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Michael Jackson: Rating the Filmmaker Collaborations

Michael Jackson: Rating the Filmmaker Collaborations

By Christopher Campbell

We feel really bad about spotlighting Michael Jackson in three spots on our Creepiest Kids Movies List yesterday. If we had known he was going to die of cardiac arrest within hours of that post’s publication, we would have maybe limited his presence to one included film, if any at all.

To make up for the dishonor, we now would like to spotlight the connection he had to cinema through his collaborations with great filmmakers. Due to his talent, success and financial status, he was able to work with a number of important directors, both in movies and in music videos. Some were already prominent when MJ hired them; others were strictly music videomakers who would go on to significant feature filmmaking careers. Some collaborations were also better than others, so we’ve ranked them in order from worst to best.

10. John Singleton (Remember the Time)

At a mere 9 minutes, which was short for MJ, this video was still huge and groundbreaking, primarily for its special effects and its choreography. John Singleton had just come off his debut feature, Boyz n the Hood, for which he received two Oscar nominations, and he was a pretty hot property. No one was too big to work with MJ, though, and this video was evidence of that. In addition to featuring Iman and Magic Johnson, the video cast movie star Eddie Murphy (still a big deal at the time) for its Ancient Egypt-set narrative.

9.David FincherWho Is It?)

For the song Who Is It, from the Dangerous album, Jackson again recruited a filmmaker who’d just released his debut feature. But unlike Singleton, David Fincher was already a successful and well-respected music video director before helming Alien. Although his spot for MJ is fairly long for a video, and it does feature some kind of narrative (set in a Blade Runner-inspired future), it’s not as big a production as some of the other videos on this list, and it’s hardly one of the better remembered. This is somewhat surprising given that for the Alien sequel, Fincher had just worked with the largest budget ever handed to a first-time director. Even more surprising is the fact that this music video apparently never even aired on MTV or VH-1.

8. Phil Karlson (Ben)

Phil Karlson is one of those B-movie directors who doesn’t get enough respect in film history, but he had a lot of talent, whether he was making gritty crime films (Kansas City Confidential) or the silly Matt Helm spy comedies. Ben, his sequel to Willard, isn’t a very good movie but it°Øs significant for being MJ’s first prominent experience with the movies. Taking over for the unavailable Donny Osmond, MJ sang the film’s theme song, Ben, which would be nominated for an Oscar and bring the teenage pop singer to the Academy Awards, at least as a performer. That anyone ever thinks of the movie Ben is likely thanks one-hundred-percent to MJ.

7. Francis Ford Coppola (Captain EO)

This 3D short lasted only about a decade as a prominent attraction at Disney’s theme parks, but it’s still remembered for being such a prestigious affair. Produced by George Lucas and directed by Coppola, who was coming off the enormous flop The Cotton Club, the 17-minute sci-fi film was only slightly longer than some of MJ’s music videos. And at $30 million, it was at the time certainly the most expensive film, per-minute, ever made. It’s not Coppola’s best nor his worst movie, but it makes us curious whether or not the Godfather director should try for another 3D sci-fi adventure, one that’s longer and less exclusive to a theme park.

6. Bob Giraldi(Beat It; Say Say Say)

Giraldi is likely the least known name in the bunch, but he deserves to be here for directing the critically acclaimed 2001 indie Dinner Rush. He’s also responsible for one of the most underrated teen movies of the ’80s, Hiding Out. But his most recognizable work is certainly his West Side Story-inspired music video for MJ’s Beat It, whether or not its legacy is more credible to choreographer Michael Peters. Beat It wasn’t the first narrative-type video by MJ, who would become the king of such short form media, but it may have been the first truly iconic example. The earlier video for Billie Jean (directed by Steve Barron, maker of the creepy kids’ movie Pinocchio) is more significant to the history of MTV and the medium, but it doesn’t resonate nearly as much as this spot.

5. Sidney Lumet (The Wiz)

When Lumet was recently honored with a retrospective at NYC’s Film Forum, The Wiz wasn’t included, likely because it’s considered a blemish on the director’s resume. But despite its few creepy sequences and some script problems courtesy of Joel Schumacher, the musical is a fantastic spectacle of imaginative production design, with its interesting employment of live, landmark locations. MJ’s studied performance as the Scarecrow was actually the best-reviewed element of the movie, so much that it’s surprising he didn’t appear in more feature films over the next few years, let alone the rest of his life.

4. Mark Romanek (Scream)

Mark Romanek still has yet to prove himself a great feature filmmaker. His second movie, One Hour Photo, was pretty good, but his best and most interesting work is still in the medium of music video. Throughout the 1990s he was one of the few filmmakers who truly seemed to be an auteur in the format and deserving of the directorial acknowledgements that began to show up in video credits on MTV. For Scream, Romanek was given the rare task of conceptualizing a video for MJ, who normally came up with ideas himself. The result was a black and white, anime-influenced sci-fi narrative with gorgeous art direction. It also cost $7 million, breaking the record for most expensive music video ever made. Considering the spot is not longer than five minutes, the budget is even more remarkable, but it was a huge critical success for MJ, and it won numerous awards.

3. Martin Scorsese (Bad)

After making Captain EO, MJ apparently had to go and make a music video longer than 17 minutes (the full-length Bad is 18 min.). He also went with another important Italian-American filmmaker, Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver), and enlisted novelist Richard Price (The Wanderers; Clockers) to write a script for the short. In a way, the dancing gang stuff was a little too Beat It, and MJ comes off even less tough than he had four years earlier, but the short film that precedes the song is arguably the best directed of any of MJ’s narrative videos, even if it’s maybe not the most iconic. Whether intentionally or not, Scorsese and MJ’s use of Brooklyn’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station is a nice recall of a certain creepy scene from The Wiz.

2. John Landis (Thriller; Black or White)

If Thriller isn’t the most famous and significant music video of all time, we don’t know what is. At an original running time of 13 minutes and a then-record-breaking cost of $500,000, the spot pretty much defined the extent to which music videos could be considered relative to cinema by existing as short films rather than simply marketing tools. Again, choreographer Michael Peters deserves a lot of credit, but obviously this video would be less memorable if not for Landis, whose An American Werewolf in London was clearly an influence on MJ’s decision to hire the director. Landis would end up working with MJ again almost a decade later on the highly controversial yet nearly as famous video for the song Black or White.

1. Spike Lee (They Don’t Care About Us)

Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) was the one who came to MJ with the request to make the music video for They Don’t Care About Us, a sort of protest song off the HIStory album. The duo went to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, where they enlisted the cultural group Olodum to participate in the filming of the video, which was controversial in Brazil for the possibility that it would hurt Rio’s image. Lee and MJ ended up collaborating on a second music video for They Don’t Care About Us, which is set in a prison but is also more of a montage-type spot, involving footage of global injustices. Although very different in tone and style, both videos are equally what you would expect from Lee, who is known for creating awareness of issues affecting marginalized peoples. He and MJ were a perfect fit.

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