Spike Lee’s documentary “Bad 25” reaches into the Michael Jackson catalog of hit albums and pulls out the one production that represents the opus of Jackson’s life, consumed with music and the erroneous perception that he was salaciously bad. Lee artfully captures it all in pain and glory, and you knew once you saw the pop star’s arms outstretched, head back as though he’d been crucified, yes you deeply knew in an instant that Lee got it right, he understood in totality the complex history of the man that we also witnessed. “Thriller,” Michael’s biggest hit could not have lucidly conveyed nor epiphanize our consciousness in ways “Bad” appeared designed to do. Undoubtedly, Jackson’s 1987 follow-up album represents not only his career peak, solidifying him as the “King of Pop,” it also epitomized the most accurate overall portrait one can ever know of this fallen creative idol.
You have to applaud Lee, because his new film is a terrifically warm, affectionate and celebratory study of the “Bad” album. Lee wants to clear away the tabloid smoke and spite, and bring the focus back to Jackson’s professionalism, his craftsmanship, his artistry and his pop genius; the movie defiantly insists that Jackson was and is superior to his detractors.
Lee convincingly makes the case for a reassessment with this exhaustive and entertaining creation. A stronger tribute to the musical monarch’s creative persona than 2009’s hasty hit “This Is It,” which missed this portrait of Jackson altogether.
Though the film is, of course, branded upfront as a Spike Lee joint, the straight-ahead treatment of “Bad 25” betrays less of the firebrand filmmaker’s touch than much of his nonfiction work. Lee’s personality is largely muted so as not to impose on that of Jackson, with whom Lee enjoyed a firsthand friendship.
This inevitably means that those looking for a more critically insightful view on Jackson’s output will find themselves in the wrong place. (Among the exec producers, after all, are Jackson’s attorney John Branca and his co-executor John McClain.) Even devoted interviewees, however, can admit to certain artistic miscalculations on “Bad,” such as the missed opportunity of lackluster Stevie Wonder collaboration “Just Good Friends,” or the curious choice of MOR ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” as the propulsive LP’s lead single. One of several fascinating trivia nuggets unearthed by Lee in the film is that the song was initially conceived as a Whitney Houston duet; when the soul diva, another prematurely departed pillar of 1980s pop culture, presents Jackson with a career tribute in a choice bit of archive footage, the cutting poignancy of the moment is left astutely unspoken by Lee.
Lee begins by looking at Jackson’s earlier album, Thriller, which established his extraordinary global dominance. Interestingly, Bad came along at a time when Jackson might have been beginning to feel his star was actually, if only by a millimeter, beginning to wane. Prince was the new pop sensation and hip-hop was emerging. Moreover, he felt criticized on the issue of African-American solidarity and also for having allegedly failed to exert enough raunchy heterosexiness. Lee’s direction get’s at some of this pain, very real to Michael.
Bad was going to change all that: a ferociously competitive counter-attack or rearguard action, the first album to be conceived on a stadium scale. He had in mind a bold new video, or “short film” as Jackson always high-mindedly called it, based on the true-life story of a black boy shot by a New York cop. Scorsese directed the film that showed Jackson as a shy student, confronting Wesley Snipes’s tough guy, outfacing him with his dance moves and finally getting street respect: he’s Bad. There is a very funny interview showing Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker watching the film now, with a touch of bemusement. Obviously, he isn’t convincing as a warrior, but the point is that Michael Jackson, that delicate pop aesthete, alchemizes his vulnerability and naiveté into pure strength. And it works: he really is “Bad.” But that’s part of Jackson’s brilliance and glory.
His utterly distinctive dance style is related by Lee to a tradition encompassing Fred Astaire and Buster Keaton, and he makes a persuasive claim that he is a centrally important figure in that tradition. Unlike Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, Jackson did not make conventional feature films, and so we don’t have that as a visual resource, and of course the videos and live footage, startling and brilliant though they are, can’t give us an extended view of what Jackson was like in ordinary, walking-and-talking real life. And his interviews were rare, and guarded. Nevertheless, Jackson vigorous work towards perfection engendered supreme artistic accomplishment; it echoed Jackson in pain and glory.
Spike Lee emphasizes what Jackson’s achieved in the public sphere: in music and in dance. The director’s exuberant reverence for the lonely King of Pop is contagious. It’s impossible to watch this film without a great big smile on your face.
No narration is necessary since the upside of Lee’s closeness to his subject – and, of course, his individual clout – is that he’s been able to assemble a teeming ensemble of top-drawer celebrity names, from enablers like super-producer Quincy Jones and “Bad” video director Martin Scorsese to longtime entourage members to fans like Mariah Carey and a typically boisterous Kanye West. The latter contingent adds youth appeal to this silver-anniversary nostalgia piece, though one wonders if Lee is sometimes cheekily using them to further flatter his subject: When current teen phenom Justin Bieber mentions that Jackson’s video for “The Way You Make Me Feel” was an influence on his own hit “Baby,” the artistic disparity between them is politely implicit.
Though very much a gathering of a one-way admiration society, “Bad 25” is refreshingly uninterested in celebrity mythos, focusing principally on the practical and physical nuts and bolts of Jackson’s talent as a songwriter, producer, dancer and vocalist. (Another archive rarity that will thrill fans is a recording of one of Jackson’s vocal coaching sessions.) In this regard, Lee’s unstylish but methodical structure for the documentary moving through the album on a track-by-track basis, the cinematic equivalent of highly detailed liner notes – proves an asset. Even the requisite montage of interviewees’ “where was I when … ” reactions to Jackson’s death is attached to a specific song, the self-realization anthem “Man in the Mirror,” which proved the biggest radio hit from his catalogue in the immediate wake of his passing. As such, weepy sentiment isn’t allowed to overwhelm the dominant spirit of musical celebration.
“For me there were no discoveries, it reaffirmed what I thought I knew. He worked hard. Michael busted his ass,” Lee said.
“Bad25,” shown out of competition in Venice, will be released in February, along with another hour of behind-the-scenes footage.
The documentary’s final image is taken from film of his famous July 16, 1998 concert at Wembley Stadium in England of the “Bad Tour.” Jackson finishes singing “Man in the Mirror,” which proved the biggest radio hit from his catalog in the immediate wake of his passing. It was a song that has become posthumously Jackson’s unofficial anthem; but the closing image was particularly important to Spike Lee as Jackson throws back his arms and head in a final flourish.
“I am not going to say Michael was Jesus Christ,” Lee told a news conference at the festival. “But if you look at the performance, he was somewhere else. That was one of the greatest performances, ever, ever, ever. He is not of this world.”
Lee deliberately left a glorious and simultaneously disturbing image on the screen for all to see, and it was “Bad” 25 years after; the image captured pain and glory.
In all its duality, “Bad 25” will remarkably be one of Spike Lee’s most masterfully timeless legacies for humanity to ponder the gifts it receives and self-reflect on its own deeds