Spike Lee captures a specific pinnacle in Michael Jackson’s career and a precise period in American popular music culture with his comprehensive recap of the making, marketing and legacy of the 1987 album “Bad.”
VENICE — Michael Jackson continues to be bigger dead than alive. It might have seemed that Kenny Ortega had his legacy covered with the 2009 documentary This Is It, but Spike Lee goes one better with Bad 25, an obsessively detailed quarter-century anniversary tribute to the 1987 album that capped the three-prong commercial tsunami Jackson began with Off the Wall and Thriller.
The film is a sensational snapshot of the peak of the music video as art form, as well as the intricately layered process by which superior pop is crafted. More poignantly, it serves to remove the veil of late-period craziness and allegations and restore the reputation of Jackson as a multihyphenate musician of peerless discipline, professionalism and perfectionism — not to mention a pioneering influence in dance and fashion. Following its Venice and Toronto bows, Bad 25 is scheduled to air on ABC at Thanksgiving.
Lee directed Jackson’s 1996 music video for “They Don’t Care About Us.” Despite conducting the interviews personally, he keeps himself out of the picture here aside from one or two audio snippets. But it’s clear that his connection to this material runs deep, revealing itself, for example, in his exhaustive attention to the making of Martin Scorsese’s short film for the album’s title track. No less fascinating is his recap of the multiple choreographic influences that went into the video for “Smooth Criminal,” ranging from Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon to Soul Train to Bugs Bunny to Buster Keaton. The wealth of primo talking-heads fodder makes this of interest far beyond Jackson fans to anyone curious about the production and marketing of popular music.
The director’s appetite for trivia is contagious. Who remembered that one of Wesley Snipes‘ earliest roles was in the “Bad” video? Or that the arcane refrain “Shamone!” was Jackson’s homage to Mavis Staples? Or that the line “Annie, are you OK?” was inspired by the standard name given to CPR demonstration dummies?
It’s obvious that Lee is having as much fun as the audience sitting in with Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker as they look back over their work on the Bad short 25 years on. Writer Richard Price, who scripted the film for Scorsese, is — forgive me — priceless, discussing how an asthmatic Italian and an asthmatic Jew were enlisted by Jackson to make a video “to show the brothers that he’s down with them.” But Lee also gives serious consideration to the ways in which Jackson reaffirmed his connection to the black community.
Despite acknowledging the album’s flaws — everyone, including Stevie Wonder, agrees that his duet with Jackson, “Just Good Friends,” was a dud — the film is not guiltless of hagiography. But the fandom of interviewees including Mariah Carey, Justin Bieber, Cee Lo Green, Chris Brown and Sheryl Crow — who performed as a big-haired backup singer on the Bad tour — is generally disarming. (Perhaps the exception is Kanye West, who seems too self-regarding to really serve someone else’s tribute.)
Arguably, Lee’s one significant misstep is to lurch abruptly — at the end of a meticulous track-by-track reconstruction of the album’s recording and the shooting of its many music videos — to footage of Jermaine Jackson announcing his brother’s death. Lee then strings together a series of “Where were you when you heard he’d died?” responses, holding the camera on the subjects as they tear up. This feels manipulative and heavy-handed compared with the stimulating social context and illuminating insights that distinguish the doc and pinpoint it at a key moment in Jackson’s career.
But that’s just nitpicking. As forcibly inserted as they are, the memorials do serve to usher in a stirring assessment of “The Man in the Mirror” as a master class in how to build the perfect anthemic pop song. Input here comes from co-writers Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, as well as producer Quincy Jones and choirmaster Andrae Crouch, among others. The knockout closing footage of Jackson performing the song in a 1988 Wembley Stadium concert, accompanied by 72,000 screaming fans, is the film’s emotional high point.
It’s to Lee’s credit that he doesn’t just go for the famous faces. Instead he digs into every aspect of the music by talking with engineers, arrangers, session musicians, vocal coaches, video actors, dancer-choreographers, recording industry execs, managers, lawyers, biographers and music journalists. Particularly humorous is plain-speaking Joe Pytka, who directed the “Dirty Diana” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” videos. But invaluable contributions come from a wide variety of sources.
The film doesn’t shy away from the negatives. It covers the inescapable hype that accompanied the album release, the “Wacko Jacko” stigma, the specter of racism, the animosity toward Jackson in some circles for his stratospheric success and the perceived encroachment on sacred terrain when he purchased the Beatles catalog. Significant time is spent on the goldfish-bowl vulnerability of being in the spotlight since childhood, reflected in the song “Leave Me Alone,” with its “Gulliver’s Travels”-style, tabloid-nightmare photo-animation video.
Mostly, however, Lee keeps the focus on the extraordinary professional achievement that the album still represents, capturing Jackson at the apex of his quest for full creative independence. Beyond its value as a deep-probe portrait of the artist, this is a superb account of the music business and an indispensable pop-cultural time capsule.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Optimum Productions, Forty Acres & a Mule Filmworks, Optimum Productions
With: Mariah Carey, Kanye West, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Antonio L.A. Reid, Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Walter Yetnikoff, Larry Stessel, John Robinson, Ollie Brown, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Cee Lo Green, Joe Pytka, ?uestlove, John Branca, Joe Vogel, Richard Price, Siedah Garrett, Glen Ballard, Ruben Blades, Steve Stevens, Tatiana Thumbtzen, Will Vinton, Jeffrey Daniel
Director-producer: Spike Lee
Executive producers: John Branca, John McClain, Antonio L.A. Reid
Director of photography: Kerwin DeVonish
Editor: Barry Brown