Spike Jonze did not start off his filmmaking career in film school or on the indie circuit—he started off shooting videos of skateboarders doing tricks and getting into trouble. Moving up and down the streets of Los Angeles, Jonze made his living photographing kids for Dirt magazine before being serendipitously invited to shoot some skateboarding footage for a Sonic Youth video. It was only when the bassist of that band, Kim Gordon, invited Jonze to help her shoot a video for a different Kim’s band [Kim Deal of The Breeders] that Jonze began his music video career.

Music videos, especially throughout the 80s and early 90s, were fairly uncomplicated things: film the band performing and cut in with other footage. Though he would start off by using this formula, Jonze would eventually bend the formula nearly to the breaking point. While he directed many videos over his career, the eight videos selected below showcase the development of his visual storytelling up until [and a bit past] his foray into filmmaking. For Jonze, music videos were his film school, and looking at them helps to illustrate how the creative process that would lead to Being John Malkovich was born from the collaborations and growth he gathered throughout these musical narratives.

Beastie Boys, "Sabotage"

Jonze had already directed about ten music videos before “Sabotage,” but this video marks the first time that a clear narrative is really established. For the first videos of his career, Jonze adhered to the formula [band performs, other stuff is thrown in] but here is where he approaches the music as a soundtrack to a film never made.

The idea for the video actually came from a process Jonze would frequently employ: hanging out with the band and getting a sense of their personality before filming. For “Sabotage,” the idea came from wardrobe—the Beastie Boys were simply trying on goofy outfits, and soon three police characters emerged. While the video isn’t a strict narrative, it certainly has its cinematic beats firmly in place: it’s homage to 70s cop shows is a play on an opening credits sequence, and yet it tells its story pretty firmly; three cops with distinct personalities taking on the scum of Los Angeles through means that are a bit off-the-books. Does it make sense for the band? Maybe not. But does it perfectly represent the tone and structure of the song? Absolutely. Jonze’s chops on skateboarding videos [shooting guerrilla style, throwing cameras around, and using some crazy lenses to get the desired effect] finally culminated here in the first music narrative Jonze would help create.

An interesting side note—when the video lost to R.E.M. at the MTV Video Awards, Beastie Boy MCA, decked out as fake music video director Nathaniel Hornblower, would “Kayne West” the award by storming the stage and protesting in front of Michael Stipe. Stipe would later produce Being John Malkovich, and there was already a sense of the absurd and whimsical to Jonze’s collaborations that this foreshadowed. From the Beastie Boys [and other future collaborators], Jonze would learn how to adapt artist philosophies—of creating your own work and controlling your own creations—into his own.

Weezer, "Buddy Holly"

The idea of the homage continues with his second music video for Weezer, which has Spike Jonze creatively insert the band into the television show Happy Days. The result is a bit of pre-CGI technical wizardry, as the effect is pretty damn good. Jonze was beginning to assemble a team of friends and talents that would help him realize his ideas, and through some careful cinematography and photography, the result is fairly seamless.

Jonze has said that his best videos were for bands that he loved, and Weezer was no exception. Jonze was part of their circle of friends in and around LA, and his sense of knowing the band’s personality pays off here. Even though the video is largely a simple performance by the band, a narrative is somewhat crafted around it, with the cast of Happy Days seemingly interacting with the band’s performance off-stage, along with sly flirting being delivered by each of the band members to various audience members [at one point, much to Richie Cunningham’s chagrin]. It even has a payoff at the end with a bizarre dance number by none other than the Fonz himself. The result of this narrative is a precursor to the absurdity and whimsy that Jonze would employ later—the lead singer of Weezer looks around in blank confusion as the crowd starts going ape-shit and the tone becomes just slightly bizarre. There is a sense of goofy winking humor throughout the video that plays off the humor of “Sabotage” as well and marks a further mastery of both cinematography and narrative coherence on the part of Jonze.

Wax, "California"

When Jonze’s friends from Wax called up and asked him to do their next video, they were somehow not that surprised by his idea: what about having a guy on fire running down a street in LA?  

Jonze knew the streets of LA well from his skateboarding days and the intersection where this video takes place was chosen from his past there. The idea came to him while listening to the song and driving down just such a street, and while its narrative is much more vague [guy on fire catching a bus and the whole thing is from the perspective of an impassive little girl] it is a huge leap for Jonze technically speaking. The team Jonze had assembled could now help him achieve what he wanted technically, and Dan [the guy on fire] would work with him throughout his career, including on Being John Malkovich

Jonze’s reliance on collaboration had continued to grow, and for this video, he really had to rely on the people around him to ensure his vision was not only met, but didn’t result in any significant first-degree burning.  

The entire video is done in one take and in slow-motion, so the length of the take was actually only 12 seconds long. On top of that, there’s a guy really on fire running down the street. Not only was technical mastery necessary achieve this safely, but Jonze also has a strong visual eye on display here as the background and foreground of the shot are busy with small details [guys throwing a can, old man walking a dog, etc] that build a Californian world around the central narrative. It is a pure visual accomplishment and shows Jonze at a new level of filmmaking—he is really beginning here to push the visual angle of the story even more so than before. It is from this point on that Jonze firmly embraces the use of strong visual components as necessary to his musical narration.

Björk, "It's Oh So Quiet"

With Jonze evolving as a filmmaker, it would not be long before cinephile artists were seeking him out for collaborations. Björk was one such artist, and her love of marrying the musical with the visual would find her collaborating with a few amazing filmmakers, including Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham—both of whom worked around and with Jonze and his company. For “It’s Oh So Quiet,” Jonze also married his love of the visual with the music, using his team’s expertise on lighting and slow-motion camera techniques to bring out the narrative he wanted to tell.

Jonze not only approached music videos as distinct narratives, but he also approached the songwriting itself as the narrative formula. For this video, the verse and chorus help create a juxtaposition crucial to the story: the verse is the mundane and grimy real world, and the chorus is the upbeat fantasy musical number. The number itself brings out an interesting side of the artist—who knew Björk was such a natural at musical numbers? The fact that she and Jonze had a discussion on branching out into a full-length musical film as they sat in the back of the auto store set on a sweltering summer day of shooting isn’t too surprising after seeing this finished product.

The idea of a feature-length project is also not surprising as Jonze starts here to expand his narrative past the music—the video starts not with Björk's audio, but with the sound of a sink running water under fluorescent light. His music videos were now beginning to inhabit their own narrative world in which the song was only a part—a major component still, but there was another world just around the edges for the music to exist within. This would eventually lead to Jonze’s experiments with sound design and meta-videos, where the story was almost becoming too big [and cinematic] for just the song to contain. Jonze is still making an homage here in the form of a pretty perfect musical number, but there is also a precursor to his films here in his ability to make the mundane whimsical and to turn the everyday into a fairytale—ideas that would become commonplace in later films such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Where the Wild Things Are, and Her.

Daft Punk, "Da Funk"

Daft Punk was another group intrigued by Jonze and his cinematic style; like Björk, they were movie nerds, and when Jonze proposed a concept involving a man in a realistic dog mask with the song actually being used more as sound design than feature, they were all for it.

Not unlike other groups Jonze had worked for, including the Beastie Boys, Weezer, Dinosaur Jr., and Bjork, Daft Punk had a similar philosophy of artist control which Jonze latched onto. Filmed as Jonze was preparing to begin shooting Being John Malkovich, the video sees Jonze more preoccupied than ever with achieving a complete narrative—we even have a sympathetic protagonist [broken leg and all] engaging in dialogue and engaged in a conflict—here represented by his constant need for his sweet, volume-disabled boombox.

Jonez was also practicing with shooting scenes at night in New York City here, experimenting with the tone of magical realism that he would soon bring to Charlie Kaufman’s Malkovich script. The themes are even already in place: an isolated protagonist that we’re made to feel sorry for, a sense of loneliness and conflict against a society that simply doesn’t understand, and a search for connection that seems to never be quite fulfilled. The video is almost more movie than music video, and it would help Jonze prepare himself and his team for the transition to movie narratives to come.

Fatlip, "What's Up Fatlip?"

As previously state, Jonze believed that his best videos were the ones he had done for the artists he loved, and Fatlip is no exception. The video itself is amazingly simple, and yet it may be my absolute favorite of all his video work. The idea behind it involves a crew of just Jonze and Fatlip, Jonze basically hanging out with Fatlip and having him dress up in costumes and perform the song in question. That’s it. However, there is something so endearing about the video—its low-budget quality, the absurd comic situations Fatlip finds himself in, the little movements he makes while dressed as a clown, or dancing as a drunk, or smiling on a public bus, or dancing in front of a mirror in K-Mart, that show us more than a narrative, but create an affecting character study all its own.

The video itself became a sort of documentary for Jonze. He had long been a fan of Fatlip and his amazing previous group, Pharcyde, and took advantage of having time alone with him to ask him questions and speak openly with the artist. The resulting documentary [of the same name as the video] is just as revealing and affecting. 

Jonze had 11 hours of material that he edited down, and this would become a sort of practice for the editing process of Adaptation., where he reconstructed the narrative after filming to match its emotional effect—almost as though he were switching around the verse and the chorus, rearranging the formula, making his own mixtape of emotional resonance. It would be a technique that would eventually guide him past just the visual and just the comic, and into a place of fairytale magic, where the most ordinary of all subject matters could be infused with a beauty and grace that could set it above the world it took place in and move into some other realm—not unlike that mysteriously human place that the best music manages to transport us to.

Fatboy Slim, "Praise You" / "Weapon of Choice"

As one of the producers of MTV’s Jackass, Jonze has an odd affinity for public nuisance that can border on the overly obnoxious. In no video is this more evident than in “Praise You,” which features Spike Jonze himself as alter ego “Richard Koufey” dancing with his theater troupe in front of a movie house. Jonze’s sense of the bizarre may never be more pronounced than in this video in which he stars, but it is also important to see how his ideas have gone past the realm of any music video formula and into the realm of whatever-the-hell-he-damn-well-pleases. It was never even supposed to be a true music video, as it’s life began as a simple joke gift to Fatboy Slim himself of Jonze dancing in public to a different song. But it’s included here mostly because it’s fun to see Jonze dance around like a maniac in front of bewildered onlookers and nearly get thrown out by a theater employee.

His next video for Fatboy Slim would be a bit more standard [it features another musical dance number] but no less bizarre. In it, a bored businessman played by Christopher Walken dances through the purgatory of an empty hotel lobby before taking off in transcendent flight. The video, while being more polished, still plays off Jonze’s love of the mundane and the absurd, and also uses another sort of stunt casting in Walken not too dissimilar from that of John Malkovich in his first film.  With “Weapon of Choice,” the hallmarks of a confident storyteller and filmmaker are firmly in place, and the sky is, perhaps literally, the limit.