Spike Jonze: The Director Made By Music

Spike Jonze: The Director Made By Music

How the Oscar winner's film career always retained its musical connections...

There are a number of projects that have made the most of the current global captive audience, and one of them is Apple TV+ documentary the Beastie Boys Story. Fusing elements of music, stage show and memoir, remaining members Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond recount their careers through Spike Jonze's idiosyncratic lens.

The Oscar winner was perhaps the perfect choice to direct the film, given that he is woven into the group's history thanks to directing some of their best remembered music videos. However, for Jonze personally, it represents the full circle moment of a film maker coming back to his creative roots.

This is because the music industry found Jonze way before Hollywood did. A pioneer in the skateboarding world, he would come to many people's attention on music video channels in the 90's, thanks to a string of iconic videos that were much more than a band singing on a stage.

His visions included making a city into a golf course for Dinosaur Jr's 'Feel The Pain', resurrecting Happy Days for Weezer's 'Buddy Holly', he made Christopher Walken fly for Fatboy Slim, a follow up to his video for 'Praise You' where Jonze himself played a community dance leader.

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By thinking out of the box, he provided the perfect visuals for the song it was showcasing. They were sequences that immediately came to mind when the song came on, without overshadowing the tune.

Spike Jonze rose to the top of a number of video directors that seemed to emerge in that decade, joining names like Jonas Åkerlund and Michel Gondry as a new band of auteurs born from a very modern art form. Naturally, those who followed his work wondered what a feature film might look like, and what stories might told without having to wrap around a song.

The answer came in 1999's Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman's odd comedy about a portal into the Oscar nominee's mind. It became the perfect platform for Jonze's sensibilities, exploring themes of identity and connection that would be present in much of his later work.

It is a film filled with sadness, humour and lunacy, feelings that are echoed in the movie's soundtrack by Carter Burwell. The Coen Brothers' regular composer became Jonze's first soundtrack collaborator, creating a score that echoed the off-kilter world that was unfolding on-screen (including the infamous 'Malkovich Malkovich' torch song, a remix of which features on the soundtrack album).

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Just as Jonze crafted his visuals to compliment music, so his chosen composers began to craft their work around his feature films. An alternate version of 'Wake Up' by Arcade Fire was recorded for the trailer of Where The Wild Things Are, Jonze's take on a family film that toed the line between very simple messages of friendship and much darker, adult themes.

For the feature itself, he turned to Karen O and The Kids to write original songs for the score that would reflect the emotionally complex story he was trying to tell. It's an immensely personal work characterising the sharp feelings of childhood through an indie prism.

Both acts would return for Jonze's 2013 tech fable Her, with Karen O writing original track The Moon Song and Arcade Fire credited as composers of the score. The reunion paid off, as both score and song would be nominated for Oscars, while Jonze won for Best Screenplay.

Never released physically or digitally, the score (which changed dramatically after Scarlett Johansson was recast in the title voice role) serves as an anchor for the movie's high concept future, bringing warm and traditional sounds as Jonze creates his detached dystopia.

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The artists who feature in Jonze's scores work to understand what is needed from them as part of his world, just as Jonze worked to understand what they needed from him as part of theirs, His ability to capture the perspective of art has forged a very personal relationship with artists (in some cases quite literally – Jonze and Karen O were briefly romantic partners). He becomes part of their history, the breakthrough moment for so many acts, which is what makes Beastie Boys Story such a perfect moment of reflection for him. The director is not a fan painting a homage, he is a friend recalling old times, a view that helps the film become such an intimate experience.

When talking about the process of finding the right direction for the documentary, Mike D told Billboard Magazine:

“That’s why it was so great working with Spike: We can disagree with him, but we can thoroughly trust him. We can be more comfortable joking around and doing things that are funny to us, and Spike found this role where he kept asking us, 'What were you feeling at that time? Why does this need to be in the story? What’s going on here?' Everything had its place”.

After three decades, Jonze certainly has found his place: a film maker who ascended through the music industry, who never lost his passion for those roots.

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Beastie Boys Story is out now.

Words: James Luxford

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