It’s difficult to talk about Michael Jackson’s achievements without sounding banal. He’s a legend. An icon. A god to millions. These are undeniable facts, but perhaps more essential to a portrait of this musical paragon is his character, his struggles, and his identity. Spike Lee’s new documentary Bad 25 celebrates these aspects of Jackson's work with telling interviews and never-before-seen footage of the production of Bad — Jackson's seventh album and follow-up to Thriller, the best selling album of all time. It offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of an astoundingly ambitious artistic vision and the creative drive that made it possible.
What is great about this film is its commitment to showing Jackson in the context of his personal relationships with, and his influence on, his friends and fellow musicians. By interviewing a variety of people who worked with Jackson during the ‘Bad Era’ as well as contemporary music luminaries, Lee shows a new perspective on the influence this album had on musicians and the way Jackson inspired those who worked with him to think outside the box —Jackson's forte. While there are many interviews with celebrities like Martin Scorcese, Kanye West, Mariah Carey, and Chris Brown, it’s the lesser-known figures who worked personally with Michael on Bad that really color in Spike’s portrayal of this crucial era in Jackson's career.
The documentary is replete with new footage that showcases Jackson's talent and virtuosity in dance, singing and songwriting — the footage of him proves this as well — and goes further to show how involved Jackson was in the minutiae of his work. He was a perfectionist of the highest order, and he thought out every detail to ensure his vision remained true. I particularly like when they discuss a note Jackson made to himself to get the shoes he wanted for a video in advance, so he could break them in. This attention to detail — not just a complement to but also a function of innate talent — is a hallmark of the level of genius Jackson's work demonstrates. It’s often easy to forget just how hard great minds still need to work to create great art.
This film focuses mainly on the production and influence of Bad and its music videos — a very impressive examination — but ends on a sobering note when it addresses his passing with a montage of reactions by those close to Jackson. The sadness his untimely death evokes in his friends and peers reminds one of the humanity in even the god-like figures, like Jackson. It’s a beautiful yet harrowing way to end a thoughtful exploration of the musical processes of, perhaps, the most iconic and entertainer of all time.