Video: Spike Lee reveals Michael Jackson

Locating the artist behind the icon in 'Bad 25,' Spike does the right thing for the King of Pop

Photo: Kourosh Keshiri

Video: Click here to view Brian D. Johnson’s interview with Spike Lee.

Just when you thought there was nothing more to know about Michael Jackson, Spike Lee‘s Bad 25 arrives as a revelation, and an unexpected pleasure. The made-for-TV doc, which premiered at TIFF, was commissioned by a record label to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Bad, Michael Jackson’s follow-up album to his mega hit Thriller. Due for broadcast by ABC in November, the film is tied to this week’s re-release of Bad, which comes with a payload of remastered and unreleased tracks. Given that kind of marketing agenda, you have to wonder: how good could it be? But Lee, who moves between dramas and documentaries with a virtuosity unmatched by anyone other than Martin Scorsese, had his own agenda: to reclaim the genius of an artist whose work has been eclipsed by a tabloid narrative. “That’s why this film is out there,” Lee told me in an interview on the weekend. “Just focus on the man’s art, focus on his creative process.”

Lee succeeds brilliantly. Drilling much deeper into Jackson’s legacy than Kenny Ortega’s 2009 documentary This Is It, his film unearths a myriad of detail about Jackson’s music, influences and methods—along with juicy trivia, notably a story of a testy summit between the singer and his rival Prince. Lee explores the making of Bad track-by-track, weaving rich archival footage with a gallery of talking heads that includes musicians, choreographers, confidants—and luminaries who include Martin Scorsese, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder and Cee Lo Green. The 1987 album was Jackson’s follow-up to Thriller, the highest selling album of all time. It had then sold about 40 million copies but would go on to sell 100,000. “Everywhere Michael went he had a red sharpie,” says Lee. “He’d write on mirrors: ‘100 million.’ He wanted Bad to double the success of Thriller.” Jackson never reached that mark, but Bad would become the first album in history to spawn five consecutive number-one singles.

Lee discusses Bad 25 with Maclean’s:

But Jackson had another mission. He wanted to toughen his street cred in the black community, especially with with the title song and the 18-minute short film that Scorsese directed for it. The record’s producer, Quincy Jones, had originally hoped Bad’s title track would be a “showdown” duet with Prince, says Lee. “There was a meeting held at Michael’s house. The story goes that Prince showed up with a box, and Michael was convinced there was some type of voodoo inside and Prince was trying to cast a spell on him. If Prince had given me the honour of an interview,” says the director, “I would have asked about that ’cause we only heard from one side about that voodoo box. Hopefully one day Prince will go on record and give his story about that historic meeting.”

Lee did his best to get Prince on camera. “I tried, I tried,” he said. “He didn’t want to do it. And I’m friends with him—to be honest, our relationship was friendlier than with Michael.” Lee has made two videos for Jackson, but afterwards he never heard from him again, but he says, “me and Prince have been talking for years.” The two elfin superstars, both Jehovah’s Witnesses, had an intense rivalry, according to Cee Lo Green, who first met Jackson at a Prince concert. Lee compares them to basketball’s Magic Johnson and Larry Bird: “Neither one wants to be bested by the other guy.”

Although Jackson never did sing with Prince, he recorded a duet for Bad with Stevie Wonder, Just Good Friends. Everyone in Lee’s documentary agrees that, on this album jammed with hits, it was the one dud. “Here’s the thing,” says Lee, “My question is: why are two of the greatest songwriters ever singing a song that neither of them wrote, or co-wrote?” The 25th anniversary edition of Bad includes eight songs that didn’t make the initial release, and “all eight in my opinion could have been on the album [instead of] Just Good Friends.”

Lee’s film shows Jackson as a groundbreaking multi-media artist. We hear him doing vocal exercises that reveal a range spanning a full three-and-a-half octaves. (He just didn’t care to use his baritone.) He cops dance moves not just from James Brown, but from Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse—and Bugs Bunny. And after inventing the cinematic music video with Thriller, he ups the ante with Bad, commissioning serious directors for videos that Jackson would always insist on calling “short films.”

Scorsese directed the 18-minute video for Bad’s title track, a realist black-and-white drama scripted by Richard Price—who would go on to make Clockers with Lee. In the documentary Price is, well, priceless: “The Italian asthmatic goes to the Jewish asthmatic, and they say ‘Let’s make this guy a homey.’ ” Lee shows Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker watching the video for the first time since they made it, with Scorsese recalling how startled he was by Jackson’s trademark crotch grab.

Climaxing with that West Side Story-like dance-off in a grungy subway station, the Bad video introduced an unknown actor named Wesley Snipes, cast as Jackson’s tough-guy nemesis. “When I saw that short film, the debut of Wesley Snipes,” says Lee, “I knew right away I wanted to work with him. I didn’t know who he was. Whoever he was, I said this big black guy, he’s going to kick Michael Jackson’s ass!”

Lee recalls that he offered Snipes the role of Ray Raheem in Do the Right Thing. “He chose to do Wild Cats with Goldie Hawn instead.” Lee smiles and pauses, letting the weight of that dubious career move sink in, before adding that he would then cast Snipes in Mo’Better Blues and Jungle Fever. Snipes is now serving a three-year prison term for tax evasion. “I had the pleasure of visiting him once,” says Lee. “He’s going to get out and set the world on fire again.”

The movie digs up some intriguing lore around the music video for The Way You Make Me Feel, which was designed to portray Jackson as a sexy romantic. Its director Joe Pykta says he ordered the singer’s co-star,  Tatiana Thumbtzen, not to kiss him at the end because Jackson was too shy. (Thumbtzen, who would be replaced by Sheryl Crow on tour, later wrote a non-kiss-and-tell book about their lack of chemistry.) But more fascinating than the gossip is the wealth of detail about the music, from a drummer’s comments about trying to hold up the shuffle beat in The Way You Make Me Feel to Jackson’s uncanny skill at finger-snapping. That’s right, he had the best finger snap in the business.

Although Lee deliberately avoided delving into Jackson’s personal life in the film, he doesn’t rule out making a more biographical documentary in the future. “Who knows? But I could still do another one like this,” he says, rhyming off some potential Jackson albums that would be ripe for treatment. “If I get asked by the record company, I would do it in a second.”