Spike Lee talks to NIGHTLIFE.CA about making Michael Jackson's music the focus of 'BAD25'
Will the King of Pop stand the test of time? Chatting with accomplished filmmaker Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Inside Man, Mo’ Better Blues) at Toronto’s swanky Trump Hotel during TIFF in September, where his riveting Michael Jackson doc BAD25 had its North American premiere, the director made his position abundantly clear.
“Michael should be with us, he should be here... Luther Vandross should be here… Whitney should be here,” the outspoken filmmaker, sporting limited edition BAD25 T-shirt and sneakers, solemnly underscored when asked about the pop maven’s legacy. “I mean, for me, one of the most amazing moments in the film is this archival clip of Whitney giving an award to Michael, and they both look so young and beautiful… Both of them are dead! Dead. Gone. You could say… [that they died under] the same circumstances. Prescription drugs… Whatever it is, they’re no longer here.”
Michael Jackson stands in the subway during the filming of "Bad" in November 1986
Michael Jackson on the set of the "Smooth Criminal" video shoot
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
BAD25, in which Lee revisits the production of MJ's career-redefining LP, some 25 years after its release, premieres tonight on CTV Two in Canada and ABC in the U.S. Lee’s doc offers a rare glimpse into the life of a hardworking performer with a notorious aversion to cameras offstage. It’s an entirely celebratory piece of work, making a strong case for why no one has even come close to challenging the master moonwalker’s “King of Pop” title. But forget about reopening the Pandora’s box of paparazzi-fueled MJ controversies (baby dangling episode, sexual allegations at Neverland, scarring plastic surgery habits, etc). Lee makes it quite clear he isn’t interested in hashing out the umpteenth journalistic exposé on already overly mediatized allegations (nor could he, really, as BAD25 was executive produced by the MJ estate.)
“He was the full package. Everybody has a gift, I believe. And if you’re lucky, you get the chance to cultivate that gift. But God gave Michael a LOT of stuff,” Lee points out, stressing the sheer scope of his talent. “He spent four decades honing his craft – at the Apollo Theater [Ed’s Note: one of New York’s most famed music halls], watching in the wings James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke. Then later, being part of Motown at its height, with Berry Gordy [Ed’s Note: founder of Motown], The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye…and later, Diana Ross. I mean, he saw it all.”
Behind The Mask
Lee, who directed MJ in the 1996 music video “They Don’t Really Care About Us” and considers the experience “one of the highlights of my film career”, unearthed hours of compelling archival material – home movies, recording sessions and music video shoots (MJ insisted everyone call them “short films”). BAD25 builds a strong case for an insanely disciplined entertainer who aspired to be “greater than The Beatles”.
“He got that from his father, who had him singing and dancing at 5-6 years old,” Lee remarks about MJ’s astounding work ethic. “In fact, in the documentary, one woman says that you go to jail nowadays for the kind of stuff… And I don’t want to make a villain out of Joe Jackson – many people do. But he got their [the Jackson Five’s] asses out of Gary, Indiana, and his children wouldn’t have to work at the steel mill where he slaved at. So…something worked! He’s not all bad.” Lee, displaying an uncharacteristically merry disposition, doesn’t miss a beat. “Well, to me,” he adds. “Of course, he’s not my father – he wasn’t beating my ass! (laughs)”
Lee compiles a treasure chest bursting at the seams with fascinating Man-in-the-Mirror factoids : MJ scribbling the number “100,000,000” (i.e., the estimated number of records Thriller had sold worldwide) on bathroom mirrors everywhere as motivating fuel for Bad; Wesley Snipes making an auspicious tough-guy debut in MJ’s Harlem-set Bad video; uncovering the origins of MJ’s famously cryptic calls to “SHAMONE!” and that spastic “Annie are you okay?” line from “Smooth Criminal”. But amidst all the adulation, Lee looks into a few of the poor creative choices MJ might have made along the way. For instance, the stilted MJ/Stevie Wonder collaboration on Bad’s “Just Good Friends”. Not the album’s most shining moment, argues Lee! “Quincy Jones says in a voice-over that they made the wrong decision about that song. My question is: if you have Stevie Wonder and MJ duet – two of the greatest songwriters ever – why are they singing someone else’s song? I’ll find the answer to that question one day...”
Michael Jackson with Martin Scorsese and Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records, during the BAD video shoot.
Michael Jackson and Vincent Paterson on the set of "Smooth Criminal" (Sam Emerson, ABC)
The Bad era was a whirlwind period for MJ – a 16-month world tour comprised of 123 shows in 15 countries – but it was also during this time that MJ reaffirmed his relevance. Those who believed his pop culture dominance was on the wane because his goody-two-shoes image wouldn't be a match for hip hop's rising popularity were forced to swallow their words, and then some. Of course, he paid a steep price to attain global dominance. Lee’s BAD25, albeit an infectious love letter to MJ, also serves as a cautionary tale about the price of fame.
“My degree is not in psychology; I have a Master of Fine Arts in Film Production,” quips Lee when asked whether the intensely private yet ambitious MJ was chasing the dragon, so to speak. “But… (laughs) I mean…How are you going to sell 100 million albums and still have a life?”
“The new Bad 25 CD is remastered and there’s bonus material, songs that didn’t make it [on Bad]. Listen to Price of Fame, which he wrote specifically about the situation. How can you get any privacy when you’re the most recognizable person on the planet? That’s nuts. Did you see the disguises he had?"
BAD25 recounts some of the most outlandish and downright silly outfits MJ would devise in trying to plan outings in public. "I mean, he had to do that. He couldn't go anywhere in the world without there being a riot. Man, I wouldn't wish that on anybody. He became a prisoner of his fame. I mean, I'm not rewriting Michael's titles, but [the song] could've been [called] 'Prisoner of Fame,' instead of 'Price of Fame.'"
Remember The Time
One gets the distinct impression that everyone involved in the making of Bad (producer Quincy Jones, Bad director Martin Scorsese, big-hair-outfitted backup singer Sheryl Crow, a slew of engineers, confidants, collaborators) weighs in here, as well as a handful of those who’ve been inspired by his artistry – Cee Lo Green, Mariah Carey, ?uestlove and the Biebs among them. Lee hopes BAD25 will ensure that MJ's music lives on many decades down the road. “Hopefully that’s what this documentary is about. It’s going to have people return the focus on the music, his art, which I feel is his legacy, in addition to his children.”
BAD25 airs tonight, November 22, at 9:30 p.m. on CTV Two (Canada) and ABC (U.S.)
BAD 25, a four-disc CD/DVD deluxe package featuring re-mastered versions of BAD material, previously unreleased songs, and Jackson’s iconic 1988 Wembley Stadium concert, is available through Sony Music Entertainment Canada