Vampire Weekend's New Video is 'Goodfellas' for Upper West Side Jews
The lox! The card table of Philip Roth books! The Seinfeld cameo!
Last week, Vampire Weekend debuted the video for Sunflower, the latest in a parade of singles they’ve released in advance of their forthcoming EP, Father of the Bride. The song, a jazzy loose number, features support from Compton-born guitarist and vocalist Steve Lacy of The Internet. His groovy riffs serve as a backdrop for Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig’s wordless scat-like vocals that mirror the guitar and baselines, almost like a round.
The guitar lines occasionally relent to make way for buoyant drumlines that accompany the nonsensical yet strikingly profound lyrics (“Strange thought upon the pillow/ What day demands a date?/ Well I don't know”) that seem to have become Koenig’s signature. The song, at just under two and a half minutes, is short but it’s a pesky earworm that encourages repeat listens.
The video for the song was directed by Jonah Hill, comedic actor-cum-style god turned millennial auteur. Hill, whose film Mid90s drew on his childhood, and arguably his “heritage” as a skateboarder in Los Angeles, brings a similar angle to the Sunflower video. The video is set at iconic Upper West Side Jewish nosh emporium Zabars, as well as the nearby Jewish delicatessen Barney Greengrass. Though not a proper city kid—Koenig grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey—his parents lived on the Upper West Side when he was born, and Koenig went on to attend Columbia University just a few stops up on the subway, so one can safely assume the Semitic fisheries of Upper Manhattan featured prominently in his upbringing.
At the start of the video, the screen wipes in from a color matte of the store’s signature orange— members of the Zabar family have been known to be fanatical about the hue, purchasing bat mitzvah dresses, sweaters, and even painting playrooms the distinctive shade. (Rachel Zabar, the heiress to the throne, now works as a high-end vintage dealer, outfitting everyone from Tracee Ellis Ross to Rihanna.) Koenig sits on a bicycle sipping coffee outside the store (the folding table full of autographed Philip Roth novels is just off screen) as the screen splits to reveal Lacy doing the same.
The men hold puppies in this split screen, then enter the store and slice fish comfortably behind the counter. They meander through the usually cramped appetizing aisle which has been conspicuously emptied for the stars, then lounge behind the cheese area. There, they run into New York hip hop and art legend Fab 5 Freddy of Yo! MTV Raps, whose nephew Mikey Alfred produced the video. Freddy, who lives in Harlem, told Page Six he’s a regular there, that “if you want that really good Nova, that really good lox . . . you gotta go to places like that that have the top of the line.”
Later, Lacy follows Koenig to Barney Greengrass, where Jerry Seinfeld is sitting solo at the counter, making curmudgeonly grimaces and sipping a cup of coffee. From his perch, he appears almost like a Mafioso, or more likely, a descendent of Murder Incorporated, the Don of the Upper West Side. Lacy then pops up through a hidden staircase in the kitchen of the restaurant, where they sit separately, as Koenig noshes on a bagel and Lacy, as yet uninitiated, has eggs.
All this kibitzing and schmoozing, tracking shots using back entrances and peeks into kitchens, bears significant resemblance to the famous Stedicam shot in Martin Scorsese’s seminal nineties mob film Goodfellas. In that film, Ray Liotta’s character, a mob member on the rise, brings his (Jewish!) girlfriend, played by Lorraine Bracco—aka Dr. Jennifer Melfi, if you prefer early-2000’s mob fare—to the Copacabana club. There, he immerses her in his world, as they enter through the backdoor Liotta seems to know everyone he sees, is allowed special shortcuts, and when there are no vacant tables, one is set up specially for them. The Sunflower video accomplishes the same aims for Koenig as he tours California-born Lacy through the hallowed halls of New York City Jewish eating establishments, showing his companion a bit of himself in the process.
The shot, which is also emulated in the Jon Favreau film Swingers, is considered some of the most memorable camerawork in modern cinema, the continuous shot displaying a multitude of moving complex parts. Hill’s swiveling camera work likewise shows Koenig standing on a banquette, then, has him sitting once more all in one continuous shot.
Hill is no stranger to the Steadicam; his directorial debut Mid90s made use of the technique in its sweeping shots of teenage skateboarders in Los Angeles. The video’s shots, while smooth, are anything but steady—the camera spirals at varying speeds, occasionally on an axis about Koenig or Lacy, or spinning around Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass. The result is somewhat disorienting, but matches the music’s bubbly tone.
The video ends with Seinfeld listening to a totally incoherent joke from a Barney Greengrass fishslicer suggesting he make a show called “Loxcutter getting lox on a bagel,”; Seinfeld brushes off the pitch with characteristic nebbish grouchiness, which serves as the most authentic experience of the Upper West Side one can capture onscreen.