Title

From Air to Yoko Ono: The Music Videos of Mike Mills

Mike Mills at the "20th Century Women" New York screening
Director Mike Mills attends the "20th Century Women" New York screening at Florence Gould Hall on December 5, 2016 in New York City. | Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

In "20th Century Women," 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) comes of age at the tail end of the 1970s in Santa Barbara. Punk rock is in full swing and Jamie is growing up in a progressive environment led by his single mom, Dorothea (Annette Bening). But, despite Dorothea's forward-minded ways, there's still a growing generation gap between the two, so she enlists their hip photographer housemate, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie's slightly older friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help guide her son into adulthood. 

A quirky comedy about biological and chosen family, "20th Century Women" is Mike Mills' follow-up to the acclaimed 2010 film "Beginners." Inspired by Mills' own mother and set in his hometown, "20th Century Women" looks back to the '70s without being too precious about the setting. When Mills and composer Roger Neill visited the KCET Cinema Series, they discussed how this affected the musical choices in the film. "We really wanted to avoid anything that sounded nostalgia in any way," Neill told the audience in a Q&A session led by KCET Cinema Series host Pete Hammond. "We didn't want to be evocative of a bygone era with the music... It should sound modern, but modern in 1979."

Similarly, the licensed music in the film is more timeless than retro, including works from bands who were active in the late '70s, but remain popular today. Mills says that mixing those punk influences with the 1940s sound of Dorothea's youth was important to the film. He described the vibe as "'As Time Goes By' meets the Buzzcocks." Mills added: "What happens when those two come together?" 

That aesthetic extends to the look of the film, which is rarely too-'70s. The characters dress in a way that could have been popular 40 years ago or 20 years ago or maybe, in some circles, now. For those familiar with Mills' work as a music video director, this is fitting. In the 1990s, Mills came to prominence for his work as both a graphic designer and video director who added a dash of his style to bands like Air and Pulp. His clips often took visual cues from the past without settling into nostalgia. Below, we took a look at ten of his videos.

Story continues below

1. Yoko Ono, "Walking on Thin Ice" (2003) 

Yoko Ono originally released "Walking on Thin Ice" in 1981 and it has the tragic distinction of being the final song John Lennon worked on before his murder in December of the previous year. Beyond that bit of notoriety, the song went on to become a favorite of club DJs. By the early 2000s, "Walking on Thin Ice" had a resurgence in popularity thanks to a rekindled love for '80s dance music. That's when a few new remixes of the song were unleashed. A mix by the Pet Shop Boys provided the sound for this black-and-white animated clip from Mike Mills. The video looks as if it might take a turn into Wonderland, but it throws viewers for a loop as this white rabbit's life plays out in the forest and in a cage.

2. The Divine Comedy, "Bad Ambassador" (2000)

Bigfoot has a "Young Frankenstein" moment in this black-and-white clip when the monster stops his pursuit of a roller girl to don a top hat and cane for a moment of dancing. Cut to a scene of bored Bigfoot working in a warehouse and a flannel-clad female co-worker suddenly breaks into a roller cabaret routine. Monster and girl go back and forth between the tedium of work and their rich dance floor fantasies as they fall in love to the tune of indie pop outfit The Divine Comedy.

3. Pulp, "Party Hard" (1998)

The impossibly cool Britpop group Pulp brought in Mike Mills for their 1998 video for "Party Hard." Here, you can see how Mills' graphic design background plays into the music video medium. Performing on a slick, white stage with star-like lights pulsing behind the band, the clip looks more like a moving album cover than a typical video. Even the introduction of cheerleaders and a tumble of balloons near the end of the song doesn't interrupt the symmetry here.

4. Martin Gore, "Stardust" (2001)

This clip for Martin Gore's cover of the David Essex song "Stardust," captures images of Gore, best known as a member of Depeche Mode, in rockstar isolation. He stares at the ceiling of a hotel room, sings with his head against the backseat of a car. This is interspersed with scenes of black-clad dancers who gradually turn up wearing less clothing. Mills essentially links together the remnants of the '90s — grungy hair, lots of eyeliner — with the sexy, burlesque wave of the '00s.

5. Les Rythmes Digitales, "Sometimes" (1997)

One of Mills' most intriguing, and disturbing, videos is this clip for Les Rythmes Digitales. The story unfolds like an episode of "Behind the Music," with a cast of adorable, animated stuffed animals lending their insight into the life of a teddy bear who dreamed big. This video is as cute as it is dark and that juxtaposition fits quite well with this song from LRD, an early alias for producer Stuart Price (who later went on to work on Madonna's album "Confessions on a Dance Floor").

6. Air, "Kelly Watch the Stars" (1998)

Mike Mills worked with the French electronic duo Air on multiple occasions, both as a graphic designer and a video director. In fact, you could credit him with the retro-cool aesthetic associated with the group. In the clip for the 1998 indie dance favorite "Kelly Watch the Stars," Mills melds a strong and strange narrative with that look. Here, we see a ping-pong tournament that almost takes a deadly turn, but doesn't perhaps thanks to a little magic or science-fiction or just good timing. It's a video in the vein of the 1990s auteurs who moved from MTV to the big screen, like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry.

7. Blonde Redhead, "Top Ranking" (2007)

Mills directed multiple videos for Blonde Redhead's 2007 album "23." The clip for "Top Ranking" looks like a collection of outtakes from a photo shoot.  Artist/director Miranda July (Mills' wife) appears as the model, staging, as the video notes, "one pose per second." It's performance art-meets-indie rock.

8. Zoot Woman, "It's Automatic" (2001)

Mills reunited with Stuart Price of Les Rythmes Digitales for "It's Automatic," from Zoot Woman. The band, one of Price's other projects, was clearly influenced by soft rock and so the vibe here is similarly subdued. Mills relies on the classic contrast of black and white as shadows fall across cut out signs. A couple dressed in black-and-white, mod-meets-new wave outfits dances through that backdrop.

9. Moby, "Run On" (1999)

Mills' video for "Run On," from Moby's landmark album "Play," casts the electronic music artist as an office hero through a strange turn of events, which are told backward. You'll see that retro touch of office wall paintings in '70s shades of orange and yellow, along with very '80s aerobics gear.

10. Mansun, "Legacy"  (1998)

Mills brings a bit of Southern California into this video for British rock group Mansun, when a young band goes from the garage of a yellow, suburban house to a club crowded with fans. Plastic dolls play the parts of musicians on the rise (and fall).

Top image: Annette Bening (as Dorothea) and Lucas Jade Zumann (as Lucas) in "20th Century Women."

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading