Venice is buzzing this year with superb documentaries from high-profile film figures. Jonathan Demme’s “Enzo Avitabile Music Life” was a spirited portrait of the Neopolitan singer-songwriter who may not be widely known but whose zeal, talent and exhilarating performances with other figures in his field had me reappraising my assumptions about that woollily defined genre called world music; and more on Sarah Polley’s revelatory “Stories We Tell” later. But it was Spike Lee who rocked the Lido today with his rousing, passionate, breathlessly paced and frequently moving paean to Michael Jackson, which focuses intently on the creative process that went into generating the songs and videos for his third album, BAD – an album which spawned some of the greatest pop hits of all time, including its title track, ‘Man In The Mirror’ and ‘Smooth Criminal’.
While defiantly hagiographic in nature, with reams of talking heads espousing Jackson’s genius, it also acts as a supremely watchable and entertaining reminder that before the scandals and the media-massaged freak show, he was simply a very talented man-boy who loved music and dancing and devoted his entire life to being great at both, with sensational results for pop culture. The film even offers manna to cineastes: one of its most scintillating portions sees Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker reflecting on the making of the video (or short film, as Jackson preferred to call them) for ‘BAD’.
At the press conference afterwards, Lee noted that it was 25 years to the day since Bad was released. The filmmaker, who’s about to enter production on his “Old Boy” remake, considers himself a lifelong, passionate fan (although he was forced to admit that he left Jackson off the roll call of great R&B artists in “Do The Right Thing”) and was eager to do a documentary, as per the mandate of Sony Music and the Jackson family, that concentrated on the musical genius of the late superstar. “It’s too many years – and I include myself – that we concentrate on stuff about Michael Jackson that’s not to do with the music,” said Lee. “It was a chance to really dig into his creative process. It’s rare that you get to see how something was put together.”
Working in conjunction with Jackson’s estate, Lee gained extensive access to archives, unearthing photos, footage, recordings and other material that’s never been seen publicly. He also draws out several smile-raising anecdotes in his interviews with Jackson’s collaborators and the modern stars who are still in awe of him, including Mariah Carey, Kanye West and Justin Bieber. Trying to talk Prince into a duet on BAD, Jackson became convinced that his rival had brought a “voodoo box” to their meeting and was attempting to place a hex on him; Jackson often disguised himself so that he could knock on doors as a practicing Jehovah’s Witness; and Sheryl Crow is convinced that Jackson became aroused when they duetted on ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ during the two-year-long BAD tour.
One journalist pointed out that Quincy Jones was notable by his absence. Lee didn’t interview him for “BAD25”, relying on archival material, but insists, “Even though I did not do an interview with Quincy, he is given much respect in this documentary… In no way, shape or form did we try to slight Quincy’s magnificent contribution.” He also said that a special screening is being organised for Jackson’s three children back in Los Angeles. “I’ve never met them. I know they want to find out a lot about their daddy and they will learn a lot about their father when they watch this documentary,” says Lee, who plans to do a director’s cut for the DVD release which will be longer than the version screened to Venice press this morning.
“This is a love letter to Michael Jackson,” he said, something anyone who watches the film won’t fail to notice. “When I saw the Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan Show, I wanted to be Michael Jackson. I had the afro but the singing and dancing, that’s where it stopped. For me, the documentary is a confirmation of how hard he worked… He left a tremendous, tremendous body of work.”