Leiji Matsumoto’s Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5y5tem is a near-feature-length animated silent film with a musical score that almost exactly corresponds to Discovery, an album by French band Daft Punk. This is obviously by intention; Daft Punk have a history of great, weird videos, from the Spike Jonze-directed “Da Funk,” which featured a dog-man walking around and talking to people, all the time carrying a boom box he couldn’t turn off, to the precisely choreographed Busby-Berkeley-meets-robots-and-mummies clip for “Around the World,” directed by Michel Gondry. Interstella 5555 is kind of a different, more ambitious thing. Though only three videos were ever released and shown on TV (for the album’s singles), the band had Matsumoto put together animated shorts for each song on Discovery, which when played together, form a narrative whole.
It’s the right time for it; seems like these days people are complaining less about the pernicious influence videos have had on feature filmmaking , and have woken up to the fact that some of the most interesting stuff being done in the moving-picture business is happening in these clips, their brevity allowing for more experimentation and less concern with the vagaries of the box office.
The story involves a blue-skinned band from outer space (though not Daft Punk themselves, who do appear as robots at one point in the film) who are kidnapped by an evil alien manager, brainwashed and brought to Earth, where they’re named “The Crescendolls,” release a hit single and exhaust themselves signing autographs. Meanwhile, this guy who’s a big fan of the band, and who lives in a great, guitar-shaped spaceship, realizes what has happened and travels to Earth to rescue them. (We never quite figure up what’s up with that whole “5ecret 5tar 5y5tem” thing.) The movie, which runs just over an hour, tells its story completely without dialogue, though it does incorporate some sound effects (which in my opinion are pretty unnecessary).
There have always been videos that are conceived and structured like mini-movies, just as there have always been more impressionistic and/or performance-oriented clips. Most actually incorporate elements of all three, though the narrative element generally takes a backseat unless it’s the specific focus (like Guns’n’Roses’ epic, tragic “November Rain”). Matsumoto has managed to do all of these at once, and at the same time produce a satisfying, full-length film out of the thing, which may be a first.
Another first: a new imprint from Palm Pictures, the Directors Series, which collects the work of three directors, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham, this is first time that videos have been collected according to director, not musical artist. On individual, well-documented and fully-feature-packed DVDs, it’s perhaps the hope of these helmers that this will usher in a new age of respect and appreciation for the maligned form, or at least for its practitioners. (The disc’s titles—The Work of Director Michel Gondry, and such for the other two directors—certainly have the sober resonance of something that is to be taken seriously.)
Now, two of the set’s directors have forayed into the world of feature filmmaking, namely Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and Gondry (Human Nature and the upcoming Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). (Weirdly enough, all four of the these films were scripted by Charlie Kaufman.) As video directors, both of these guys are pretty awesome. Gondry’s stuff usually focuses around some sort of simple, brilliant technical innovation, like the Lego-animated White Stripes video, or the multiple Kylie Minogues, or the more theatrical, stage-within-a-stage stylization of Bjork’s “Bachelorette.” Jonze, too, is known to incorporate some interesting technical trick in his videos, like the Weezer clip that’s also kind of a Happy Days episode, though he also does some cool stuff with recasting the clip as a genre pastiche, be it musical routine or ‘70s cop show or whatever. The point is, there’s something missing from these guys’ features. Watch one of their better videos and they’re like these action-packed, super-vibrant little packages of condensed brilliance; their full-length movies, though critically acclaimed, don’t sustain the same charge. Maybe it’s the difficulty of migrating to such a narrative-heavy, big medium, or maybe we can blame it on Charlie Kaufman. But maybe the Directors Series has a point, and the video is a valuable medium in itself. No one really makes short films (at least short films that get seen outside of festival audiences) anymore, and there’s something about that medium, whether its brevity or commercial heedlessness or the tendency to shy away from narrative and dialogue that itself is perhaps not a lesser form to feature films, but rather something different and great. Not all short stories deserve to be novels, and not all pop songs need to be operas (or concept albums, for that matter). The music video is really the last place where mass audiences can see short films, as theatres did away with them decades ago. The music video, in most cases devoid of dialogue, actually has a lot in common with the silent one or two-reeler.
That’s what makes Insterstella 5555 such an interesting project, ‘cause it’s a big music video itself, as it’s as much about the score as the images on-screen. Most features use the score to carry or underscore the plot and characterization and all that stuff, but with Interstella 5555 it’s pretty much the other way around. The images carry the music. So though it’s not a short, it is a movie that follows the rules of music videos, which is a lot more interesting than a music video constructed like a movie.
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