We have all, hopefully, experienced the satisfaction of a job well done, received positive feedback, and moved on with a sense of wanting to outdo ourselves at the next at-bat.
Now imagine you’re Michael Jackson and your last job well done was “Thriller.”
Thursday night, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of “Bad,” ABC is airing “BAD 25,” a dynamite new documentary that chronicles the making of Jackson’s follow-up to the best-selling album of all time.
History may justifiably shine the brighter light on “Thriller,” but “Bad” hardly performed shabbily, spawning five consecutive number one singles — a record recently tied by Katy Perry — on its way to selling over 30 million copies.
(Fortunately, Jackson didn’t listen to his lawyer — and now estate co-executor — John Branca and make an album of covers.)
Spike Lee directs the film in straightforward oral history fashion, interviewing all of the major players in the studios, on the video sets, and on the subsequent world tour for the album (which included the only solo North American tour Jackson would ever perform), as well as famous fans including Mariah Carey, Questlove, and Kanye West. But within that traditional framework, Lee has crafted something that is not only illuminating, but funny and poignant.
While one confidant claims that Jackson would write the figure of 100,000,000 — as in copies sold — on his mirrors, the film focuses less on the album’s commercial aspirations than its creative inspirations and that of its videos, which Jackson insisted on calling “short films.”
It’s a kick to see a younger Martin Scorsese directing Jackson (and pre-fame costar Wesley Snipes) on the video for the title track and to hear novelist-screenwriter Richard Price recall that Jackson had hoped the video would illustrate that he had street cred. “So he goes to the Italian asthmatic, he goes to the Jewish asthmatic, and we’re going to make Michael a homey,” recalls Price, the Jewish asthmatic in that equation, with a chuckle.
Also popping up in both present-day interviews and archival footage (rocking a sky-high perm) is a contemplative and articulate Sheryl Crow, one of Jackson’s backup singers on the “Bad” tour, who marvels that when he performed, “the molecules changed in the room.”
Equally informative are conversations with Jackson’s various choreographic collaborators, who reveal Jackson’s famously fluid moves had roots in everything from “Soul Train” to vintage Fred Astaire films like “The Band Wagon.”
For Jackson music nerds, the meatiest stuff comes in discussions with his arrangers, engineers, songwriters, and musicians who break down Jackson’s songwriting, their own contributions, and the recording process — from the horns on the title track to the gospel choir on “Man in the Mirror.”
You see the joy radiate off keyboardist Greg Phillinganes as he rhapsodizes about the various components of songs like “Leave Me Alone,” and as he bounces around onstage. And you can feel singer-songwriter Siedah Garrett’s chills as she reminisces about the moment she realized Jackson would be singing her and Glen Ballard’s co-penned “Man in the Mirror,” or that she would be recording a duet with Jackson on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.”
West may get off the best line in the film, however, when he voices the question about “Smooth Criminal” that no doubt many have asked over the years: “I never quite understood who Annie was. And why did it matter if she was OK or not?”
The Jackson estate has also released a three-disc anniversary set containing the remastered album, a disc of rarities from the period, and a DVD of a live London concert performance from the “Bad” world tour in 1988. Lee borrows several songs from that show for his film, and they serve as a jubilant reminder of Jackson’s kinetic gifts as a performer.