How Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ Video Owes a Lot to an Uncredited Indie Film
Watch the comparison video, and hear what the creators of 2011's 'Girl Walk // All Day' have to say
Anne Marsen found out about Pharrell’s “24 Hours of Happy” video the way most people did — the way most people find out about anything anymore — through social media. But rather than see the clip on a public Twitter feed or a Facebook page she might’ve “liked” at some point, the 24-year-old dancer and actress learned of the interactive extravaganza directly from friends’ messages. She was in her apartment in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, and everybody was telling her the producer and performer must have seen her work.
“I hadn’t heard of the video,” she says over the phone from her new home in Los Angeles, “and then I checked it out and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.'”
Pharrell’s uplifting G I R L hit and its extraordinary interactive video have become one of those rare cultural events that transcend the narrow audience of pop music fans and spill over into the broader discussion. The 24-hour clip and its edited version have inspired more than 1,000 re-makes, and seeing a montage of them brought the singer to tears on Oprah Prime. “Happy” has topped the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks; Pharrell has performed it at the Oscars and on Saturday Night Live. Even his big silly hat is famous now.
But to Marsen and others, the “Happy” video looked very familiar.
In 2011, Marsen starred in a 71-minute, Kickstarter-funded video called Girl Walk // All Day. Set to the music of Girl Talk’s free album All Day, the project showed her dancing freely around New York City, and it was SPIN’s No. 1 Most Innovative Video of the year. Like “24 Hours of Happy,” it’s an extended, spontaneous-looking dance piece set in public spaces. Nobody has a monopoly on that concept — especially where mash-up master Girl Talk is involved — but there are some similarities in settings, dance moves, clothing, and how the characters work the camera.
Marsen, who has a recurring role on CBS’ The Good Wife, put together a short video, premiering above, highlighting the striking resemblances. SPIN spoke to Marsen and Girl Walk // All Day director Jacob Krupnick, and they didn’t seem upset at Pharrell so much as wistful about the idea of one day achieving that level of popularity.
“Jacob and I were saying, we agree, it’s a great thing that dance is getting recognition as a long-form kind of thing, because we want to be making more projects that we’re dreaming up now that are in this form,” explains Marsen, who’s also working on a tribute to now-defunct New York graffiti hub 5Pointz. “Yet at the same time we feel like we’re not getting the recognition for this.”
Unfortunately, a rep for Pharrell said neither the artist nor directing team We Are From L.A. had seen Girl Walk // All Day and that the “Happy” video is based on the film Despicable Me 2, which featured the song. We Are From L.A. and the video’s production company Iconoclast Interactive didn’t respond to emails.
Although Girl Walk // All Day was made completely independently of Girl Talk, the producer and DJ also known as Gregg Gillis says he does see resemblance between the video and “Happy.” Still, he cautions not to read too much into it.
“Yeah, there’s definitely some similarities,” Gillis notes in an emailed statement. “It could be a coincidence or maybe somebody in Pharrell’s camp was influenced by the video. Do I think the Pharrell video used those elements in a transformative nature and created something new out of it? Yes.”
He also warns that he doesn’t know enough about choreography to zero in on how alike the dance moves might be. (As it happens, Marsen danced onstage during Girl Talk’s Coachella set — see the 26:45 mark.)
Still, the Girl Walk // All Day team and their friends are hardly the only ones to notice a kinship between their video and “24 Hours of Happy.” When the “Happy” clip came out last November, Slate wrote that “the idea is basically Girlk Walk // All Day meets The Clock.” Likewise, Indiewire noted, “Those of you who spend a lot of time around indie film may see the inspiration of the independently produced Girl Walk // All Day feature-length film.”
And rightly or not, big-budget music videos occasionally do get called out for similarities to lesser-known work, as happened with Beyoncé’s “Countdown” visuals a few years ago. Pharrell himself has had to face dubious theft allegations surrounding Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Franz Ferdinand riffs.
In the end, it all might be a little bit like Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme’s recent appearance on Portlandia. The clip, titled “Disappointing Gay,” definitely brings to mind an earlier, less famous Web series called Disappointing Gay Best Friend, but the original videos’ co-creator has written that he’s not mad about it. Krupnick, the Girl Walk // All Day director, approaches this situation with similar equanimity.
“I feel deeply inspired by Pharrell’s music,” he says over the phone. “I’d be thrilled to collaborate on a project with him. And I think, based on the video that Anne has made, on some level it’s also safe to say that Pharrell — aware or not — was inspired by the film we made.”
As Krupnick makes these comments, the tone of his voice isn’t resentful. It’s … happy.