Danny Boyle, the improbable master of the music video

How the Academy Award-winning director mastered the music video aesthetic, despite never having actually worked on music videos

T2: Trainspotting
(Image credit: 2016 CTMG)

Spike Jonze. Michel Gondry. Michael Bay. David Fincher. Danny Boyle. One of these big-in-the-'90s directors is not like the others. While the first four all burst into Hollywood at the end of the 20th century by making a name for themselves in music videos, Boyle did not. Which is weird, because his visceral, fast-paced, often violent movies have a traditional music video sensibility more akin to Bay than the artier Jonze, Gondry, or Fincher.

Indeed, the Academy Award-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later, and Trainspotting lends the aesthetic a rare depth. What Boyle understands is how to use the style's fast cutting, pop music, and mobile camera to capture what his characters are feeling.

Take a scene from the Academy Award-winning director's latest film, T2: Trainspotting, out this month. After scamming a bunch of money, two reunited drug addicts — Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) — excitedly rush back to the latter's apartment, where they stay up late excitedly babbling to each other about soccer, music, and other aspects of their shared history. Though they're not on heroine, the movie uses video-style visuals (like projecting images on the outside of the car as they zoom home) and frantic editing to depict their kinetic babble — the rush of relief these characters are feeling in each other's company. The sequence looks very much like it could be a music video, and uses music, but its emotional effects in this story (very much about nostalgia, its pleasures and pitfalls) are foregrounded more than any particular pop song.

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You can see this kind of facility with the genre's techniques early in Boyle's career, when his style more closely resembled traditional music videos. The original Trainspotting, for example, opens with a now-iconic montage set to Iggy Pop's pounding "Lust for Life," featuring a lot of footage of heroin addicts sprinting down a city street, away from cops. Though the framing isn't exactly a direct quotation, it's hard to watch this sequence without recalling the opening of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles film that kinda-sorta helped to invent the music video form.

Of course, it's unlikely the Beatles would have signed off on a scene where one of them dives into a toilet, as McGregor does, to search for accidentally expelled drug suppositories. That swift transition from nausea to whimsy, as the "worst toilet in Scotland" somehow turns to a peaceful underwater environment entered by McGregor's antihero to the tune of Brian Eno's "Deep Blue Day," is not a shot cribbed from an iconic piece of pop culture, but it's exactly the kind of wild leap music videos tend to take. The fact that it's a bit of reality-bending weirdness in the middle of a relatively straight sequence might be a problem for some filmmakers. But it doesn't phase Boyle, whose work tends to move swiftly and fluidly even when it sometimes threatens to jump the rails.

A similar fluidity informs the freest and most exhilarating moments of Boyle's Trainspotting follow-up, A Life Less Ordinary. This flop rom-com between McGregor and Cameron Diaz isn't one of Boyle's best, and in fact spends much of its running time riding directly on the rails, ready to jump at any moment. But it is notable for injecting a music video sensibility into a genre — romantic comedy — that's not especially known for its modern-day style. The biggest scene, for instance, is a karaoke duet performance of "Beyond the Sea" by McGregor and Diaz which, like Trainspotting's toilet, takes leave of strict reality, landing somewhere between dream and drunken hallucination. To the extent that this very strange movie comes even close to working is largely due to its psychedelic yet mournful musicality.

All of this may sound relatively simple, but it eludes plenty of others who play with the same aesthetic.

Take Michael Bay, one of the exemplars of the "MTV"-style of movie making. The blockbuster director typically uses his eye for iconography, recurring images, and ultra-stylized compositions to try to goose excitement — to make every moment of his every movie into some kind of sun-blasted, magic-houred, canted-angle event. Boyle's signature moves have a similar junkie sensation, but he actually cares about which sensations he's evoking. There's a range of emotion, from joy to terror, that other transplants like Bay haven't yet mastered.

Maybe it's his versatility within his recognizable style that has made Boyle such a nimble genre-hopper; he's made horror, sci-fi, drama, a family adventure, a romantic comedy, and whatever the hell Trance is. As T2 brings him back to his roots, he might be considering his next move, and there's at least one genre he's flirted with but never really tried.

At his best, Boyle's exuberance is reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann, another filmmaker whose work has a strong music-video influence despite his origins in theatrical, rather than MTV, productions. Luhrmann revitalized the movie musical with Moulin Rouge! — starring Boyle's sometime muse Ewan McGregor, no less. Maybe it's time for Boyle to follow suit.

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Jesse Hassenger

Jesse Hassenger's film and culture criticism has appeared in The Onion's A.V. Club, Brooklyn Magazine, and Men's Journal online, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, where he also writes fiction, edits textbooks, and helps run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast.