Michael Jackson and Vincent Paterson on the set of "Smooth Criminal." (Sam Emerson/ABC )
In a welcome break from the traditionally saccharine holiday programming, ABC is airing "a version" of Spike Lee's documentary "Michael Jackson: Bad 25," which had its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival before having a short theatrical release. Lee trimmed almost an hour for the television version, but "Bad 25" is still something to be thankful for, a hypnotic homage to the performer's gift and, more important, his dedication.
Wielding an impressive collection of behind-the-scenes clips as well as interviews with a disparate array of colleagues (including Martin Scorsese and Sheryl Crow), Lee uses the creation of the album and the "short films" (Jackson eschewed the term music video) the songs inspired to keep his focus firmly on Jackson's work. Although there is brief mention of things like Jackson's shyness, his increasingly pale skin and his choice to speak and sing in the higher registers of his impressive three-octave range, that's as personal it gets. Lee's window is definitively, and almost defiantly, framed by the ambition, talent and rigor that went into creating "Bad."
PHOTOS: Michael Jackson | Life in pictures
Indeed, the structure of the film mirrors the album. After a brief discussion of Jackson's refusal to rest on the laurels of the record-breaking "Thriller — according to his bodyguard and confidant, Jackson wrote 100,000,000 for "Bad" on his mirror in a Sharpie to remind him that this album would outsell "Thriller" — Lee begins breaking down the multimedia production of "Bad" beginning with the decision to go with what would become the iconic look of Jackson in his studded and be-buckled black leather.
The look, says Kanye West, made "Bad" an even more seminal album than "Thriller." "I'm almost dressed like that today," West says.
The strongest portion of this version follows the creation of the short film for the title track. Scorsese agreed to direct and brought in screenwriter Richard Price, with whom he had just worked on "The Color of Money."
"Michael wanted to make a video to show the brothers he was down," says Price with a laugh. "So the Italian asthmatic goes to the Jewish asthmatic to make Michael a homie."
Watching as the video assembled — it was, among other things, the film debut of Wesley Snipes — and the dance scene choreographed, the sense of Jackson as both an obsessively dedicated performer and a boy living in a bubble (he cannot believe people actually live in the Harlem location chosen for part of the film) comes vividly to life. (It is also great fun to see a young and bearded Scorsese doing his thing in the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station.)
Especially effective are the clips of Jackson working with choreographer Jeffrey Daniel in early rehearsals (at the Helmsley Palace of course). Daniel, like Scorsese is also on hand in present time to deconstruct all the decisions that led to the final product.
Each song receives a similar breakdown and occasionally the film threatens to put out its own fire with a smothering blanket of praise, but Lee more than makes his point: No matter how distracting or disturbing the personal details get, at a certain level an artist must be defined by the work.
Moreover, the Jackson seen here, at the height of his power, is still recognizable as a man rather than the tabloid myth he was to become. So when the inevitable moment of sorrow is effectively captured we mourn the loss of what might have been, cut short not just by death but by a life that for, whatever reason, veered so wildly away from the admittedly narrow and perilous path of genius it had once so gorgeously danced.
'Michael Jackson: Bad 25'
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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