It couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time than on Thanksgiving evening as ABC has scheduled the television premiere of Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed documentary “Bad 25.”
The documentary had its public premiere at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this year and was released into theaters shortly afterwards. According to ABC, Lee trimmed almost an hour for the television version, nevertheless, critics say it will still have enough bit to be thankful for on this turkey night.
Award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, 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 inaccurate view that he was immorally bad. Lee craftily captures the pop star’s pain and glory, pictured with arms outstretched, head back in a Christ like posture on the cross. This one Lee got right. The director understood Michael’s the complex history. Clearly “Bad” appeared designed to tell the story only Lee could tell.
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 of the fallen creative idol.
You have to applaud Lee. The documentary is a terrifically warm, affectionate and celebratory study of the “Bad” album, and Lee simply wanted to clear the tabloid smoke of erroneous sensationalism, and bring the focus back to Jackson’s professional craftsmanship and musical genius.
The film ABC will show its viewing audience tonight is a reassessment of Jackson the quintessential entertainer. Moreover, when all is said and done, it is clearly a stronger tribute to the musical monarch’s creative persona than 2009′s hasty hit “This Is It.”
A Spike Lee joint as the film is branded, but who could argue with the straight-ahead, which exhibits his unmistakable fingerprints throughout the narrative; a narrative I might remind you that reflects less of the firebrand filmmaker’s touch than much of his other nonfiction works. Lee’s personality is largely muted so as not to impose on that of Jackson, with whom Lee enjoyed a firsthand friendship. Nevertheless, it Lee’s firsthand friendship that brings forth a Michael many observers never knew.
If you’re one of those looking for a more critically insightful view on Jackson’s output you won’t find such a portrait in Michael Jackson: Bad 25; it’s not that complicated. Even devoted interviewees, 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.
There were several tasty nuggets unearthed by Lee in the film, for instance, “Bad,” the single, was initially conceived as a Whitney Houston duet; when the soul diva, another prematurely departed pillar of 1980’s pop culture, presents Jackson with a career tribute in a choice bit of archive footage, which Lee was able to subtly integrate into the documentary.
Lee begins the journey by looking at Jackson’s earlier album, Thriller, which established the singer’s extraordinary global dominance. And then “Bad” comes along, during a time in Jackson’s life he was beginning to feel as though his star was beginning to wane. Audiences seemed to be seeking something new, and Prince appeared on the scene as the new pop sensation as a time when hip-hop was first emerging. Moreover, Michael felt he was being criticized on the issue of African-American solidarity and also for having allegedly failed to exert enough raunchy virility. Lee’s penetrating efforts palpably expose some of this pain, which was quite real to Jackson.
“Bad” intended to change all of Jackson’s shortcomings: an intensely competitive counteroffensive, which effectively separated itself from all competition as the first album to be conceived on a stadium scale. Jackson had in mind a bold new video, or “short film” 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.” Lee allows the audience to pick up on this as he seeks to demonstrate that Michael’s art imitated life; his life.
I’m hopeful that ABC and Lee were able to keep a fairly 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 naivety into pure strength. And it works: he really is and was “Bad.” Lee takes no credit as he clearly puts Michael Jackson’s brilliance and glory on the stage for all to see.
Lee makes sure the audience is aware of Jackson’s distinct dance talent is not taken for granite as he links it to a tradition encompassing Fred Astaire and Buster Keaton, and he makes a persuasive claim that Michael 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. Moreover, his interviews were rare, and almost always guarded. Nevertheless, Jackson vigorous work towards perfection produced supreme artistic accomplishment and is cleverly revealed by Jackson with aching pain and triumphant glory.
Lee emphasizes what Jackson’s achieved in the public arena, and his exuberant reverence for the lonely Pop King is contagious throughout.
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 growing ensemble of top-drawer celebrity names, from 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.
Lee also makes sure he shows Jackson’s relevance as he includes a scene where current teen phenom Justin Bieber remarks 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.
“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; and for the documentary to keep its magical continuity the edited version prepared for ABC must maintain this chronological approach.
If the edit is able to retain Lee’s full vision, it will doubtlessly reflect TIME Magazine’s accurate critique stating that it’s “an intimate view of a performer at his peak in the intense splendor of creativity.”
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, isn’t allowed to overwhelm the dominant spirit of musical celebration.
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 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 sort of resembling his tragic life.
“I am not going to say Michael was Jesus Christ,” Lee remarked in 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.”
With that said, Lee was inspired to leave an indelible image of Jackson pop-star who had been so misunderstood by many whom he came across during his short lived life. So Lee, in his own genius leaves a glorious and simultaneously disturbing image on the screen for all to see, and it was “Bad” 25 years after; the image completely captured Jackson’s pain and glory.
It is interesting that the television premiere comes at a time that Jackson’s estate has reportedly paid off the last dollars on a loan connected to Mijac Music, the catalog that’s home to many songs composed by the King of Pop, including hits like “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”
According to Forbes Magazine, the payment means that the estate has eliminated the last of Jackson’s outstanding personal debts. It’s quite an amazing accomplishment considering the fact that his obligations were estimated at approximately half a billion dollars–left behind by the singer when he passed away in 2009.
The irony of such an achievement has sort of a poetic meaning when you juxtapose Forbes’ account with Lee’s climatic final image of the man, which is left on the screen as the credits roll. Perhaps, the biblical impression will ring that much more as his audience is brought closer to the real Michael and one combines Lee’s final image with the knowledge that Jackson no longer owes any man; the timing couldn’t be more perfect, at least for Michael’s sake and ours, indeed, “it is finished.”