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The Globe and Mail

Spike Lee documentary shines a light on Jackson’s genius

Micheal Jackson poses in a photograph from his Bad era.

Pop music doesn't stand still, even at the mountain's peak, where all views are down. We learn early on in the new documentary Bad25 that Michael Jackson took to scrawling 100,000,000 on his mirrors with lipstick, a motivating tool that related to his grandiose plans to sell that many copies of Bad, the follow-up to the phenomenally charting 1982 album Thriller.

Of course, Bad sold nothing close to those numbers. But the moon-walking man-child set his goals interstellar high and worked like hell to achieve them, which is the point of Bad25 , Spike Lee's love letter to the "whee-hee" wonder and chimp-loving public oddity, the likes of which we will likely never see again.

Bad, the album which this week is commemorated with a deluxe reissue edition that includes three CDs and a DVD of a live concert from London in 1988, was no flop. Five singles from the built-for-stadiums LP reached No. 1, a record broken this year by the industrious but infuriatingly less talented Katy Perry.

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Still, the documentary Bad25 starts with a discussion of Thriller, the undeniable apex of Jackson's career. "Thriller was such a behemoth, you gotta acknowledge it," says Lee, who spoke to The Globe and Mail during the Toronto International Film Festival. "In order to concentrate on Bad, you had to get Thriller out of the way first."

In a suite at the Trump International, Lee, 55, is garbed in Bad25 promotional items, including a T-shirt and a pair of Michael Jordan high-tops, hand-painted with the film's logo. "They just came in from Cleveland this morning," the director's smiling assistant announces.

Lee's film, to be broadcast in Canada and the United States on Nov. 22, is an exhilarating track-by-track chronicle using archival footage – the clip with Jackson meticulously dictating facial expressions for a California Raisin commercial shows the King of Pop's perfectionist side – and talking heads that include his artistic team and high-profile fans such as Mariah Carey and Questlove.

What it is not is an exposé of the man. If Thriller is the behemoth, the elephant in the room is the dark side of pop's Peter Pan, which is barely touched upon. "That wasn't this documentary," Lee says, expecting the question. "I understand that people want to know that stuff, but for anyone who wants to know about Michael's eccentricities, this is the wrong documentary for them."

As well, Bad25 isn't a revisionist project; the film never claims the Quincy Jones-produced album was Jackson's crowning achievement. In fact, everybody gets a laugh over Just Good Friends, a mediocre duet with Stevie Wonder that probably didn't deserve to make the final cut.

Lee is a fan – "I've been in Michael's groove since I saw him with the Jackson 5 on The Ed Sullivan Show back in 1969" – but counts 1979's Off the Wall as his favourite Jackson album.

What Bad25 does is to reveal the stunning diligence of Jackson to his craft, with every finger-snap and razor-sharp dance move rehearsed and deliberated upon. "People only see the result," explains Lee, mentioning Picasso, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jordan as those in the echelon of Jackson. "We don't see the hard work. I hope that this film gives insight into his creative process."

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The closing sequence is a live clip of Jackson at London's Wembley Stadium, where a jaw-dropping finale of Man in the Mirror leaves the artist seemingly exhausted. "No, no, no," Lee objects. "He went to another place. He wasn't exhausted. At the end, with his arms outstretched, he was just in a zone – that rarefied air."

Perhaps he was, but for the last time. After the Bad Tour (which was the triumphant, live culmination of the Quincy Jones collaborations and creative pinnacles of Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad), all that remained was a thin-aired descent into paranoia, hermitage, narcissism, self-loathing and inappropriate sleepovers.

And, musically, only intermittently good pop.

In his Playboy essay from 1985, James Baldwin hoped Jackson would have the good fortune to "snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success." He would not. After Bad, things got bad indeed, a depth from which Jackson never recovered.


For his new documentary Bad25, the story of Michael Jackson's hit-laden album from 1987, Spike Lee asked Prince to participate, specifically to comment on the private meeting that took place 25 years ago between the two enigmatic superstars. According to the director, the Purple Rain singer turned him down flat. "He didn't want to do it," Lee told The Globe and Mail. "I tried. I know him too, he's a friend."

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The combative title song was originally perceived as a duet, but the plans broke down when neither Prince nor Jackson was about to let the other sing the bad-ass opening-line salvo, "Your butt is mine."

Prince actually spoke to Chris Rock briefly about his secret summit with Jackson for a VH1 special years ago, but His Purpleness wouldn't even allow Lee to use that clip for Bad25. Instead, Lee corralled Martin Scorsese and writer Richard Price, "the asthmatic Italian and an asthmatic Jew," cracked Price, who collaborated on the Bad long-form video. It featured a young Wesley Snipes as Jackson's adversary in a subway-set dance-as-fight scene inspired by West Side Story.

As for the song's central question – "who's bad?" – it turns out it wasn't Jackson or Prince. Ask the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and they'll tell you it was Snipes, now in the slammer for back taxes.

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