“1, 2, 3, 4” by Feist, directed by Patrick Daughters, choreographed by Noemie Lafrance.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Thai tradition of cinematic blessings before feature films, and why we need more of them. I think I’ve found one that I’d be thrilled to see right as the lights go down.
If you’ve watched TV at all over the past month, you’ve seen snippets of the video for Feist’s “1, 2, 3, 4,” since it accompanies the commercials for Apple’s new line of colorful, shiny iPod Nanos. Feist appears, fetchingly, on the Nano video screens, which are spread out like playing cards. The commercial seems unavoidable, and Apple’s pushing these damn things like new candy bars.
Feist is, of course, part of the product package—now, you can watch her video on your tiny-ass video screen, if you squint really hard! It works both ways—Apple uses her to promote itself as hip; Feist uses Apple to get more airplay, and music videos are essentially extended commercials for musicians, anyway.
But nothing about Feist and director Patrick Daughters’s vision can be reduced to mere product. The three-minute video is an ode to melancholy wrapped in joy, and it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
The scene is an open warehouse, lit coldly. The camera stares at a multicolored wall, which contrasts with the stark gray floor, in the distance. The environment’s scruffy and scuffed—it’s seen better days, or maybe it’s just in use. Slowly, our hero (Leslie Feist) emerges from behind an exit door, dressed in a sparkly blue catsuit and with shimmering brown hair, and walks confidently towards us. The camera follows her slowly—the entire video’s shot in a single take—as an acoustic guitar gently strums out a one-two-three-four riff like a heartbeat. “One two three four, tell me that you love me more,” Feist sings in a fragile but somehow tough croon. (Sasha Frere-Jones describes her voice, rightly, as “gentle but grainy, and full of emotion—capable of swooping up to end a phrase on a full, strong tone.”) She completes the verse—“Sleepless, long nights/ That’s what my youth was for”—as she completes her motion. She’s facing it, in medium-closeup, as the camera’s gradually zoomed in as she was walking in a turn.
And then all hell breaks loose. As the string section and the banjo and the handclaps enter, along with the throaty gospel choir belting out “whoa-oh-oh!,” people start collapsing behind her. The shot moved so fluidly, and as a long shot, that we know there was no one behind her up to this point. But there they are, about ten of them, tumbling out from behind her, as if emerging from Feist. Thank goodness there are people running in, from both sides of the frame, to catch them. Of course, these people immediately also fall down, with others to catch them. The catch-fall continues in a semi-circular pattern, like a slow wave, until Feist is singing and dancing with the accompaniment of about 40 dancers. This all takes five seconds. Then everyone rises, and starts singing and clapping in a somewhat synchronized dance.
“1, 2, 3, 4” as a song could be called ramshackle chanteuse, in that the lyrics—about teenage love, as seen both nostalgically and realistically—and vocal styling is sophisticated and world-weary, but the music is charmingly eccentric and unpolished. At some point, you’ll hear everything from a quick piano cascade to sliding trombone to triumphant crowd whoops to a joyous but almost out-of-step trumpet section, all structured by that simplistic guitar strum and soft-shoe drumwork. Handclaps and finger snaps are more prominent percussion than actual drums. Feist’s earlier stuff feels polished, rubbed to an ironic but immaculate sheen of 1980s new wave and electro. This song sounds as if it were recorded with one microphone, on Feist’s front porch. It clatters, charmingly so, and it’s catchy.
The video emulates the song brilliantly, with abstraction instead of trying to visually show the lyrics’ narrative. The dancers move in rough synchronicity but it’s not exact. The teams of dancers are clad in either red, purple, green, or yellow, but the clothes aren’t uniforms. From person to person, they don’t match shades—one woman’s yellow shirt is solid, while another’s is striped. The clothes themselves don’t even match, as some wear khakis while others wear leotards or skirts or cargo pants. The casting call must have said “Come as you are; we’ll make it fit.” The dance routine is practiced, but not so much so that you can’t see the frayed edges.
In a prominent sequence, we can see one man moving obviously against the current, accidentally bumping into and twirling into others. A lesser director would have used a less sloppy take. But messiness is part of the point. The song and the dancing are both so exuberant that we don’t care about missed notes. Feist reveals her multiple selves and moods symbolically by having all these pieces seemingly s/tumble out of her, just as we all contain multitudes. And some of them clash, go against the grain, and don’t make sense.
In any case, these minor slip-ups have a way of correcting themselves so well that I wonder if choreographer Noemie Lafrance actually planned for that man to be visually off-key. When the zealous choral dances threaten to dissolve into chaos, Feist’s singing snaps onto a precise idea—“One, two, three, four, five, six, nine and ten/ Money can’t buy you back the love that you had then”—and so do the dancers. Suddenly, as we see from above (and, again, the whole video is a single take; no cuts), they’ve formed into a spiral through which Feist is carried by a strong dancer. Just as we have a habit of spiraling back into nostalgia for “teenage hopes” that nevertheless “have tears in their eyes” and “left us with nothing” (all Feist’s lyrics), she literally spirals into herself. She pantomimes shooting out the spiral—again, collapsing dancers all around—and returns to adulthood.
The precision of the visual motifs and motion matches the clarity of such lyrics as “Sweetheart, bitter heart/ Now I can’t tell you apart/ Cozy and cold/ Put the horse before the cart.” At the same time, both song and dance reveal how ecstatically love (especially young love) makes us feel. Again and again, the seemingly slipshod group dances coalesce into tight patterns and formations. Feist bodysurfs on a sea of hands that we don’t quite believe has come together so fluidly; she’s soon after boxed in by the crowd; and then she gets to bodysurf again, this time with the hands moving in a wave.
Throughout it all, Feist proves to a casual, expressive dancer. Her movement, awkward but self-assured and with no trace of self-consciousness, goes well with her conversational singing voice. The song and dance are talking to each other—I’m not sure the crowd cheering is part of the album version of the song or just appropriate to the video. Feist’s videos for “Mushaboom” and “My Moon, My Man” (also collaborations with Daughters) also show a love for non-professional but deeply felt body motion. (Her video for “One Evening” hilariously rips off Michael Jackson and the ultra-low-budget reels of 1980s girl-pop videos such as Toni Basil’s “Mickey.”) Daughters, bless him, understands the need to see the full choreography in long and medium shots, without chopping it into incomprehensibility. His camera moves lusciously from zooms to pans, elevating up to get bird’s-eye views and back down again to ground level.
Because of this, we sense the dance as an organic, singular entity, despite the large number of dancers and not-always-in-sync swirling arms and legs. Shooting this as a single take was risky but necessary. This chaos and clarity, says Feist in her singing and Daughters in his direction, are both part of us simultaneously. We’re the clutter and order and spasticness and fluidity, and nothing brings all this out at once quite like love. At the end of this orgy of motion, all the dancers seem to collapse perfectly behind Feist again. She’s alone again, but sated. She walks forward slowly, the camera backs up, she stops, and takes a bow. We can’t see anything but her on a seemingly empty stage, but we know that the flood of energy must still be there. The façade is a sparkling, smooth, single entity. But facades are tricky things. Each of us contains multitudes of emotion and longing—all it takes is a little love and music to bring it all out.
UPDATE: To the hundreds of you who’ve apparently found this site through this place, welcome! To the left, you’ll quickly find 2½ years worth of posts on everything from more music and film commentary to personal posts, stuff about food, and everything in-between. Enjoy, and thanks for stopping by.