I happened to be, of all places, in the Copenhagen back garden of Lars von Trier, the splendidly contrarian Danish film director, on the day that Michael Jackson’s death was announced. “I think that’s fair enough,” he said neutrally. “He didn’t look so happy.”
Jackson’s final years, as we suspected at the time and now know, were indeed imbued with trauma. The obituaries talked voraciously of his scandal-ridden personal life, and glibly of his artistic genius. It was a perverse order of priorities, “like noticing a cobweb on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” as his former producer Quincy Jones puts it.
Jones is quoted in a new documentary on Jackson, Bad 25, directed by another great cinematic visionary, Spike Lee. Timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Bad album, the film is not the place to go if you want to discover more lurid details on plastic surgery, oxygen bubbles or suspect relationships with children. Lee has been granted access to Jackson’s personal archive by the singer’s estate, so it was never going to pose the difficult questions.
Instead, it does something much more necessary and much more ennobling: it gives us some of the reasons why Michael Jackson was great. It concerns itself with art, and not with a messy life.
The atmosphere at the UK premiere of the film last weekend was unashamedly celebratory and Lee, wearing a light-grey US Olympic tracksuit top and improbably white sneakers, was in effervescent mood. He has unearthed some precious material. My favourite footage is of an anxious Jackson discussing the animation of a commercial for California Raisins, which was based on his dance moves. He seems content enough with the depiction of the Michael Jackson raisin but is unimpressed with the two backing raisins. He explains, softly and earnestly, what kind of facial expressions they should be adopting. His analysis is thorough and serious. It is the most striking example of his professionalism and attention to detail, qualities that are too often overlooked by his detractors.
When you have god-given talent, and it has been studiously honed from the age of five, it is commonly considered that inspiration arrives easily, and that perfect execution slips casually into place. Pop artists in particular suffer from the consequences of those assumptions. They are thought to be all instinct, reacting spontaneously to forces all around them, cashing in on their ability to monitor their times.
But Jackson’s talent, whether divinely granted or not, was forged with relentlessly hard work. It is the one observation common to all those talking heads interviewed in the film. His extraordinary dance routines were based on hours of study: they referenced Jerome Robbins, Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire and the burgeoning street culture of the day. He rehearsed them for hours with friends.
The making of Bad was fraught with tension. In trying to follow up Thriller, which remains the biggest-selling album of all time, he became obsessed with surpassing himself. A bodyguard recalls that in every dressing room used by Jackson on tour, he would find the words “100 million albums” written on the mirror. It was a sales target, and not a bad theme for a business school lecture.
The album was also an exercise in existential fine-tuning. Jackson wanted to be bad, or at least badder than people thought. He hired Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Richard Price respectively to direct and write the short film (Jackson never talked of “videos”) to promote the title track. “He wanted to show the brothers that he was down,” says Price in the film. “So he went to an Italian with asthma, and then he went to a Jew with asthma.” The ethnic asthmatics produced a snarling slice of showbiz fantasy that wasn’t, in all honesty, particularly “bad”, but strikingly inventive.
Rumours circulating at the time suggested that “Bad” was going to be a duet between Jackson and his biggest rival in pop stardom, Prince. The two men’s relationship was shrouded in mystery. But Lee recalls Prince’s good humour when he was asked why the duet never materialised: the very first line of the song – “Your butt is mine” – was not one that either artist was likely to allow the other to sing to him.
When it was finally released in 1987, five years after Thriller, Bad was successful enough. It spent nine months in the top five, sold 45m copies and spawned an unprecedented five consecutive chart-topping singles. The subsequent world tour attracted 4.4m spectators. Jackson was the biggest star on the planet. But his life was unravelling. The details are well known but are left unaddressed in Lee’s film.
That will attract accusations of hagiography. But it came as a relief to me. Bad 25 is a corrective. It is full of insight, humour and no little joy. It casts Wacko Jacko to one side, just for a couple of hours, so that we can imagine what his world might have looked like if he had been more – air quotes at the ready – normal.
Early in the film, some friends and colleagues pore over a quote from the African-American writer James Baldwin, who saw cause for concern in the trajectory of Jackson’s life in a noted 1985 essay, before Bad was even released: “The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success.”
It is hard to read that without the grimace of hindsight. Jackson’s carnivorous success ate him up. No wonder he did not look so happy.
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