Michel Gondry’s Finest Music Videos for Björk, Radiohead & More: The Last of the Music Video Gods

We didn’t real­ize it at the time, but Michel Gondry was one of the last great music video direc­tors, cre­at­ing mini-epics just before the music indus­try col­lapsed, bud­gets dis­ap­peared, and now your cousin with a Canon 7D is fol­low­ing his friend’s band around in a field and putting *that* up on Vimeo. Maybe Gondry too saw the writ­ing on the wall, because, by the begin­ning of the ‘aughts, he was inch­ing his way into Hol­ly­wood, first with Human Nature and then strik­ing pay­dirt with the Char­lie Kauf­man-script­ed Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind, one of the best French films ever made that wasn’t French (apart from the direc­tor).

But in the twi­light of music videos, Gondry’s best work com­bined new tech­nol­o­gy with the home­made, DIY aes­thet­ic. His inter­est in frac­tals, math­e­mat­ics, and log­i­cal para­dox­es and loops went into the mix. As did his inter­est in the machin­ery and arti­fice of movie mak­ing. And as did his roman­tic, auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal side. What fol­lows is a small selec­tion of some of his best, most com­plex music videos.

Gondry direct­ed sev­er­al videos for Björk, start­ing with “Human Behav­ior,” her first solo sin­gle, but 1997’s “Bach­e­lorette” (top) goes beyond play­ful into heart­break­ing. A riff on an infi­nite­ly recur­sive poem, a sto­ry that is about the telling of itself, the video finds Björk dis­cov­er­ing a book in the woods that begins to write itself. As she finds a pub­lish­er, gains suc­cess, and sees the book turned into a musi­cal, the sto­ry is told again, and then again, a play with­in a play with­in a play. But each ver­sion is ana­log, not dig­i­tal, and los­es some­thing in the process, and the for­est creeps back in to claim its work.

Sim­i­lar­ly, in this video for The Chem­i­cal Broth­ers’ song “Let For­ev­er Be” (1999) Gondry sets up two worlds, one on dig­i­tal video, where our hero­ine attempts to wake up and go to work at a depart­ment store; and anoth­er shot on film, where the girl’s numer­ous dop­pel­gängers par­o­dy her strug­gle and her grip on san­i­ty through chore­o­graphed dance num­bers. This illus­trates a famil­iar Gondry equa­tion: If A and B, then A+B equals freak­out mad­ness time. The col­or­bars of video pro­duc­tion loom near­by to fur­ther the idea of irre­al­i­ty, and a cheesy VideoToast­er-style effect res­cues us at the end.

As far as we know, Radiohead’s “Knives Out” (2001) has noth­ing to do with hos­pi­tals, but Gondry took this can­ni­bal­is­tic song and made one of his most per­son­al videos. Here Thom Yorke stands in for the direc­tor, as Gondry offers a mea cul­pa about a rela­tion­ship that went past its expi­ra­tion date, when his girl­friend devel­oped an ill­ness and he couldn’t bear to break up with her. All of that is laid out, in sad, fever-dream detail, in this sin­gle-take video that fea­tures a lot of his obses­sions: toys, tele­vi­sion, loops, and a shuf­fling of sym­bols and motifs. Look for Gondry’s son briefly play­ing on the floor.

And final­ly:

Not to go out with a sour note, here’s Gondry’s adven­tur­ous 1994 video for the swal­lowed-by-his­to­ry Lucas. “Lucas with the Lid Off” is one of Gondry’s first one-take mas­ter­pieces that shows how the mag­ic is made while still being mag­i­cal. (The cur­rent kings of sin­gle-take music videos, OK Go, owe their suc­cess to Gondry.) It’s also a video that tries to give each sam­pled loop its own ele­ment with­in the video, look­ing for­ward to his work for Daft Punk (“Around the World”) and The Chem­i­cal Broth­ers (“Star Gui­tar”).

Gondry con­tin­ues to make videos–he made one last year for Metronomy’s “Love Let­ters,” but his atten­tion is real­ly else­where. Enjoy these gems from his clas­sic era.

Note: Gondry’s 1988 short ani­mat­ed film, Jazzmos­phere, an explo­ration of jazz and images, has been added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills and/or watch his films here.

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