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A brief history of Hi Octane, Sofia Coppola’s chaotic 90s TV show

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The director and best friend Zoe Cassavetes’ short-lived series fused fashion, famous people, and fast cars, with appearances from Kim Gordon, Keanu Reeves, Beastie Boys, Anna Wintour, and more

Long before Sofia Coppola brought The Virgin Suicides, Lost In Translation, and Somewhere to the big screen, there was Hi-Octane. As its title suggests, Coppola’s 1994 Comedy Central series was the antithesis to her later artistic output, as she and her co-anchor, best friend Zoe Cassavetes, chaotically made their way between New York and LA, checking in with their famous friends along the way. 

“(It’s) kind of like Baywatch but with cars,” Coppola quipped during an appearance on The Jon Stewart Show back in 1995. Featuring a wild mix of fashion, cars, pop culture, and celebrities appearances, all four 22-minute-long episodes were curated with a kinetic energy and introduced through buzzword-heavy opening credits that wouldn’t look out of place in an Instagram story. 

In one clip, Coppola and Cassavetes pull on red and white overalls as they embark on a mission to get behind the wheel of a monster truck, while in another, Tracey Ullman talks about her Black E-Type Jaguar, calling it “a dick on wheels”. Debbie Harry, Naomi Campbell, and Coppola’s cousin Nicolas Cage all make cameos, while Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore is given a regular slot in a section called ‘Thurston’s Alley’ (more on that later).

“We didn’t care about making it look gorgeous or anything. It was really about the spirit of the show, the guests, and two young hot badass chicks in a car” – Zoe Cassavetes

More recently, Coppola explained to W magazine how she “wrote the script ‘cause I was so into cars. And I have access to all these interesting people – these actors and musicians – so we just wanted to incorporate the things we’re interested in. Cars, painting, music.” Fashion is omnipresent, too, with late photographer Shawn Mortensen reporting from Paris Fashion Week, and Coppola interviewing Anna Sui in her store as Cassavettes models the designer’s latest collection. 

Riffing on the familiar access all areas vibe of MTV’s House of Style, the short-lived, lo-fi variety show – which spanned just four episodes before the plug was pulled – married the silly with the stylish in a way that’s hard to imagine happening today. “I don’t really know how they let us develop it,” Coppola told Vogue earlier this year, alluding to Hi Octane’s random nature. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a show like this being made today, in a climate where audiences already have instant access to celebrities through their phones. 

“We didn’t care about making it look gorgeous or anything,” Cassavetes reminisced in the same Vogue piece. “It was really about the spirit of the show, the guests, and two young hot badass chicks in a car.” Arriving on YouTube – as all the best things eventually do – after two decades languishing in obscurity, the series has picked up viewers hungry for a certain brand of nostalgia (and we mean, what else is there to do in lockdown other than delve deep into the platform’s recesses?)

Here, we’ve singled out ten moments that highlight the show’s on-point eccentricities.

BEFORE THERE WAS EMILY, SHAWN WENT TO PARIS

In episode one, Coppola and Cassavettes send photographer Shawn Mortensen off to Europe with a camera, a laundry bag, and instructions on how to get the film safely through the airport to document Paris Fashion Week and are rewarded with a montage of backstage hair and make-up, fine catwalk footage, and a bleak view of the Eiffel Tower, filmed from a cab. The real wins here though are Shawn’s interviews with Karl Lagerfeld, who playfully scolds him for being a lousy thief (“I promised my mum I’d steal a dress from Chanel”), and André Leon Talley, who he asks repeatedly “Have you ever had sex in a car”. The answer? A resounding no, but if the opportunity were to arise, a Bentley would be the go-to for such an occasion. A special shout-out also goes to Talley’s impression of Coppola, who he scolds for not enunciating properly.

THE ONE WHERE KEANU SHOWS UP ON THE FREEWAY

While many were quick to call 2019 the Golden Age of Keanu Reeves, we’d be remiss not to pitch the moment he’s rescued by Coppola and Cassavetes as a contender for fan favourite. Stranded on a non-descript LA freeway, the star hangs out by the side of the road reading a book (cc @hotdudesreading), before our hosts show up in a vintage red and white convertible, tool bag in the back. “Is this Hi Octane?” asks Coppola’s rumoured ex-boyfriend, before yelling “Woooo!” It’s a vibrant moment of positivity from Reeves, making it a must watch in the year of our lord 2020. 

