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Director Jonathan Glazer: His 10 Best Commercials

Director Jonathan Glazer: His 10 Best Commercials

So it feels like a long time that we’ve been talking, (and sighing and gasping and puzzling) about “Under the Skin,” which finally arrives for your viewing (and sighing and gasping and puzzling) pleasure this weekend. Only the third feature from director Jonathan Glazer, after the feted “Sexy Beast” and the hugely underrated “Birth,” we first reviewed it (warmly) out of Telluride, and then our man in Venice was so taken with it that we listed a further 5 reasons to put it at the top of your to-see list.

Glazer himself hardly came from nowhere. In fact for many years now he’s been the closest thing there is to a superstar commercials and promos director, with those in the advertising business waiting for a new Glazer TV spot the way that film buffs might anticipate the next Christopher Nolan film. With not just one but several commercials and music videos that are regarded as the best examples of their form ever, to his name, it feels like Glazer has been honing and refining his filmmaking skills for years in these shorter formats, the better to come to features more or less fully-formed as an auteur. Because that’s the really special thing about the British director, and something that sets him apart from other commercials directors who’ve made the move to features—within his body of work in advertising, diverse as it is, you can see the definite evolution of a style and even of certain themes that again come to the fore in “Under the Skin.” There’s often an element of darkness, of something creepy going on even in the most celebratory of spots; he has a fondness for nighttime cityscapes and unusual faces; he’s overtly influenced by Kubrick; he finds the uncanny in the everyday; and even in his simplest cuts he has a peerless eye for a still image, but also an innate feel for the beauty of motion, that can often makes his work feel dynamic as well as iconic.

So to get you in the mood for the “Under the Skin,” then, we’ve decided to run down our ten favorite Glazer commercials. We’ll be talking about his music videos later in the week too, though in the meantime you can also check out a recent piece on Music Video Turned Feature Directors here.


10. Stella Artois Devil’s Island
Glazer has had an ongoing relationship with several brands for whom he has directed more than one commercial, with Stella Artois being one of the two alcohol brands (Guinness the other) with which he is most closely associated. The Belgian beer’s long-running “Reassuringly Expensive” campaign kicked off with a homage to the French film “Jean de Florette” and continued in that epic, cinematic scope thereafter too giving subsequent directors a chance to work in a longer format (many of the ads are 100secs or longer) and thus to tell a more complex story. This spot makes the absolute most of that impulse–featuring a huge cast (including Ron Perlman) and a suitably dramatic, period setting, and is one of three the director made for Stella.

9. VolkswagenLast Tango in Compton
We’ve mostly favored more storytelling-based commercials for this list, but made an exception for this more recent ad for Volkswagen, which, along with his previous spot for the Polo called “Protection,” is purely about the sexy imagery. But the assurance with which Glazer shoots this dance, the gorgeous warmth of the skin tones and the way he captures the motion is just so beautiful, and so earthily graceful without being at all fragile, that it really does speak volumes about the car it’s selling. And even if it didn’t, we’re suckers for a well-shot dance sequence, so this gets in purely on style.

8. Levi’sKung Fu
One of Glazer’s earliest spots to make it in, we think you can see he’s at a less established point in his career, with the slapstick humor of this spot an unusual element for a director whose natural impulses seem to tend toward the serious, the cool or the blackly ironic. But it’s a lot of fun, featuring Dustin Nguyen as a Bruce Lee-style operator who has to get to the gorgeous laundress to let her know to wash his jeans inside out. Silly, but so well shot and choreographed, and so deeply affectionate of the films it references (it reportedly uses soundbites and effects lifted directly from “Enter the Dragon”) that we love it anyway.

7. Barclay’s “Centaur
The series of ads that Glazer did for Barclay’s Bank, all starring Samuel L Jackson, are some of the more peculiar spots ever shot for a financial institution, and are also atypical in Glazer’s filmography. Crisply, simply shot and feeling largely unadorned, they are more about performance and dialogue than imagery, with Jackson delivering largely incomprehensible parables about pigs and chickens and bulls (“if a dollar was a chicken would a chicken be evil?”) while trudging through the countryside. In all it proved a short-lived direction for the bank to take and no, we’ve no idea why any of it relates to Barclay’s either, but that doesn’t mean that Jackson spouting doggerel in the rain doesn’t exert its own pull. Especially in this one, where the words are actually Shakespeare’s (from “A Comedy of Errors”).

