Five Years On, Donald Glover’s ‘Clapping for the Wrong Reasons’ Finds New Context

Matt McMahon revisits Donald Glover's 2013 short film, 'Clapping for the Wrong Reasons.'
By    May 4, 2018

Matt McMahon is not here for your Lando takes.

Before he starred in a Star Wars story, before he had his own Emmy-winning television show and Grammy-winning album, even before Because the Internet, Donald Glover rented out Chris Bosh’s Palisades mansion and made a short film depicting a day in the process of creating his second studio album as Childish Gambino.

Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, released five years ago as a sort of companion piece to BTI, was treated merely as such in the wake of its debut—some publications describing it as a weird departure from his normal milieu of network sitcoms, backpack rap, and sketch comedy—and then never really considered again. Yet, with almost two full seasons of his runaway hit Atlanta now serving as a reference point, it’s worthwhile to revisit Glover’s first foray into the surreal, atmospheric tones driving so much of his show.

The film opens on Glover, our unnamed protagonist, woken by a woman knocking on his window telling him his brother’s looking for him. We’re then taken through a prototypical day of developing his album: he grabs breakfast, listens to beats with his producer, trades bars with Flying Lotus—Chance the Rapper and Trinidad James play Connect Four in another room—and he practices DJ’ing to an empty infinity pool. The whole film plays out like a series of small vignettes taken out of the pages of an ambling, early Richard Linklater movie. It’s dry, vaguely philosophical, and palpably naturalistic. What’s most striking, though, is how unceremoniously the whole thing is regarded.

Compared to the most common depictions of recording sessions, rap or otherwise, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons is a uniquely meditative portrait of creating an album. It predicts the loose, air-conditionless contexts of the first few episodes of Atlanta in a similarly aimless, but much more opulent, environment.

When Glover catches up with his brother after the opening scene, he walks through a giant bedroom cluttered with clothes and pizza boxes. In the lone furnished corner, he find his brother and a couple friends playing video games with an unremarkable setup that, when shot up close, bares a striking resemblance to Paper Boi’s living room. The two, considered alongside each other, suppose that regardless of resources, the process and emotions involved with creating don’t change all that much.

Isolation pervades the film’s entire 25-minute runtime, with the final scene hovering on Glover as he crawls back into the bed he woke up in alone, just to wake up to the same woman knocking on his window, looping the day’s events in a circular narrative à la Groundhog Day or Donnie Darko. As the day progresses, the mansion and its surrounding grounds start to feel like a desolate island, pulled out of its time and place, existing on its own plane, a rap Brigadoon. From sunrise to sunset, nothing and no one is seen entering or leaving. Glover and company bottle the mantra he established for their time spent recording at what he dubbed “The Temple,” according to Dazed and Confused, “No shoes. No Tweeting or Instagramming. Work starts at 10am.”

Then-Music Video director and frequent Glover collaborator—now oft-Atlanta director—Hiro Murai shot the film, gorgeously textured on grainy 16mm, off of a script Glover wrote as a prelude to his BTI conceptual album and screenplay bundle. As a music video director, Murai excels at adapting to fit his subjects while maintaining the dark comedic interests that permeate all his work.

With Clapping for the Wrong Reasons (and maybe it’s because I still have the mangy Isle of Dogs on the brain), his most distinct directorial choices evoke Wes Anderson. All the evidence you need is on screen. Murai holds wide on an interstitial shot of the lawn as a woman practicing karate runs to the center of the frame and does a couple of kicks. A subsequent interstitial recalling The Life Aquatic cuts to an acoustic guitar-strumming Ludwig Goransson sitting on the edge of the static backdropped pool, playing the tune that scored the scene before it.

Five years ago, criticism of the film felt implicitly tied up in the self-servedness of it all. And sure, Glover pretty much fulfills every boy who grew up in the ’90s watching Boy Meets World’s fantasy of going lemon-picking (not a euphemism) with Topanga Lawrence. But between that and the issues levied against it for its disturbing tooth scene, it was dismissed for its larger appeal as a unique representation of an otherwise underexposed and over-stereotyped ordeal. Yes, tangled up in the rollout of his knotty conceptual project, the film felt like yet another bloated, pretentious component. But removed from that surrounding noise, it taps into more universal ideas about artistry and loneliness. It’s also just a blast to slink into for a half-hour and wade in its 2013 stillness.

Also, can we talk about that tooth scene for a bit? When our protagonist gets a nosebleed he runs to the bathroom and pulls a gold tooth attached to a string out of his nose. Critics maligned it at the time as empty symbolism, but in retrospect, under the microscope of a lot of the more surreal moments of Atlanta’s second season, it works, along with the rest of the film, as a stark, visceral representation of the creeping physical—and mental—deterioration brought on by the creative process. Sure it’s obvious and a little gross, but if it were planted into next week’s episode of Atlanta, I doubt the response would be as negative.

With most of Glover’s art, the inexplicable helps inform the routine. We never find out—despite his character’s continued questioning—who the woman that first woke him up and periodically appears around the compound is. Instead, the quietly mesmerizing figure played by adult film star Abella Anderson haunts the premises like an ex-love or missed connection Glover can’t quite shake. Donald Glover and his collaborators have refined the ideas and techniques at hand in the five years since, but Clapping for the Wrong Reasons has only gotten more compelling as a project for what it initiated a half decade ago.