X-GIRL HITS THE STREET

With the encouragement of Coppola and her then-boyfriend Spike Jonze, Kim Gordon and Daisy von Furth put on a fashion show in the middle of Soho, New York for their X-Girl fashion label – and naturally, Hi Octane is front and centre to capture the action. For iconic 90s names alone the short segment is a winner, with Kyle MacLachlan and Linda Evangelista – who were famously dating at the time – Steven Meisel, and Anna Sui all getting involved. As Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” plays overhead, a young Chloë Sevigny is amongst the models who parade brilliant pink miniskirts and short t-shirt dresses to an adoring amassed crowd.

ANYTHING GOES IN THURSTON’S ALLEY 

As the show’s only real constant, Thurston’s Alley saw Thurston Moore interview the likes of Johnny Ramone, Sylvia Miles, and Liv Tyler (the latter sadly never making it to screen) in a segment so independently rich it had its own catchy theme song. Performed by Donovan Leitch Jr., “You can sing, you can dance, you can model, you can act, he’ll talk about it with you” lays bare the concept, initiating would-be fans with playful singsong. Looking back on his contribution to the show in an interview with Stereogum in September, Moore talks of his surprise that Hi Octane never really got its dues. Agree, tbh.

THE ONE WHERE JENNY SHIMIZU IS NOTHING SHORT OF ICONIC

Following a short BTS interview with Shawn Mortensen at PFW – in which the pair discuss her auto tattoos and the model casually throws in a bit about a supposed ménage à trois with Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington – Shimizu sets about showing us how to fix a loose belt in your car, safely. As one of the show’s more unique moments in a series which was full of them, Jodie Kidd on Top Gear this is not. 

MEET BRITNEY AND SUSAN 

Swapping their shrunken tees for fabulous Chanel suits, Coppola and Cassavetes transform into exaggerated versions of the high-powered talk show hosts of the 90s. All black sunglasses, pearl jewellery, and big, blown-out hair, the hosts of Ciao LA dash between trailers, take faux-important business calls on corded phones, and go over cue cards in the montage which precedes another top ten moment (coming immediately after this one, FYI). It’s a lot of fun, and hints at what an internship at Chanel can lead to when your dad is one of the industry’s most renowned filmmakers. No shade, we’re just happy to be tagging along for the ride. 

THE BEASTIE BOYS GO UNDERCOVER

Naturally a show like Ciao LA calls for guests of a certain stature, and in Beastie Boys, appearing in character as Vic Calfari, Alesandro Algre, and Nathan Wind “from the hit series Sabotage”, Britney and Susan meet their match. Leaning into the “Sabotage” roleplay as ‘real life undercover cops’, the group discuss their move from police work into acting, with Wind (MCA) talking about learning stunt work safety from Burt Reynolds and all three of them opening up about their dating habits in typical vintage talk show fashion.

MARTIN SCORSESE IS ECLIPSED BY A BABY

“I make up a lot of my shots, my movies, by listening to music in cars,” says film legend Martin Scorsese, offering rock’n’roll and classical music as genres he’s most turned on by. Meanwhile, a baby fills the screen, attempting to grab the camera in a scene that recalls Robert Kelly’s infamous 2017 incident on the BBC. Unconcerned, the director continues to answer Coppola’s questions about film with an earnest approach, delivering responses from which film students could genuinely benefit. The clip concludes with Scorsese unable to choose his favourite Beastie Boy: “It’s like saying between Mozart and Beethoven.”

MOORE MEETS WINTOUR

Another bizarre scenario and definitely one of the most iconic moments in the show’s short history sees Thurston Moore swap his alley for Anna Wintour’s Condé Nast office on Madison Avenue. In a scene that echoes Hi Octane’s dual personality, the Vogue editor sits quietly as Moore describes seeing Kim Deal use mayonnaise to style her hair, before Anna recounts the white gloves worn at her first fashion show. It’s anyone’s guess what Wintour made of the situation, but we are extremely here for it. 

GUS VAN SANT PREDICTS IPHONE-MADE MOVIES

…okay, kind of. The My Own Private Idaho director is in the back of a car en route to set, describing a new and extremely tiny video camera the size of a badge, that could in theory see actors ‘wearing’ cameras. Further pushed on future filmmaking, he praises the simple set-up of Coppola and Cassavetes’ gig and their minimal use of equipment, suggesting this approach will come into play later down the line. Like Scorsese, his words are genuine and would have you believe this was a slick show, until everyone on board realises they’re driving the wrong way and are going to miss the day’s light. Finally, insisting a cab is the best solution, we’re left to wonder, “how are you gonna hail a taxi from a moving car?”