It would be easy to make a documentary about Michael Jackson's controversial career and personal life; but instead of widening the scope, Spike Lee perfectly examines the making of the iconic Bad album produced 25 years ago.
Luckily, you don't have to be an MJ fan to appreciate Bad 25, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. The lengthy doc moves along at a quick pace to explain the artistry behind the 1987 album, without assuming we know everything about the King of Pop, who passed away in 2009.
Rather, Lee (When the Levees Break) opts to introduce us briefly to the stardom and hoopla behind the musician, and then move smoothly to what MJ always liked to call his short films (translation: music videos).
Somehow, Lee got a hold of rare footage of Martin Scorsese shooting the Bad video, and the material is truly fascinating. We learn Jackson wanted Bad to reestablish his relationship with his black fans, making him look tough and hard. Choreographers were interviewed to discuss the "street moves" added to the dance sequences, a theme recurring in various videos MJ produced.
Song by song, Lee takes us through the Bad album, peppered with talking heads that always add some insight into the artist: ?uestlove from the Roots talks about the album's influence on hip-hop, Kanye West gushes over MJ's fashion sense, and Justin Bieber admires the mind-blowing lean move in the Smooth Criminal video. An MJ confidante reveals the "Annie are you OK?" line from the same track refers to a CPR dummy Jackson practiced on, ending a 25-year-old lyrical mystery.
What really makes this doc a must-see is the insider look at what made MJ so talented. He wasn't just a triple threat; he could sing, dance, perform, produce and write his own songs, something you don't see too much today in the music biz. Lee finds the right people, such as Bad's sound engineers, to divulge how MJ approached his songs, right down to the sound levels.
?uestlove from the Roots is one of many interviewees in Bad 25
Comparisons may be made to This Is It, the doc following MJ's rehearsals in London before his death, but Bad 25 goes much deeper into the man behind the legend. We see a boy who hates being bullied by the press when the film looks at the song Leave Me Alone. We see a singer with incredible vocal range, who could go baritone if he chose, but instead opts for a high voice because he feels comfortable there. We see a man so ambitious he marks down on paper the number of albums he wants to sell: 100 million (no problem reaching that milestone).
You would think a doc on Jackson would include interviews with his family, especially his sister Janet. But nary a Jackson is to be found, a move that serves the doc well: it's an homage to Bad, not a profile of the artist and his beginnings. Sure, we learn where MJ got some of his dance moves (Fred Astaire was a major influence), but the doc doesn't want to travel down the path of family roots. Nor does Lee want to step into the murky waters of the child molestation scandals or his relationship with Lisa Marie Presley. Instead, the film trains its lens on Michael the artist and that's it.
The only jarring section are the interviews over MJ's death. Every interviewee is asked where they were when his death was announced, and while that may be revealing to some extent, it acts as a manipulative trick to instigate tears and grief we hadn't felt up until now. His death can't be glossed over, but I'm not sure all those recollections of "I was in my car" or "I was shopping for milk" really added any value to MJ's sudden passing. Those were 15 minutes Lee got have better spent on, say, MJ's perspective on death. There must be something in all those archival interviews, no?
Bad 25 will serve as one of the best documentaries of an album, perhaps even of a music legend. When the credits roll, you can't help but rush home to hear the Bad album all over again, this time with fresh insights into old songs.