Simple Song

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One of my favorite pieces of short filmmaking is DANIELS’ music video for the Shins’ “Simple Song.” (DANIELS is a filmmaking duo made up of Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, best known for the outrageous video for the global hit “Turn Down for What?” and the movie Swiss Army Man). I’m a big Shins fan, and this is a fun song, but it’s a bit on the sunny and poppy side, without many of the darker and more ambiguous notes that add depth to their best work. The lyrics center on songwriter James Mercer’s wife, and his invented memories of having a crush on her when they were children –a bit of a departure for the man who famously claimed “Caring is Creepy.”

The darkly comic video, on the other hand, gives us all the irreconcilable ambiguities we were craving, complete with a hidden meta-commentary about the band itself. The film opens on the coffin of an aged and deceased Mercer in the foyer of an old house. His video-recorded last will and testament is displayed on an old television, as his estranged adult children –played by the other members of the Shins –watch in sulky silence. As each is introduced, a brief home-video clip of him or her as a child is shown –establishing the fraught relationship they had with their neglectful father.

There’s a hidden irony here. The original Shins band was fired by Mercer at the height of their success and it was a different lineup that recorded this song, yet the band in the video is neither of those. Well-known musicians in their own right, they were the then-current touring lineup of the Shins (Jessica Dobson, Yuuki Matthews and the late Richard Swift, with drummer Joe Plummer as Mercer’s faintly sinister assistant). Casting them as Mercer’s quarrelsome children is a nod both to Mercer’s outsized, patriarchal ownership of the “Shins” brand, and to the rivalries he blithely incited among the differing lineups.

Mercer ends his videotaped will by promising the house and his entire inheritance to whomever can find the hidden deed. The grown children are visibly upset at their father putting them through their paces one last time, but immediately begin shoving and vaulting over each other in a no-holds barred race to be the winner. Meanwhile, the video image showcases a similarly feral scavenger hunt incited by their father during their childhood.

Here’s where the heart of the film starts. As the grown children chase each other through the abandoned house, they physically share the space with their younger selves, and the memories of their childhood. The big surprise is this: Although many of the memories seem superficially negative –with children being injured, or forced into humiliating competitions with each other –there’s a warmth and a light to them that nevertheless produces a visceral sense of nostalgia.

One of the biggest challenges for a music video –like picture book illustrations, or a movie adapted from a book –is that it needs to have the same spirit and feel as the original, meaning that it can’t be completely disconnected from the source. At the same time it also needs to tell it’s own independent story, meaning that it can’t be too faithful a mirror of the original. DANIELS accomplish this balancing act particularly well in this film. Most of it outlines a completely independent narrative, but there are little places where the lyrics and the story are tangent. The first is where the lyrics talk about “a kiss that I kept under my vest” at the same time as the grown children begin to uncover the hidden memories of the house. The other is where the youngest of the young version of the children plays out a storyline from the lyrics, where he steals a charm on a chain, and gives it to a girl he likes.

The story comes to a crashing conclusion when the hidden “deed” reveals that the entire hunt was a last prank by the deceased Mercer –the house has been sold and is slated for immediate demolition. The adults run for their lives as as a wrecking ball smashes through the attic window. Meanwhile, a third version of the characters joins the same physical space when we see the band, as themselves, playing the song in the rapidly collapsing house. This technique –of placing the performance of the song inside the reality of the video’s narrative –is an old one in the world of music videos, but it’s effective, because it reifies the way that good songs conjure up their own livable world.

The film closes on the adult children laughing and embracing as they make it out of the house alive. As borderline abusive as their father may have been, his final stunt actually worked to bring them together, and to help them uncover the good memories they had of their lost childhood.

All in all, an amazing work of art, speaking to the combined wonder and terror of childhood as well as to the artistic heights paradoxically produced by Mercer’s oft-criticized (“mercer-nary”?) treatment of his band.

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