Fascinating, informative and appropriately thrilling, the Spike Lee documentary Bad 25 celebrates the quarter-century anniversary of Michael Jackson's GRAMMY Album Of The Year-nominated 1987 album, Bad. The result is an eminently watchable film that chronicles a period when the King of Pop bravely confronted his most formidable rival: himself.
The documentary, which premieres Thanksgiving night at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, reveals how the late King of Pop worked past self-imposed pressure to top his 1982 masterpiece, Thriller. Allowed unprecedented access to the official Michael Jackson archives, director Lee employs a wealth of never-before-seen video, photos and notes to weave the saga of how Bad was created. These multimedia materials are supplemented by insights from individuals who worked and toured with Jackson, such as Quincy Jones, Martin Scorcese and Sheryl Crow. Interviews with modern pop icons including Kanye West, Chris Brown and Questlove add icing on the cake.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Lee provided the inside scoop on Bad 25 in advance of its television premiere.
How would you describe Michael Jackson's impact on your own life?
I was born in 1957, and Michael was born a year later in Gary, Ind. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., I saw the Jackson 5 on Ed Sullivan. I had an afro like Michael and wanted to be Michael, but I couldn't sing. So I grew up watching Michael grow up. I was blessed to see the full development of Michael Jackson, the artist.
The documentary chronicles the creation of most of the songs featured on Bad, but you devote the most time to "Man In The Mirror." Why?
I think it was either [journalists] Jason King or Joe Vogel. One of them made the observation that when John Lennon died, people turned to "Imagine," and when Michael died people turned to "Man In The Mirror." That's the reason we focused a little more on "Man In The Mirror."
Bad was released just as your career was taking off. Does the album possess any personal significance?
Oh, yeah. Like everyone, I wanted to see the follow-up to Thriller. Mike always wanted to better himself, that's why he would write "100,000,000 copies" to himself. He wanted Bad to surpass the sales of Thriller. Michael did not become who he was by being scared. In my opinion, artists can't be scared. If you get scared you're going to keep duplicating what's been successful and not grow.
Some of the most powerful footage in the documentary involves people recalling their reaction to Jackson's death.
Yeah. I know how I felt when Michael died, so I wanted to just ask the question, "Where were you when Michael died?" It's like, where were you when JFK died? Or when Martin Luther King got assassinated? Or when 9/11 happened? One of the most amazing things in the film is a clip where it's Michael and Whitney Houston together. She was presenting a video award to Michael. Now both of them are gone.
There's a lot of footage in this documentary that few people have seen before.
All the stuff came from the estate. A film like this would not be possible [without] the involvement of the estate — that stuff is from the vault. There's loads of stuff in this film that the world has never seen before, ever. Stuff like the rehearsal footage, or the clips of Michael Jackson videotaping Siedah Garrett's demo for "Man In The Mirror." There's a lot of amazing footage, and some of it was shot by Michael himself.
Describe how you made your creative decisions with this documentary.
The manifesto for this documentary was that we wanted to deal with Michael's creative process. This documentary is not focused on anything but his music. I think there's far too much written and talked about Michael's other stuff, so let's just deal with his music. That made it very easy … people were more than happy to talk about Michael's creative process, because they were a witness to genius. They were there in Westlake [Recording] Studios, or they were there at Michael's personal home studio, creating these pieces of music that would stand the test of time.
Many of Jackson's collaborators are very protective of him, even now. How did you get people to open up?
People have seen my films. They know what I'm about, so they trust me. It's not like there's some strange person asking them questions. In all [my] documentaries, I do the interviews myself. Even though a lot of times I've never met the people I'm interviewing, they feel they know me through my films. You've got to make people feel at ease. If they feel at ease, they will be forthcoming.
Did you learn anything new about Michael Jackson while making this documentary?
I got to learn that … Michael loved what he did. He was fearless, and his work ethic was legendary. He studied Jackie Wilson and James Brown, but he also went to "Motown University," and learned all that stuff from Berry Gordy. When it came to his art, Michael was not going to compromise. He kept notes to himself where he wrote "study the greats, then be greater." To me, that's the thing.
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)