity or impact.
Weezer – “Buddy Holly”
F*cking ingenious. What more needs to be said about this visually ambitious (for 1995) video that spliced together scenes from Happy Days with footage of Weezer rocking out? I’m going to gush a little here, but besides being a breakthrough for Weezer and another high point for Jonze, this is the rare music video that, thanks to its technical wizardry, earns the right to be called important.
Wax – “California”
Jonze’s slow-motion man on fire concept is outstanding but beyond the spectacle of that, I’m sort of in love with the continuing theme on display in a lot of Jonze’s early works where no matter the events that are occurring in front of them, people do not react to a cannonball rolling down the street, people golfing in city, and a running fireball.
Björk – “It’s Oh So Quiet”
This video impresses me with the way that Jonze seamlessly moves from a very gentle and slow pace to these explosive bursts of action, movement, and tremendous choreography that recalls the robust musicals of another era. It’s a precursor to more heavily choreographed videos like “Weapon of Choice” and unlike anything that Jonze had done up to that point.
Daft Punk – “Da Funk”
This is a great video but I don’t quite understand why this guy needs to be in what looks like a McGruff costume to tell this story about a stroll through the city. The song is good, but here’s a thing that I think heightens Jonze’s video: play “Da Funk” on mute and play the music from Glen Frey’s “You Belong to the City” video from Miami Vice, it almost syncs up perfectly and it just seems like a better fit. Seriously, here’s a link to the Frey video. I’ll wait.
The Chemical Brothers – “Elektrobank”
This is another video, like “Da Funk”, where the music sort of takes a backseat. At this point, we were two years from Being John Malkovich and Jonze really seemed ready to graduate. This time, we witness Sofia Coppola doing her best impression of a gymnast (with a lot of well hidden, but still present help from an actual gymnast) through an almost 5 minute routine to get to a closing moment that seems to remind us that even our seemingly immortal victories will one day be ignored by those that follow us. Cheery!
Fatboy Slim – “Praise You”
Jonze’s first collaboration with Fatboy Slim is extremely lo-fi, a little weird, and a lot wonderful as a Jonze-led community dance troupe seizes the front of a movie theater to show off their dance moves. “Praise You” is diametrically opposed to videos like “Da Funk” and “Elektrobank.” It’s just another example of how diverse Jonze’s highlight reel is.
Fatboy Slim – “Weapon of Choice”
Jonze’s last truly iconic and groundbreaking music video (he’s been busy), “Weapon of Choice” is immensely satisfying and surprising thanks to Christopher Walken’s joyful hoofing and some outstanding wire work. If “It’s Oh So Quiet” was Jonze’s love letter to movie musicals, “Weapon of Choice” is something more. Pardon me for the grandeur, but “Weapon of Choice” deserves its own love letters because it is a one-of-a-kind celebration that paints a picture of what it feels like to dance.
Phantom Planet – “Big Brat”
This isn’t a truly amazing demonstration of what music videos can be, it’s just a really nice black and white tribute to old school zombie films and the answer to the question about what a Spike Jonze horror movie might look like.
Björk – “Triumph of a Heart”
This music video sees Björk fleeing her cat husband to get drunk and make mouth noises with people at a bar before reuniting with said cat husband who is embigened by a magic kiss that makes them dance. Sometimes the best jokes come from just describing something. Also, how did this video escape 1988?
It’s nice to see Jonze embrace maximum weirdness.
Kanye West – “Flashing Lights”
This might be Jonze’s least demanding shoot as it all takes place in one shot and it’s definitely one of his most surprising videos. I don’t think that I’m breaking news when I say that hip-hop videos have a history of degrading women, and despite Jonze’s clean hands with regard to that woeful trend, it seemed like he was about to take advantage of that trope before we realized that the lingerie-clad lady wasn’t merely there to sway seductively. She’s there to exact some kind of revenge against Kanye, who is tied up in the trunk and about get to get a gut full of shovel for crimes that we are unaware of. Spike Jonze played us and Kanye let him while simultaneously taking a literal backseat to someone else in one of his videos. That’s the power of Spike Jonze right there.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Jonze surprises us once again by pulling back from a collection of typical images of youthful suburban glee to show the kids trapped in a war zone with all of the accompanying horrors and frights. It ends with a vicious beating followed by the sound of sirens and a blue sky. It’s like Spike Jonze shorthanded the transition from childhood to adulthood in the most brutal of ways, which is a shock coming from the guy who gave us “Buddy Holly.”
Don’t get me wrong, I respect this more grown up version of Spike Jonze and his need to embrace darker themes in some of his videos, I just don’t like it as much as the seemingly lighter version that I used to know. If a dancing Christopher Walken showed up in one of Jonze’s newer creations, he’d likely get hit in the head with a shovel. With that said, though, while Jonze isn’t pumping out legendary videos on the regular as he did in the mid-90s (at least partially because he’s a bit busy with other projects), he still contributes to an art-form that sometimes feels as though it has become repellent to strong creative filmmakers and social relevancy now in a way that it never was before. For that that dedication Jonze deserves as much praise as he deserves respect for all that he has accomplished within the realm of music videos. Is Spike Jonze the best that there ever was? Quite possibly, yes.