Big City Nights: Daft Punk and the brilliance of Spike Jonze

The partnership of two giants: Daft Punk and Spike Jonze and their epic unforgettable video.

We here at MVD have many favourite videos, and as you can imagine we have had numerous discussions on the subject. And there is one video that, when it came up, we realised was in both of our top 10’s. Top 5’s in fact, and maybe even top 2 or 3 of all time. Both Daft Punk and Spike Jonze are giants in their respective fields and have accumulated two wonderful bodies of work in the courses of their careers. However, this video, released in 1996, still stands up as one of the highpoints of both. Indeed, for us it is still one of the most outstanding music videos ever created. What we would like to do is take a look at both Jonze and Daft Punk, some of the video’s more striking aspects, and take a look at the very touching story it tells.

So, unless you’ve been living on the moon for the last year or so you can’t fail to have noticed that Daft Punk have become global superstars. ‘Get Lucky’, their collaboration with Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers, was the hit of 2013 reaching the top 10 in no less than 32 countries, and was the year’s ubiquitous soundtrack pumping out of every bar, club, radio, coffee shop, car and iPod, seemingly on a loop. For the French duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter it was the culmination of a long period of success and propelled them from well-respected and chart-friendly purveyors of dance music in to the big league. And yet, ‘Get Lucky’ was no huge leap forward for them in musical terms, but rather a neat distillation of the sound they have been perfecting since their debut LP ‘Homework’ came out some 17 years ago. Combining elements of house music, disco and funk and infusing them with incredibly addictive pop hooks, Daft Punk are in many ways the epitome of dance music as a genre and last year’s success was surely no more than this highly-talented duo deserve. Expect to hear much more from them in the future.

As for Spike Jonze, it is hard to think of too many other film-makers who have managed to carve out such an idiosyncratic niche for themselves as he has. During the 90’s he established himself as one of the premier music video directors and one of the most original, often taking the video and pushing it in to new areas. In doing so he helped to add a level of artistic respectability to the form that until then had maybe been lacking (although our recent article on Tim Pope and The Cure shows that he wasn’t the first to push such boundaries). Indeed, he helped establish it as an art-form and not merely a sundry attachment to the pop song. From Weezer’s ‘Buddy Holly’, Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, ‘Praise You’ and ‘Weapon of Choice’ (again, recently reviewed by us) by Fatboy Slim to a long-running partnership with the Beastie Boys which spawned classic shorts for songs such as ‘Root Down’, ‘Sure Shot’ and the very wonderful 70’s cop-show parody he created for ‘Sabotage’, Jonze established himself as a true master. His debut feature film ‘Being John Malkovich’ is very deservedly a cult classic and has to be one of the most strikingly surreal movies of the last 20 years. What marks him out as a true artist is the presence of a style and a voice that is all his own, and we here at MVD are very excited to see his most recent film ‘Her’, a story of a man who falls in love with his artificially-intelligent computer operating system.

charles 1

So what makes the video for ‘Da Funk’ so worthy of our praise and attention? Firstly, there is the fact that the music itself almost seems to be incidental to the story, and at times is relegated to the background in order to let the dialogue command our attention. Pumping out of Charles’ broken boombox throughout it becomes his soundtrack rather than ours and becomes, if you like, an ‘actor’ in the film, playing its part without ever taking centre stage. It’s an innovative idea, and a mark of Jonze’s creative bravery that he chose to do so. Secondly, the central character is an anthropomorphic dog (Charles) in a city of humans. Is this supposed to represent his alienation, his loneliness? Or is it not supposed to be taken in that way? Maybe it has no deeper significance, and is there just to get people like me trying to read layers of meaning in to it? What do you think?

And then there’s the story itself, a lonely guy in a new neighbourhood in a busy city. There’s a hint of his back story revealed at 2.21 when he opens his wallet to reveal a photo of him washing a car with maybe his former owner, or friend maybe? Has Charles recently suffered some kind of loss and is restarting his life? We can only guess, but it’s a clever device by Jonze, giving the character some depth and pathos. And then of course there is Beatrice, the girl from his childhood he spots in the grocery store. The conversation between them leading to an offer of dinner and his subsequent failure to get on the bus with her is beautifully done. I’ve watched this video a hundred times and on every occasion the ending brings a lump to my throat. It’s masterful directing, using two minutes of the video to create a genuinely moving scenario. And why doesn’t Charles get on the bus? Because of his boombox and the sign that says ‘No Radios’ which causes him to hesitate. Maybe despite his loneliness and the instant spark between him and Beatrice the music (da music, even) is simply too important to abandon.

charles and beatrice

In five and a half minutes Jonze manages to tell a story with more depth, more emotional resonance than some directors manage in two hours. It’s a genuinely original and cleverly constructed piece of film-making that tells a simple story with clarity and precision. It is, in our opinion, one of the greats and we would love to hear your thoughts on it if you have any. Both Jonze and Daft Punk have gone on to bigger things but for us both the video and the track itself are amongst the finest things either have produced. It would be great to see them work together again if they ever find the time.

What are your favourite Spike Jonze music videos? We’ve done Weapon of Choice and Da Funk so maybe we need to deconstruct one more to complete a trilogy. Let us know and we may well do just that…

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5 thoughts on “Big City Nights: Daft Punk and the brilliance of Spike Jonze

  1. Great post! My favorite video of all time from Mr Spike Jonze has to be “Buddy Holly”, hands down, as for Daft Punk, I have always loved the lyrics of “Something About Us” and the entire “Interstella 5555” film

    1. Oh, yes, the ‘Buddy Holly’ video is great, brilliant song too so maybe we should take a look at that. Haven’t seen ‘Interstella 5555’ – I will have to correct this! 🙂

  2. You should definitely do Elektrobank. Not only the editing is outstanding, but the synchronicity between the story and the music is so precise. It has a great way to show the stress, the beauty and the joy the protagonist feels and express. Also, the ending is really clever. It takes the whole video into another layer, giving so much depth to the story. The photo with The Chemical Brothers as basketball players is a funny detail.

    1. Yes, we should definitely return to Daft Punk at some point, so many great videos fro them, including the one you mention! Thanks for the comments and for stopping by!

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