On the amazing new documentary “Bad 25,” Vincent Paterson, choreographer of Michael Jackson’s short film for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” tells a story about what happened the first time Jackson walked up to his breathtakingly attractive co-star, Tatiana Thumbtzen. “One of the most amazing moments I remember,” he says, “is Michael walking, and he catches up to Tatiana and sings for the first time. Everything stopped. We had to stop shooting, because people just froze. They actually froze.”
The camera then turns to the extras, who have shirked their acting responsibilities to instead stand, spellbound, at the voice that just came out of the guy. And for someone who grew up with Wacko Jacko, the ghoulish creature from the Martin Bashir documentary, this scene—which showcases Jackson’s amazing dancing, his incredible natural singing talent, and his undeniable connection with an actual real-life beautiful female—is nothing more a revelation.
Yes, take away my Bro card. Last week I watched Spike Lee’s new documentary, an oral history of Jackson’s seventh album “Bad,” and I found it to be maybe the best music documentary of the last decade. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that “Bad 25” spends its running time not going into the weird personal life we’ve heard ad nauseum, but instead focuses on the once-in-a-lifetime musical talent Jackson was. The bulk of its interviews go to the technical guys—the technicians, the choreographers, the studio musicians, and the producers—who were able to truly appreciate how different Jackson was from other creative artists. It plays songs from "Bad" in full, and it includes a ton of footage from his spellbinding live performances. These directing choices may have occurred because Lee is obviously a Michael fan. Unlike Bashir, he wasn’t interested in tearing down the Jackson myth; he wanted to build it back up.
To me, though, and to anyone else in our age group, “Bad 25” has a different effect than Lee, who wanted to pay tribute to one of his heroes, intended. The documentary gives you an actual introduction to Jackson’s music. It strips away the totally understandable preconceived notions we had to his work, which we knew only as the side career of a full-time madman. It's really a shocking thing to think about—but we never got to appreciate what he did until now.
“Bad 25” ends with Jackson performing “Man in the Mirror” at London’s Wembley Stadium on July 16, 1988. Since watching the doc, I’ve listened to this live album on repeat at work for 5 days straight. The album rocks—it’s not a shitty pop record with just, say, ballads to appease his softer fanbase. It kicks off with “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” played at a ridiculously fast beat, and until the album’s close, “Mirror,” you’re left listening to a concert that would be right up there with any great rock band’s performance. It makes you want to dig into his lesser known work from his ubiqutious albums like “Thriller” and “Bad.” Show of hands: Ever heard the song “Leave Me Alone”? Aware that it’s funny and bitter and illuminating in its frank depiction of paranoia as any song a major artist has released in the last 25 years? There was always way more to this guy’s arsenal than hits like “Billy Jean.”
Without “Bad 25,” I never would have been exposed to this side of Jackson. (It would have been easy to be exposed to it during the outpouring of grief that came with his death three years ago, but there was always something disingenuous about the people crying for us to remember him as an artist. It’s entirely conceivable that the people who attempted to give context to his death and his legacy were the same ones who were making Jacko jokes a week before.) The documentary has provided a perfect opportunity to separate a man we knew too much about from the music we never really got to appreciate.
Give it a watch. It’ll show you that you never actually knew one of the most famous men in the world.