"'Shia LaBeouf' Live," an oral history of the Internet's most bombastic meme on its anniversary

On a normal Tuesday night for Shia LaBeouf, Salon chats with Rob Cantor about pulling off a viral video masterpiece

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 22, 2019 8:06PM (EDT)

"Shia LaBeouf" Live (Zach Callahan)
"Shia LaBeouf" Live (Zach Callahan)

It began, as few legendary works of art do, by helping someone move. Around 2011, singer and songwriter Rob Cantor was heaving a massive couch with the assistance of another friend when something magical happened: “He just randomly decided to whisper ‘Shia LaBeouf,’ and it made us both laugh.”

From there, Cantor and his friend spun a series of fantasies about the actor, culminating in “the notion of Shia chasing you through the woods, hungry for your flesh.” This is how Shia LaBeouf transformed from Shia LaBeouf, “Transformers” franchise star, into “Actual Cannibal Shia LaBeouf,” tireless killing machine, by way of a song Cantor released in 2012.

And Cantor's song eventually inspired what may be world’s most ostentatious yet durable viral video: “'Shia LaBeouf' Live,” uploaded five years ago as of Monday.

Let's ask the obvious question first. Why Shia LaBeouf? "It's a great name. It's very musical and the consonants are unusual,” Cantor told Salon in a recent interview. “It just has a unique sound. There's something about saying with a whispered intensity that just feels funny.” And meme-worthy.

Memes, by their very nature, are ephemeral treats. Most capitalize on simple lunacy or grant brief, accidental fame to an otherwise anonymous person. Think of Kimberly "Sweet Brown" Wilkins and “ain’t nobody got time for that.”

Or rather, remember “ain’t nobody got time for that”? Even popular memes have a brief shelf life, remixed and shared wildly for a time but quickly replaced and forgotten.

“'Shia LaBeouf' Live,” on the other hand, is timeless — a three minute, 27 second masterpiece that can only happen when an artist takes a gag 10 steps too far, only to discover that too far is precisely what the joke demands. Take a look:

In Cantor’s orchestral fantasy, LaBeouf “gets down on all fours and breaks into a sprint,” eventually driving the protagonist to a cottage for a vicious final battle. A bear trap is involved, and there’s a horror-movie style “Shia surprise.”

None of these actions play out in a conventional linear manner but by way of interpretive dance, glorious vocals performed by members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and the West L.A. Children’s Choir, the buzzing strings of the Argus Quartet and more. A whole lot more.

Indeed, Cantor’s visual epic is a glorious mash-up of low culture and high culture. Think, say, Sergei Prokofiev’s 1936 symphonic wonder “Peter and the Wolf,'" except with the viewer/listener cast as the hero in the fight of her life against the one-time co-star of Disney’s “Even Stevens.”

Although “'Shia LaBeouf’ Live” dates back to 2014, making it ancient in Internet chronology, its top-heavy level of artistry still draws new visitors on YouTube and inspires intellectual discourse. A person can watch it dozens of times and still notice something new; that may be why it has nearly 63.8 million views and counting (and even inspired the creation of a Dungeons & Dragons monster).

“I got a 98% on a 6 page paper that I wrote based on this video and the social construct behind memes. Thank you for this,” wrote user “Ka!tl!nKa!tl!n” a year ago.

And from two weeks ago comes this from user “30andfree”: “The fact of the matter is that there's absolutely no reason for this to exist but now I don't know what I'd do without it.”

So to mark the fifth anniversary of this vastly under-appreciated work, and because the Internet loves a pop culture anniversary story, we spoke with Cantor, who these days is “keeping busy writing songs for Disney.” Additionally Greg Nicolett, who created the symphonic arrangement of Cantor’s song, and Scott Uhlfelder, who directed the piece, contributed their recollections to this oral history of “’Shia LaBeouf’ Live.”

(Salon reached out to CAA, the agency that represents LaBeouf, in the hopes of getting a few comments from the actor himself, whose latest film "Honey Boy" will be released on Nov. 8. In the unlikely event that the actor gets back to us, we'll update this article.)

2011: Cantor, who previously performed as the guitarist and vocalist in the Michigan band Tally Hall, writes the song as a pitch for Funny or Die.

Rob Cantor: They turned me down. I didn't really have a vision for what it ended up being at that point. I think I was imagining it more literally — you know, we’d kind of just follow the storyline and see it play out in dramatic reenactment style.

But they passed on it... I didn't want it to just disappear into the nether regions of my external hard drive. So I posted it on SoundCloud and it went sort of mini-viral, caught on to some extent, thanks to a fan of my old band sharing it on social media.

So that was an indication that clearly there was something to the joke. It definitely helped give me the motivation to put all the time and energy into making the video.

Flash forward to 2014…

Cantor: I actually had released a solo album called "Not a Trampoline" just before I put the Shia LaBeouf video out. That was sort of like the last part of kind of promoting the album although the Shia LaBeouf song and not actually on the album. But I had done a run of music videos from the album leading up to the Shia LaBeouf video.

I think the grandiosity of it is what makes it funny, because it's such an absurd joke to begin with that to execute it in such an over-the-top way felt like the only way to go. How did I pull it off? Well I definitely had an amazing team of collaborators. Everyone in that video and everyone that was on the other side of the camera was extremely generous with their time and talent. And we didn't really have much of a budget. So I guess I got lucky in the sense that all these incredible people were willing to work hard on something that they believed in.

… I wanted to make it as big and bombastic as possible, and all done with an air of seriousness. I thought that was the funniest way to juxtapose the ridiculousness of the actual song. So a large men's choir seemed like a great way to get that kind of bigness. That was the first kind of piece of the puzzle that I was able to corral. I have a friend named Zach [Krasman], who was and still is singing in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles … I was able to get [them] on board, thankfully. An incredible arranger named Greg Nicolett helped turn my bedroom demo into the lush, epic arrangement that you hear in the video.

Greg Nicolett:  Rob knew I had passion for orchestral film music, and asked me if I could turn his song into an epic symphonic oratorio. My first thought was “Yes...but WHY?”

... Rob originally wanted a 50-piece string orchestra, but I convinced him a string quartet was not only cheaper but more pretentious as well!

"Shia LaBeouf: Live" "Shia LaBeouf" Live

Cantor: The dance troupe, that was amazing to me because Stacy Tookey, who did the choreography, really only started working on it I think maybe three or four days before we shot the video… The first dance rehearsal was, I think three days before we shot. She was extremely talented and brought some of her trusted, favorite dancers that she works with.

And I should definitely give credit to my buddy, Scott Uhlfelder, who was the, who is the director and the cinematographer who definitely played a huge role in making it look as beautiful as it does.

Scott Uhlfelder: Every day, it was like, “Oh, maybe we can add this thing.” Or, “Hey, I know this person." Every other day, some new thing was getting added. Like, since he had a connection to the Gay Men’s Chorus, he asked, “How many people can we get involved?” “Oh, we can get 10. No we can get 20. No – 25!”

[The cast list eventually tops out at 85 performers, including a pair of actors credited as "Kung Fu Men.”]

For me, being a director of photography and knowing how to make the day, I was like, “OK, I know this will make the video better, but how are we doing to put this off? Is it too crazy to bring in these aerialists?” They were brought in, like, two days before. They actually brought in their own rigger!

The Shia Surprise: The final piece of the puzzle

Cantor: It's interesting. I knew [LaBeouf] was familiar with the song because he had tweeted out my demo version that I posted to SoundCloud. He had tweeted it out on Halloween a year before we started working on the video … But I didn't have any kind of direct relationship or a line of communication with him. So I wrote an email explaining what we were trying to do and some ideas for how he might be involved. One of them was that he would be revealed at the end as the lone audience member, which is obviously what we ended up doing.

And then I was able to track down an email address for his manager. I sent an email off and really never expected to hear anything back, but figured I ought to at least give it a try. And lo and behold, two days later I got an email back from the manager saying that Shia was in. It was very serendipitous and unexpected, and I was extremely excited when I got that email.

The day of production arrives, and the cast gathers as the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, which Cantor says is “the nicest theater we could afford.”

Cantor: We shot it in chunks. It wasn't one full performance all the way through but it was a one-day shoot… we got to the theater at maybe 6 a.m. ,started setting up lights and cameras, and I think we rolled on our first take by 9 a.m.

The last thing we shot was Shia's performance at the end of the video. And I think we started shooting that at about 3:30 in the afternoon. So it was a 12-hour day.

"Shia LaBeouf" Live

Uhlfelder: I don’t think there was one particular thing that inspired it, other than to do a live performance and we wanted something that would always one-up what you were seeing. We start it with just a small group, and every time we wanted to add something to make people go, “Oh my god, they have this thing? And now, this thing?” And ultimately it’s like, “Holy crap, they got Shia LaBeouf.” Just the idea of one-upping each thing that we revealed.

Cantor: [LaBeouf] was the one who suggested that we make the final shot a "Ciitizen Kane" homage. That was his contribution, which I thought worked really, really well.

The total budget was about $20,000, and $12,000 came from a company called Maker Studios. I think it's now defunct, but … I thought that would be enough money to make the video that we were all envisioning. And then we kept having more good ideas that we wanted to bring to fruition, like the giant cardboard Shia heads worn by the male dancers.

So it ended up not being enough money, but the ideas and the visuals that we were so close to having and were in our grasp felt too important. I ended up actually ponying up the rest of the money which was, in retrospect, I think a good decision.

Following a swift post-production and editing process, the video goes live on October 21, 2014.

Uhlfelder: Ultimately we just wanted to make something that was fun and that our friends would like to watch. So it’s not like we set out to make a viral video. For me, I do a lot of commercial work, so I like being creative and finding things that are a little different or out there.

Cantor: Expectation-wise, I didn't know what to expect. It was such a bizarre, absurd joke that I wasn't sure if it was going to land or not, or it would just be too strange for people to enjoy. But happily pretty much from the moment we posted it, it took off like a rocket and just got shared and shared and shared.

Once in a while it'll pop up on the front page of Reddit. And if you glance at the comments section, there's always someone who says, "This is the first time I've seen this. This is crazy." Yeah it's really nice to see it continue to be shared, which brings me much, much joy.

Five years later, did it have an impact?

Cantor: In terms of my career, it's definitely led to a number of different opportunities. It's been really good to have on my resume.

… But I guess one lesson to learn is that there's nothing too weird for the internet. As strange as this idea felt going into the production, it definitely resonated with people. That gives me confidence in ideas and projects that may seem bizarre, because it's proof that no idea is too strange to find an audience.

Nicolett: If you ever get approached to do something that sounds absolutely nuts and ridiculously ambitious, say yes!

"Shia LaBeouf" Live

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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