A couple of years ago, before he set up his low-budget comeback film “Red Hook Summer," Spike Lee was planning another NYC-set project, “Brooklyn Loves MJ,” with the story taking place on the night of the death of pop superstar Michael Jackson in June 2009. Said to star Samuel L. Jackson, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie and more, the film never came together (although Lee told us recently that he hoped to get it going again), but the director’s been able to pay tribute to the late King of Pop in a couple of other ways. For one, he’s helped to organize a semi-annual Brooklyn Loves MJ party (although it didn’t take place this year or last for various reasons). And then there’s the director’s latest film, and his second of 2012, “Bad 25.” The subject matter is less weighty for the man behind such stirring docs as "4 Little Girls" and "When The Levees Broke," but the results are no less pleasing for this effort, which delves into the making of Jackson's Bad, the fifth biggest-selling LP of all time.
Bad might seem like an odd focus point, besides the obvious anniversary – the album's release took place before some of the more dramatic moments in Jackson’s personal life, and the album itself is generally less acclaimed than debut Off The Wall or blockbuster Thriller (the biggest-selling album of all time). But Lee’s film certainly makes the case for Bad being Jackson’s finest hour, and it’s clear from the film’s opening that Lee sees a certain drama in the period of time leading up to the record – the artist was faced with following up a monster hit that had made him the biggest star on the planet, and Bad was certainly his last consistently great album.
It’s in the opening that the film falters a little. Lee doesn’t have much time to introduce the players and set up the context in which Bad was created, and so rushes through interviewees and topics of conversation, almost manically, and as such, the first twenty minutes or so feels quite disjointed and piecemeal. But there’s a reason for wanting to get through it at the start of the movie – Lee has structured the film so that each track of the record is examined (mostly) in order, and in some detail, and it turns out to be a rather more elegant and academic approach than trying to latch an artificial narrative onto the picture.
As that structure might suggest, this is a film that’s focused on Jackson the artist rather than Jackson the man (although some touching and unguarded portraits emerge thanks to archive video footage). But it’s also a document of his collaborators, from duet partners Stevie Wonder and Siedah Garrett, to keyboard players Greg Phillinganes and Wilfred Brimleyish, to master engineer Bruce Swedien, and video directors Joe Pytka and Martin Scorsese (the latter’s rewatch of his epic "Bad" video provides one of the more interesting parts of the film), which makes it clear that as phenomenally talented as Jackson was, the record was the product of many heads.
All kinds of trivia is dropped along the way as well. The record was going to be called Smooth Criminal until producer Quincy Jones objected, a duet with Prince was mooted at one point, and playwright August Wilson (“Fences”) was approached to write the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” But there’s also real insight into the creation of the music, the accompanying visuals (Lee, as a filmmaker, is just as interested in the short films released alongside the record as he is in the songs), and Jackson as a performer.
The filmmaking is technically sharp too. Lee’s editing shifts seamlessly between interviews new and old, archive B-roll material, behind-the-scenes footage, and the finished videos, while his decision to often keep the tracks playing low in the mix over interviews gives the film a propulsion, almost the feel of a visual commentary to the record. He resists the temptation to insert himself into the film too much (you hear a voice a few times, but he never appears on camera), and knows when to sit back and let the music do the talking – the film plays out on an unbroken live performance of “Man In The Mirror,” which is probably the best possible finale he could have gone for.
Some of the interviews with contemporary performers are less insightful. The Roots’ ?uestlove is brilliant – one senses the film could have been nothing but a conversation with him and would still have been engaging – and even Kanye West sheds a little light, but Justin Bieber’s appearances mostly feel like a sop to younger audiences, while it’s pretty disappointing that Lee includes Chris Brown, who has nothing to add and leaves a sour taste every time he’s on screen.
There are a few big gaps, most notably Quincy Jones, who only appears in vintage interviews. It’s unclear why he didn’t take part, but as the producer of the album, it definitely feels like there’s a hole where his presence should have been, even if the insights of his collaborators and the archive footage fill in most of the blanks. And the film doesn’t really cover the aftermath of the record’s release, meaning it lacks a little perspective. But as a making-of documentary, it’s fascinating, warm and immensely watchable stuff, and fans of both Jackson and pop music in general will surely eat the film up. [B]
"Bad 25" airs on ABC on Thursday, November 22nd. This is a reprint of our review from the Venice Film Festival and concerns a longer cut of the film than will air on TV.