It’s not so far into Bad 25 when you realize just what kind of film it’s going to be – exuberant, energizing, even at times elegiac, this is very much a straight ahead celebration of a particularly exceptional recording.
For the last two years at TIFF, two extremely compelling documentaries were shown about superstar artists coming to terms with the album following a monster success. Both the film on Springsteen (The Promise) post-Born in the USA, and the film about U2 (From The Sky Down) after Joshua Tree, chose to concentrate in general terms on the creative process that’s put to the test by enormous, often unexpected success.
The story of Michael Jackson is obviously quite different. Groomed from an extremely young age, honed by disciplinarian parents, schooled through the grind of Motown, and then loosed upon a world where each success was greater than the last, Jackson’s story and the magnitude of his successes is unique in the history of popular music.
In other words, by the time MJ hit with Thriller, by the time that record helped define decades of musical output, it was very much something that was working according to a plan set forth from the beginnings of his career. What’s remarkable, of course, is that the bravado bordering on arrogance paid off. Call yourself the King of Pop enough times, and the crown begins to fit.
Bad 25 begins with the briefest of overviews of the Thriller years, taking it as a given that viewers will be well enough familiar with that record and its predecessor, Off The Wall, the first collaboration with Quincy Jones. The album Bad, of course, was the culmination of that remarkable partnership, a record years in the making that attempted the near impossible, to outperform what at that point was the most commercially successful record of all time.
Spike Lee’s “joint” takes a very intelligent tact, doing a kind of track-by-track analysis of the record, building up the story of the record by detailing things in an orderly fashion. Spike’s voice is occasionally heard off screen, mixed in the surround channels, adding a quip or comment that doesn’t shy away from the man behind the lens.
Interview subjects are varied and often quite revelatory. Many of the clips are from vintage interviews; the most notable example is Quincy Jones, who does not appear in a newly shot interview. That said, these archive comments marry extremely well with the new elements. A conversation with Martin Scorsese, for example, dovetails beautifully with his comments shot back in the 80s during the production of the the iconic title track “short film”/video.
Producers, engineers, song writers and (joyfully) several of the session musicians provide detailed and revealing comments about the music itself. Other musicians provide equally eloquent comment, particularly the always delightful ?uestlove finding affection for one of the more esoteric album tracks. Cee-Lo Green, Kanye West and Mariah Carey also provide some fine quips, and Justin Bieber provides a nod to the what the kids are listening to these days.
The filmmakers have access to some extraordinary archive materials, from behind-the-scene video footage shot by MJ himself, to tapes of vocal exercises. These might seem like mere ephemera to those not enamoured with the music in the first place, but they do flesh out, perhaps in ways not done nearly well enough until now, the nature of the performer and musician outside of the public’s view.
Even more so than This is It, the hastily assembled yet quite compelling take on the aborted final tour, we get to see in Bad 25 MJ working as an artist, see the skills and commitment and shade of insanity he brings to this project. The album as a whole is beautiful and bloated, very much a time capsule of immaculate-yet-plastic sounding music that characterized much of the 80s recording style.
Aside from the technical and musical elements of the record, the film also delves into the story surrounding the record, the making of the many promotional films, the shooting of the cover photograph, and so on. These voices add further rich details to the overall portrayal, balancing out for the casual listener the more technical aspects and providing a richer view of the project as a whole.
By going through in such a diligent fashion, Spike’s work does a pretty wonderful thing, having us listen closer, dig deeper into a given track on the record that might easily have slipped by. This isn’t at all a complete gushing, forced take on the record as a whole – we’re treated to several opinions about some of the more egregious elements (a duet with Stevie in particular) and certain missed opportunities that were overlooked.
Still, there’s enough for even the most anti-MJ person to find to like in this film. To see Wesley Snipes make his breakout before your eyes, to hear the exeptional keyboardist Greg Phillinganes break down a lick at the grand piano, or to watch the choreographers relate directly the moves to Soul Train, Bob Fosse and Fred Astaire, it’s near impossible not to be sucked in.
At 131 minutes, the film is certainly a commitment, yet in taking its time Spike manages to craft a truly exceptional time. Certain clips are allowed to breathe, certain performances allowed further context allowing the audience to better digest some of the comments from the participants. There’s an extended moment where many of the interviewees are asked where they were on June 25th, 2009 when they heard that he had died. We cut from tear-eyed-face to tear-eyed-face, and at first it feels a bit cheap and manipulative. Once we see the number of faces with similar reactions, once we feel the passion by which many of these close collaborators felt with their relationship to the artist, this potentially superficial moment in execution comes across with extraordinary power and effectiveness.
Not quite up to the bar set to Olympic heights with Scorsese’s Bob Dylan and George Harrison documentaries, Spike nonetheless shows that he’s more than up to the task in creating this powerful, memorable work. Naturally, there are enormous gaps in the story of MJ here, entire subject matters (mostly of a salacious kind) that are essentially ignored. For some, this is the entirety of the fascination with the man, a bitter fact that is the subject of the song “Leave Me Alone” from the record.
The film concentrates on the man as performer, those that helped him achieve his lofty goals, and reflections upon the pieces that were crafted. Sure, when the likes of Sheryl Crow gets a bid maudlin it can be offputting, but overall we’re treated to both a celebration of the recording, a re-examination of this period of pop-music, and a recognition of the contribution of many that went into the production of this remarkable recording.
Bad 25 may have you moving in your seat, or even dancing in the aisles. Even if you stubbornly refuse to get down with the heavy, heavy grooves on this recording, you may in fact find a new appreciation for both the record itself and the musician behind the headlines. Spike’s film is a testament to the joy of this record, something that would occasionally get lots in talk of shipping numbers and grammy wins and the line.
A quarter century from the album’s release, and now years after his death, the myth of Michael Jackson continues to be written. There’s room for a definitive look at the man, his personal challenges over the scope of his career, and I very much look forward to one day seeing that film.
This, of course, is not that work.
Bad 25 is, instead, a celebration, but a knowing one, not simply a hagiography of the project nor a shallow glorification, but instead a committed, detailed look at the record as a whole.
I think it a pretty wonderful thing that this film has managed to gather such remarkable participants, marrying well their comments with rare and powerful footage, all while staying true to the focus of the original recording. For younger fans, it will serve as an introduction to this remarkable era. For those of us old enough to be around way back then it does a very fine thing, giving us a penetrating, insightful look at the album, the phenomenon that is Michael Jackson’s Bad.