6. GuinnessSwim Black
One of two Guinness commercials on this list (Glazer’s third was the also-beautiful “Dreamer” which just felt slightly less vital than these two), “Swim Black” is a prime example of a commercial that is totally elevated by the filmmaking. The story of an aging swimmer who is a local celebrity and his yearly swimrace against the Guinness tap is embellished with such wonderful casting (every single villager seems to have one of those faces into which is etched their whole character) and edited so cleverly that it feels like a short film into which the product is deeply embedded, as opposed to tacked on to the end.

5. WranglerRide
Showing a shocking lack of brand loyalty to Levi’s, Glazer jumped over to rival jeans brand Wrangler, and seemingly effortlessly delivered one of their all-time great commercials. A loose-limbed, Beats-inspired tale of freighthopping cross-country, it’s an inspired piece of Americana, in which surreal imagery, like the house on fire, the bouncing car and the half naked old guy in the train car (half naked old guys make frequent appearances in Glazer’s work, we’ve noticed) sit alongside beauty shots that are occasionally gently subversive in content–note that the motel hook-up that happens early on is a homosexual one. But it’s mainly mood that comes across: the combination of trippy music (“Follow the Yellow Brick Road”) and startling imagery, especially the stunning nighttime buffalo stampede, still makes this spot feel like a dark, dangerous, thrilling adventure in being young and broke and impossibly free.

4. Sony BraviaPaint
While this commercial came across at the time as a slightly lesser echo of the astounding “Balls” ad in which multicolored bouncing balls were sent cascading down a San Francisco street, in retrospect it stands on its own as a much more bombastic, self-consciously epic interation of the “colour like no other” line. Quite aside from the logistical difficulties involved in essentially wiring an entire Glasgow housing estate with explosive paint bombs and the necessity of getting everything on the first take, the scale of the undertaking is dizzying, and the effect oddly avant-garde, especially when you add in the (deliberately?) sinister clown. The exteriors are the money shots of course, but we’re fond of the interior explosions, especially the hallway in which we see another of Glazer’s nods to Kubrick’s “The Shining.”

3. Levi’sOdyssey
Again style winning out over storytelling here, but what style! Continuing a fine tradition of iconic advertising for Levi’s Glazer’s approach in this spot is simplicity itself, taking the high concept of running through walls and, well, running with it. The result is a triumph of CG that spawned a thousand parodies, but felt instantly iconic and captured the toughness, durability and yet the freedom that the brand has come to stand for. And the terrific soundtrack deserves a special mention: in using an un-manipulated (though newly arranged) version of Handel’s “Suite in D Minor,” it caused a mini-revolution in using classical music to market a lifestyle product to under-20s.

2. Stella Artois Last Orders
If Glazer has an ongoing relationship with any actor over the course of his commercials career, it’s with Denis Lavant and it’s not hard to see why–the “Holy Motors” star has so many qualities that Glazer is fascinated by: a rugged, ugly attractiveness, a dancer’s grace and a certain lugubrious set to his expressive, interesting features. In 2010 he teamed with Glazer to deliver a turn as the Devil in a rather overblown ad for Cadbury’s flake that was pulled for being too suggestive. But the collaboration of theirs we like the best is this one, again from the “Reassuringly Expensive” Stella Artois campaign, that hits so many notes about mortality, filial devotion, piety and temptation, all wrapped up in a gorgeously shot and cast ad for beer. Lavant’s beautifully deadpan underplaying at the end makes the joke (and jokes are pretty rare in Glazer’s output) all the funnier.

Kind of a no-brainer, this one. This famously iconic 1999 commercial has won just about every award going and was voted in 2002 the single greatest TV advertisement of all time in a Channel 4/Sunday Times poll. The stunning black-and-white photography, the mesmeric voiceover, the driving thrum of the Leftfield score all combine to deliver a perfect meditation on the benefits, and payoff, of patience–one of the cornerstones of the Guinness brand. The painterly CG of the mythological-sized “white horses,” the again off-kilter casting and some amazing shotmaking and sound design all combine to make this ad, which could so easily have been a pretentious mess in someone else’s hands, pretty much the apotheosis of the form.

Honorable mentions
Aside from the others we mentioned in passing above, Glazer also directed a series of ads for Nike of which the basketball cutFrozen Moment” and the football-based Parklife” are very strong (we’re not so keen on “Guerilla Tennis” but that’s maybe just us), while his recent Audi spot The Ring”also shows his skills in shooting sport, this time with boxing. And in 2006 Glazer was hired to make a commercial for Motorola’s “Red” phone which was part of the AIDS-benefitting Red campaign, and delivered this surreal but extraordinary-looking commercial, which never actually aired. 

Have we missed our your favorite? Bawl us out in the comments below, and prebook your ticket for “Under the Skin” this weekend while you’re at it.

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