Tony Kaye has worn countless hats over the years, not including the leather trilby he sported throughout the D&AD President’s Lecture at the Institute of Education on Wednesday evening. Enfant terrible Hollywood director, unflinching and uncompromising documentarian, Grammy-bothering music video architect and legendary broadcast advertising visionary are just some of the titles that can been attributed to the self-proclaimed ‘pain in the arse’, a man who is rarely short of something to say – no bad thing, when anything Tony Kaye has to say is usually worth hearing.
“Expect the unexpected” was the mantra of this talk, but even the most open-minded of spectators must have entered with unavoidable anticipation – anticipation which was likely to be matched by apprehension, given Kaye’s reputation as an unpredictable motormouth. While the next two hours taught us that this capricious creative still doesn’t shy away from potential awkwardness – a trait you’d have to expect in a man who spent 18 years crafting an emotive documentary on the American Pro-Choice movement – this talk featured very little in the way of speech.
Kaye took to the stage looking visibly uncomfortable with the platitudes paid to him in a laudatory introduction, and proceeded to leave a captive audience engrossed yet befuddled by his presentation. Opening with a self-penned folk song (Kaye is also a musician, working on an album as we speak) before running the first half of a documentary film about the tumultuous shoot of feted film American History X, it was the best part of an hour before Kaye uttered a word unaccompanied by instrumentation – and even then it was in verse, taking the shape of an autobiographical ode of how he overcame a childhood stammer and landed his first job in the advertising industry through ingenuity, determination and a voice recorder. Poetry has frequently felt cleaner, but it’s rarely felt more raw.
The aforementioned documentary footage displayed the Tony Kaye we’d been conditioned to expect. A brash and forthright man with a plan, Kaye famously clashed with New Line Cinema’s Michael de Luca and star Edward Norton over the final cut of American History X. Kaye famously attempted to replace his name on the credits with ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (claiming at the time that this was because New Line had tampered with his film so badly it could never be put together again). This footage showed Kaye’s unique approach to negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as detailing his issues with the edit rumoured to be constructed by Norton (who, of course, went on be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the released film). Superb though the released film may be, there was a palpable excitement in the room at Kaye’s announcement that a Director’s Cut should finally see the light of day on the film’s 20th anniversary. The only disappointment is that we have another five years to wait for that milestone.
The showreel that followed Kaye’s slam sonnets was simultaneously inspiring and overwhelming. Included were emotive scenes from American History X, the aforementioned 18-years-in-the-making documentary Lake of Fire, and last year’s Detachment (a hard-hitting drama that looks at the American school system, featuring an all-star cast) alongside some of Kaye’s notable music videos (particularly Dani California, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ tribute to acts of the past and present, and the guest-packed Johnny Cash ballad God’s Gonna Cut You Down) and his most eulogised advertisements (a stunned silence particularly followed Kaye’s work on The Museum of Jewish Heritage – the footage is available on YouTube and demands to be seen).
The only disappointment of the evening was that time constraints denied too much probing of the man responsible for this inspirational and unforgettable work. A handful of questions were raised, but insight into Kaye’s views on the future of the music video, his new-found sense of comparative creative zen and what he thinks of the Go Compare campaign sadly remain shrouded in mystery. Perhaps that’s for the best, though; as Kaye closed this most ethereal of experiences with another brace of guitar-plucking ballads, it became clear that the full contents of some minds are best left undrained.
– Greg Porter