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By Voice Film Critics
By Alan Scherstuhl
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Look, if there's any part of you that thinks you might be interested in catching BAD 25, Spike Lee's two-hour celebration/behind-the-scenes history of Michael Jackson's 1988 Bad LP, then seriously, get to it. This is a bliss-out. The performance footage alone is thrilling, and Lee has augmented it with archival treasures: dance rehearsals where Jackson and choreographers Jeffrey Daniel and Caszper Canidate seem lost in the joy of invention; recordings of vocal exercises revealing Jackson's rarely plumbed lower registers; video shot by Jackson himself of Siedah Garrett singing her then-new song (co-written with Glen Ballard) "Man in the Mirror" to Jackson and Quincy Jones.
Even without such finds, Lee's talking heads would be worth a ticket. Lee rounds up the engineers and keyboard players, the choreographers and horn arrangers, the people who actually have insight into the actual art. There are celebrities, too, Kanye and Mariah Carey in humble-fan mode, and Justin Bieber gets a laugh just by popping up to point out that his video for "Baby" rips off Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel." (Weirder still, L.A. Reid brags that in that "Baby" video he forbade Bieber from kissing a black woman.)
Film geeks will relish scenes of Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker re-watching Scorsese's video for "Bad," especially as Lee, off camera, hollers questions: That's a crane down and a dolly back? Did you know he would be grabbing his crotch so much?
Among the many pressing concerns the movie clears up: Jackson's shouts of "Sham on!" it turns out, come from Mavis Staples. Annie—the woman who has worried the smooth criminal with her potential not-OK-ness—is a CPR dummy, and Diana isn't anyone whom you should know. The reason the title track wasn't a duet with Prince, as Jackson had hoped, is that at their meeting, Jackson became convinced that Prince was subjecting him to some sort of spellcraft. (Prince's excuse, not in the movie, has been simpler: He wasn't going to sing "Your butt is mine" to Michael Jackson.) Nobody is willing to talk about how Jackson and Co. achieved the famous leaning dance moves from the "Smooth Criminal" video, but in on-set footage, you can see the wires. And everyone from Jones to Stevie Wonder agrees: "Just Good Friends" kind of sucks.
Lee doesn't dwell much on the controversies in which Jackson was pickling. Instead, he works through the album song by song, covering the writing, recording, video making, or whatever else seems relevant. Highlights abound: a quick primer on the evolution of Jackson's dancing; Garrett and Ballard re-creating the moment they came up with "Man in the Mirror"; occasional pages of notes Jackson wrote exhorting himself to work harder, to be better.
For all its high-end pop professionalism and by-the-numbers industry record breaking, Michael Jackson's Bad remains a vital, personal, sometimes inscrutable album, one that bears the odd distinction of being underrated despite having launched five elevenths of its tracks to the peak of the singles charts. It's the last indisputable triumph from a performer who until then had known little else. It's the first instance of that performer having to work harder than usual to catch up to a culture that was moving past him. And it's the last instance I can think of when what was far and away the most popular music could lay a serious claim to being the best music, if not the most innovative, or always the most inspired, certainly among the best crafted, best sung, and best played. The strut-along lope of "The Way You Make Me Feel"? The angular synth stabs powering "Another Part of Me"? The bat-shit rubbery synth-bass runs on "Speed Demon"? And the whole of "Speed Demon" itself, the perfect counterexample to everything I just said about Bad not being too innovative or inspiring, an anxious, id-driven jitter-funk spazz-out as weird as anything Prince ever did but sold to young America in a Moonwalker segment whipped up by Will Vinton, the guy behind the California Raisins. Lee even plays a priceless video Jackson made showing Vinton the expressions he wanted on the Claymation raisins in his own commercial.
That right there is stranger than any of the then-current "Wacko Jacko" stories, the ones that almost made it news when he declared that it was still a man that he saw in his mirror. On songs like "Leave Me Alone" and "Smooth Criminal," this perennially childlike artist dug deep into his adult fear and anxiety different from what anyone else alive could ever have felt, and through sour-candy pop craftsmanship, he and his collaborators transformed the night sweats of the world's most famous man into near-universal art that still signifies across generations, languages, and cultures. That art is now perennially repackaged and resold, with tribute tours and reissues demanding absurdly high fan buy-ins. The hell with those. Spike Lee has given the world the first tribute that fully measures up to Jackson the artist. Come on get your sham on.
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