Michael Jackson and Vincent Paterson on the set of "Smooth Criminal"… (Sam Emerson, ABC )
An unexpected narrative has solidified around Michael Jackson's legacy since the pop superstar died in 2009: that as much as he was a creative genius — an artist capable of pulling inspiration from the cosmos, as Jackson himself describes it in Spike Lee's new documentary "Bad 25" — his success came largely as the result of hard work.
The master is being remade as a trouper.
We saw the beginnings of this in "This Is It," the 2009 documentary-cum-concert film assembled by Kenny Ortega from footage recorded during rehearsals for Jackson's ill-fated run of shows at the O2 Arena in London.
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And now the story advances in "Bad 25," which takes an in-depth look at the making of Jackson's 1987 follow-up to the world-dominating "Thriller." (It's part of a 25th-anniversary onslaught that also includes a deluxe reissue of the album.)
"This documentary celebrates the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, and the achievements of his album 'Bad,'" reads a title card at the end of the movie, and the word "achievements" seems instructive: Lee revels in the long hours and musicianly expertise required to produce hits such as "Smooth Criminal" and "Man in the Mirror."
The album's commercial triumph, in his account, simply rewarded a job well done.
"Celebrates" is another telling word. Packed with flattering performance clips and fawning testimonials from A-list admirers, Lee's two-hour film is no less worshipful than "This Is It."
The director nods to the extra-musical pursuits that threatened to destabilize Jackson's career during the extended layover between "Thriller" and "Bad." He's especially insightful on the singer's controversial acquisition in 1985 of the Beatles' songbook, which cultural critic Nelson George says unsettled people — white people, one infers — who view those songs as "sacred."
But those were distractions, Lee decides.
What elevates "Bad 25" over sizzle-reel utility Lee's his distinctive personal touch. Partly, that means Lee's ability to get celebrities in front of a camera, as he did here with Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey and Kanye West, who thanks Jackson for introducing him in "Dirty Diana" to a predatory-groupie type he's since come to know well.
In one memorable sequence, the director dissects the "Bad" video with its director, Martin Scorsese — a kind of "Behind 'Behind the Music'" moment that reflects the obsession with minutiae that animates all of Lee's work.
And with Jackson, there's never any shortage of fascinating insider anecdotes. Who knew, for example, that playwright August Wilson had been asked to write a script for the video for "The Way You Make Me Feel"? (Wilson said no.)
All those details suggest that a nearly Jacksonian level of effort went into this meticulously researched movie, which following a theatrical run in L.A. is due to air on ABC on Thanksgiving. But not unlike the singer and his producer Quincy Jones, Lee stitches them together with speed and precision.
On-screen, "Bad 25" moves in the style of a great pop song.