Words Kaleem Aftab Photography PA Photos Pictured Spike Lee
It's been 25 years since Michael Jackson unleashed Bad on the world. In his new film Spike Lee tells the story behind one of the bestselling albums ever.
"I didn’t cry when I heard that Michael Jackson died,” admits Spike Lee, who was in Cannes when news of the King of Pop’s unexpected death broke on June 25 2009. “I wasn’t crying because I didn’t believe it at first, I thought it was a hoax.” When he finally realised it was true, the acclaimed filmmaker hosted a party in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, so the public could celebrate a musical legend.
Three years later, the Malcolm X director is paying tribute to Jackson once again with the release of Bad 25, a documentary marking the 25th anniversary of what is the ninth bestselling album of all time. The idea wasn’t Lee’s; he was approached by the estate of Michael Jackson and Sony Music Group, but the 55-year-old director didn’t hesitate. “All I had to show with Michael was the hard work that he put in, that was the goal,” explains Lee. “It was always going to be: ‘How was this album put together; what was the creative process?’”
The pair got to know each other while making the video for Jackson’s single They Don’t Care About Us. It was the perfect match: the singer accused of trying to make himself white collaborating with the director famous for tackling race taboos, in a song about prejudice. “This was one of the highlights of my life on a professional level,” remembers Lee. “At the time, Paul Simon had an album out called Rhythm Of The Saints and I had never heard of Olodum [the Brazilian percussion group featured on the album] before hearing [it]... There is a very strong rhyming track on They Don’t Care About Us, which is where I got my idea to go to Brazil and have Olodum play over it.
“Now most musicians are not going to go for that, they would say that what they originally did on the record is what it is going to be. Michael was like, ‘OK, let’s do this’. He had no hesitation. He did not say, ‘let me look at my schedule, how much is it going to cost, who are Olodum?’ There were a billion reasons to say no, but like that [Spike clicks his fingers] he says ‘let’s go’.”
In Bad 25, which has received favourable reviews at the 69th Venice Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, Lee charts the making of the album, which was released on August 31 1987. It explores the concepts behind the songs, right through to the making of the music videos, which Jackson insisted on being called short films. Martin Scorsese reminisces about directing the Bad video. Quincy Jones, who produced Bad, gives a behind-the-scenes perspective on making the album’s ten tracks. And Stevie Wonder, ?uestlove, Kanye West and Justin Bieber also make appearances. In some of the documentary’s most poignant moments, various interviewees have tears in their eyes as they recall the moment they heard of Jackson’s death.
These interviews are mixed with archive footage demonstrating Jackson’s hard work ethic. We learn that Jackson recorded 66 demos for Bad and wanted it to be called Smooth Criminal; that Lee feels the worst song on the album was the Stevie Wonder collaboration Just Good Friends. (For the record, Lee’s favourite tracks are Another Part Of Me and Man In The Mirror.) And that Jackson wanted the album to give him a tougher image, hence the famous black, studded suit. Oh, and that he spent hours upon hours dreaming up those jaw-dropping dance moves.
For ?uestlove, the most surprising track on Bad is Liberian Girl. When he first heard it, The Roots drummer thought it was about a librarian. Featuring a Swahili refrain, sung by SA jazz singer Letta Mbulu, the song is actually a love ballad addressed to the nameless Liberian girl of the title. “Like [biographer] Nelson George said in the film, what other black artist, maybe with the exception of Stevie Wonder, even cites Africa in their lyrics, and even says that Africans are beautiful?,” asks Lee. “Michael was always in Africa, which is a fact that combats what a lot of people thought; that Michael was trying to be white. That wasn’t the case at all.” Lee makes clear in the documentary that he has no time for many of the accusations levied at Jackson. “Some of those headline writers who said things about Jackson should be ashamed of themselves,” he remonstrates.
Lee was born in 1957, a year before Jackson, and didn’t find fame until he was 29. It pays to bear in mind the singer’s upbringing when assessing him, says the Oscar-nominated director. “I’ve been making films from when I was 20, but Michael was doing this since he was five years old. That is something else. Five years old he was singing and dancing for his food because Joe Jackson said to his children, ‘We have to get the hell out of Indiana and the only way we can do that is by singing and dancing’. They weren’t in school, they were rehearsing, practising, singing and dancing.”
Although he’s making a film about Bad, the director confesses his favourite Michael Jackson album is actually Off The Wall. Before he began working on Bad 25, Off The Wall was the only one of the singer’s albums on Lee’s iPod. And his favourite lyric comes from the chorus of Thriller’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin: “It’s too high to get over, too low to get under, you’re stuck in the middle, and the pain is thunder”. He spouts the words with no hesitation and laughs. It’s not his karaoke song (“I don’t do karaoke!”) but he concedes he may occasionally sing in the shower. And then unexpectedly and pretty much in tune does the ‘Hee he hee’ from the song. His father, Bill Lee, is a renowned jazz musician and clearly some of the musical talent has been passed down a generation.
Lee has often said musicians are the artists he admires the most, so making Bad 25 was always going to be a fascinating process for him. And that tribute party he held for Jackson? It turned out to be the first of what is now an annual event. “I think lately people are giving him love that he had not gotten while he was alive,” says Lee, “so there has been a reversal in attitude towards him.” To repurpose a phrase from one of his album tracks, we just can’t stop loving him.
When Sony asked Michael Jackson what they should do as part of the promotion for the HIStory greatest-hits album, the singer reportedly replied, “Build a statue of me”. The record label built nine and placed them around Europe in 1995. Today the most famous statue of Michael Jackson is housed at Craven Cottage, home of Fulham FC, where he once watched a game with chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed.
The number of times Michael Jackson sings ‘bad’ in the chorus of the titular song from his bestselling album.
The number of sold-out shows in the This Is It! tour, which Michael Jackson was preparing for at the time of his untimely death.
The number of weeks that the Bad album originally spent on the US Billboard chart. It peaked at number three in the charts, selling 30million copies.
The number of concerts that Jackson performed as part of the Bad world tour. The show went to 15 countries, played to 4.4million fans and grossed US$125million. It’s also the runtime in minutes of the new Spike Lee documentary.
5 000 -
The number of Twitter posts per minute that mentioned Michael Jackson on June 25 2009, the day of his death.
2 million -
The budget in US dollars of the Bad video, shot by Martin Scorsese. The 18-minute short film was a homage to the 1961 musical West Side Story. In it Jackson plays a student named Darryl, who returns home from college to discover that his life has completely changed.
2 billion -
The current estimated value in US dollars of Jackson’s 50 per cent stake in the ATV Music catalogue, which includes songs by The Beatles that Jackson originally bought for US$47.5million.