Michel Gondry: The Music Videos and TV Adverts That Influenced Hollywood
Academy Award winner; record breaker; inventor of a pioneering film technique; and such a don of the long take some of his shots were once thought to be faked. Work so visceral and richly textured that we are drawn in time and time again.
Long before his surrealist ventures on the silver screen however – from the Oscar winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to his most recent foray Mood Indigo – Gondry made ground-breaking, mind-bending, hand crafted music videos and TV commercials. And, having cut his teeth on the former in 1988, Gondry quickly emerged as a filmmaker extraordinaire whose tactile aesthetics and intricate set pieces have helped shaped the music, advertising and film industries for nearly three decades.
Much of Michel’s earlier videos demonstrate a brooding film noir appeal and the dreamlike aesthetic that characterises his work has been present throughout his entire career. It’s fair to say his inspirations are diverse: from The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain (Mood Indigo), to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead – which he parodied in the outstanding Everlong promo for the Foo Fighters.
However, having just caught Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brilliant Birdman, we were struck by how keenly Gondry’s work is now resonating back through that of his contemporaries. If you’ve seen Birdman, check out the Gondry directed original Heard ‘Em Say music video for Kanye (no really) and original Mad World vid by Gary Jules.
Or any of Gondry’s single-take music videos for that matter (more on these later) and you’ll see what we mean. What’s more, whilst Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky are each innovators in their own rights, we’d be willing to bet our ipads there was a moment in their early twenties when they were wishing they’d dreamt up a Gondry video.
Gondry’s first venture into music video direction was for Oui-Oui, the band for whom he also drummed. And he made a series of promos for the group, along with some other indie artists haling from his native France, during the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was Bjork who bought Gondry to international attention when she asked him to direct the music promo for Human Behavior in 1993, a move that also founded a longstanding collaboration between the two artists.
Gondry has now wracked up more than 80 music videos for a diverse mix of artists ranging from Kylie to the Chemical Brothers. His process seemingly strips back a track to its root emotion or idea, which he then develops in a ‘Gondry’ direction parallel to the original. For us, some of his finest music videos were made in the late Nineties and early Naughties before his forays into feature films excised certain ideas and techniques into more measured explorations.
It may also be that this was a time before the internet when catching your favourite music videos required planning, patience and a VHS to capture the hallowed moment. The closest thing to YouTube was requesting a song on The Box (‘Music Television You Control’) then waiting up till five in the morning with your finger hovering over the record button.
Today Gondry’s impressive back catalogue of music videos is more readily available, and we’d recommend watching them all. His repeat collaborations with both Bjork and the White Stripes are exceptionally strong having established a creative process that is complimentary to the respective artists own methods. Not to mention the fact that these relationships probably offer(ed) a relatively free reign – less restricted by image or brand than some pop princesses.
To get to the heart of what makes Gondry so good however, check our Sugar Water by Cibo Matto, Protection by Massive Attack, Lucas with the Lid Off (LLO) by Lucas, and Around the World by Daft Punk.
Around the World is probably one of Gondry’s most iconic music videos. It breaks the track down into separate components providing an identity and dance move(s) for each – and to a hypnotic and engaging character-driven effect.
Protection introduces the classic Gondry long take with a single shot navigating around a tower block in which we see the inhabitants living out separate, isolated lives. The video feels claustrophobic, lonely and voyeuristic as it captures moments of separation and tenderness in equal measures. It also showcases Gondry’s narrative use of ‘the set’ which often adopts it’s own character within his work.
Like Protection, LLO utilizes both the Gondry set and long take perfectly, whilst also introducing another classic Gondry move – back projection. This time the effects combine for more lighthearted cartoonish presentation. Though, as with Protection, the strong narrative created by the set belies the complexity of its construction. In fact, when LLO was released, some of Gondry’s peers disputed the videos single-take status inadvertently summing up his genius: his ability to deliver hugely complex concepts through beautiful, seemingly straightforward narratives.
To our mind, the best example of the Gondry simple / complicated juxtaposition is Sugar Water. In 1996 we nearly broke the VHS trying to figure it out and the reality is both fiendishly complicated yet breathtakingly simple. All we can say is watch it – 19 years later it still holds its own and we can’t imagine that ever changing.
During the Nineties Gondry hit his directorial stride and many leading brands – from HP and Air France to Nike, Adidas, BMW and GAP – invited him to translate his music promo prowess into television commercials. As with his music videos, most of Gondry’s ads are available online but we’d like to focus on his relationship with Levi’s, plus the commercial that molded the look of The Matrix. Science fact.
‘Drugstore’ , Gondry’s first advert for Levi’s, holds the 2004 Guinness World Record for the most awards won by any TV commercial – ever – or something thereabouts. Made in 1995, it places the audience in the first person perspective on a trip to purchase condoms from the ‘drugstore’ (the American phrasing is somewhat ironic seeing as the advert was banned in North America), all shot in brooding black and white with a vintage Cinecam feel. The chemist gives us a knowing smile as he hands over the prophylactics, whilst other customers look at us both shocked and appalled. Later that evening we drive to the home of our date and there are two versions of what takes place there after. Both offer a wry, dry witted twist to the tale. The advert feels similar to Gondry’s music promo work – both stylistically and in narrative tone. What’s more it features a tension building tech-house track to further align the partnership of top music video wizard with ‘hip’ Levi’s brand. It’s a good advert well executed and clear why it picked up some many awards.
Keen for more of the same, Levi’s teamed up with Gondry on several further campaigns though with mixed success. In 1997’s Mermaids – our personal favourite – Michel blended ethereal haunting visuals, a strong humorous narrative and a most apt soundtrack: Smoke City’s Underwater Love which went to number four in the UK charts following the ads release. Bellybutton from 2000 however, lacked the subtlety of Michel’s earlier ads. It felt as if Levi’s had cherry picked what worked best in previous commercials and then tried to up the anti. But the twist was too obvious (in more ways than one) and the narrative to shallow. So the paint-by-numbers process fell short (as you would except): a little too soulless, a little too same-y, a little too polished and – despite their best efforts – just a little too
Levi’s managed to recapture some of the earlier magic with the subsequent Swap commercial in 2001. Here Gondry returned to a grittier aesthetic and a stronger narrative whereby a gang of mouse-headed (pre) hipsters enacted revenge on a seemingly innocent housewife. The twist was less predictable and the anthropomorphic-vibe not yet done to death. Unfortunately Spike Jonze had slightly cornered the animal head market with his Da Funk video for Daft Punk in 1997, however, Gondry took the notion in a new direction.
Gondry’s most recent advert 2014’s ‘L’homme ideal’ for Guerlain is a fine example of everything good and great about both Gondry and advertising as a whole – and very much worth a view.
For our final Showreel item however, we invite you check out Gondry’s Smirnoff commercial from 1996. This beauty showcases some of Gondry’s best technical work and introduces a film effect later termed ‘Bullet Time’ and now trademarked by Warner Brothers. You might not know the name, but you’ll know the effect when you see it as it’s now synonymous with The Matrix franchise and has featured in pretty much every Hollywood action blockbuster since. It defines a period in filmmaking and changed slow motion techniques forever, yet the man who got that Bullet Time ball rolling is all to often overlooked. And it is for Bullet Time, for Sugar Water, for Drugstore and more – each and every one of his witty, mind blowing and dreamlike creations that have inspired both his peers and generations to come – for these Michel Gondry, we say thanks for getting reel.