It’s surely only the most hardened of heart that wouldn’t raise a smile at the grainy, baffling and ultimately joyful video for Fatboy Slim’s Praise You. The song, with its plaintive yet somehow uplifting vocals (sampled from black rights activist Camille Yarbrough’s 1975 Take Yo’ Praise, both a love song and an offering of thanks to those fighting racial segregation) rapidly became a late-nineties anthem. Praise You is complex in its collaging of multiple layers of sampling; but beautifully simple in its sweet, heady buoyancy. It feels democratic—a track for clubbers and Now 38-buying mums alike.
The track is a lot of fun; but the Spike Jonze-directed, Roman Coppola-produced video makes Praise You into a sentiment that’s more than the sum of its parts—a celebration of people, of letting loose, of looking like a shambolic idiot and not caring. Jonze is also the de-facto star of the video, under the guise of Richard Koufey, the leader of the fictional troupe The Torrance Community Dance Group.
“It’s surely only the most hardened of heart that wouldn’t raise a smile at the grainy, baffling and ultimately joyful video”
The collaboration between Jonze and Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim) came about when the director left a video in Cook’s LA hotel room showing a blissfully eccentric guy dancing to The Rockafeller Skank, Cook’s 1998 single. Jonze’s note on the tape said that he’d filmed someone dancing to the track, signing off, “Love Spike”. Cook has said in an interview that he had no idea the dancer in the video was actually Jonze: “[I said] ‘If we can find that crazy crackhead and get him to dance to my next single then that’s the video’. They said, ‘Actually, that is Spike Jonze’. For some reason we all thought he was black.”
To create the video, Jonze brought together a group of actors and remained firmly in character as Koufey for the entire duration of the rehearsals, performance and even after wrapping the shoot, according to one of the actors. The entire thing was shot in one take, in a genuine “guerrilla” performance: the gang showed up at an LA cinema in a van together, got out, pressed play and just went for it. Reminiscent of Gillian Wearing’s 1994 piece Dancing in Peckham, perhaps part of the beauty of it all is that it’s hard to imagine this happening now, living as we do in the post-flash mob age, immune to this sort of thing—heads down, looking away.
“At first people didn’t know what to think, but they loved it; they were really cheering us on”
The bemused crowd queuing for movie tickets becomes as much a part of the performance as the dancers; as does the well-meaning security guard who rocks up and turns off the boombox half way through. “Richard Koufey just jumped on him like a monkey,” says Michael Gier, one of the actors in the group. “At first people didn’t know what to think, but they loved it; they were really cheering us on.” He adds, “What you see in the video is exactly what happened. It was a thrill.”
The dance is so utterly, brilliantly terrible—the sort of thing hitherto only seen at the tail end of weddings, or Year 6 discos. Moves such as the “fish” (hands together, arms snaking in a zigzag), the “Julie Andrews” (an ebullient leap, a la Sound of Music); the “teapot” (hand one one hip, other becomes a spout) were soon aped in clubs everywhere as the track made its way to number one in the UK charts in January 1999.
The magic of the video then, and to an extent now, is that it’s deliberately unclear what’s real and what isn’t: people absolutely thought The Torrance Community Dance Group was a genuine entity; Jonze is absolutely as much Koufey as Koufey is Jonze. The footage, too, is adorably grainy; making it feel as much an extended You’ve Been Framed Clip as a four MTV Award-winning music video. While the dancers do veer toward looking a little daft, part of the charm is in the upfront, non-judgmental nature of Praise You’s video—there’s a very delicate line between mockery and celebration, and Jonze hop, skips and jumps right along it beautifully.