There are few music albums that would call for or justify a documentary focused solely on their creation, and if asked to pick from Michael Jackson’s body of work, “Thriller” would be the more obvious choice to receive such treatment. But Spike Lee’s “Bad 25,” which makes its broadcast premiere on Thursday, November 22nd at 9:30pm on ABC, doesn’t just make a case for the importance of “Bad” on its 25th anniversary (a point no one’s likely to question); it uses the album as a way of looking at its creator as a person, as an artist and as a formidable cultural force whose influence is felt throughout music, fashion and film. Rather than fawn over Jackson and the album or structure the film in a more traditional VH1 special style, Lee has chosed to let the people who helped make it, who witnessed it or who simply love it speak for themselves in a collage of interviews, creating an oral history woven through with archival footage of concerts, news coverage, music videos and an old sitdown with Jackson from 1987.
While there is a linear backbone to “Bad 25” that goes from the pressure of creating a follow-up to the monumental success that was “Thriller” to Jackson’s death in 2009, the film is structured like the album, going from song to song and providing a close read of each, with interviewees ranging from Questlove talking about three-way calling all his friends to watch the “Bad” music video premiere on TV together to musicians and producers reminiscing about recording or breaking down choices in the song.
The variety and surprising frankness of the interviews balances out the reverence for Jackson that frequently surfaces, with everyone, including Stevie Wonder, admitting that “Just Good Friends,” the duet he did with Jackson, was a dog. Sheryl Crow, who was one of Jackson’s backup singers at the time and took over for Siedah Garrett singing “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” on tour, laughingly confesses that “the band used to bet if Michael used to get excited during the song,” adding that it was “a stretch.” Kanye West, talking about the subject of “Dirty Diana,” thanks Jackson “for making that small piece of the soundtrack to my life on tour.”
The song-by-song approach allows the film to genuinely geek out to the music in ways that are rare to see on screen — people talk about the shuffle rhythm of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” how to get the best clap sounds or the moment the choir comes in on “Man in the Mirror.” And the film pays equally close attention to the making of the music videos, both stylistically and in terms of their influence. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker sit in an edit bay watching and reminiscing about the video for “Bad,” which Scorsese directed in 1987, musing over how the moment Jackson puts his hood up in the train station is reminiscent of “Taxi Driver.”
“Lush Life” author Richard Price, who wrote the “Bad” screenplay, jokes about how he and Scorsese — an asthmatic Jew and an asthmatic Italian, per his description — were brought in to make a video that would give Jackson street cred. Director Joe Pytka explains telling model Tatiana Thumbtzen not to go for a kiss from Jackson at the end of the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” while animator Will Vinton (the man behind the video for “Speed Demon”) discusses Jackson fishing for a way to become a California Raisin and Jackson’s choreographers discuss how everything from Bugs Bunny to Fred Astaire in “The Band Wagon” influenced the dancing in “Smooth Criminal.”
Lee never appears in “Bad 25,” though his voice is heard from off screen offering the occasional interview question — like prompting Scorsese about how familiar he was with Jackson’s signature crotch grab move before “Bad” (“No, I was not familiar with that at all”). But he’s managed to create, in the film, something that feels personal anyway, like a particularly spectacular group of friends gathered to talk about something they all adore.
The informality of the all-interviews approach, and the way in which it mixes off-the-cuff reminiscences with larger opinions on the album’s place in cultural history, ground it as more than just a piece of overglazed fandom. “Bad 25” manages to look at the album that is its subject from the perspective of both its creators and its admirers, and the varied, funny and affectionate chorus of voices that powers it along does justice to the sense of it as a vibrant, living work.