Spike Lee: Bad 25 (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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2Aug/150

Spike Lee: Bad 25 (2012)

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In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's album Bad, and as a sudden memorial service, Spike Lee directs a behind-the-scenes look at the crafting of Bad and how it reflected the singer's growing insecurity of living in public.

Concealing myselfWe've completed a lot of projects together at this point, and we're almost caught up with Spike Lee. Looking over the dozens of movies we've written about, how often can either of us say we've been having fun? I mean it both in the sense of writing about these movies, or watching them. Maybe the Akira Kurosawa Yojimbo / Sanjuro movies, or early in Spike's career with School Daze. But overall our writings have been instructive, sometimes illuminating, always fulfilling, but very rarely fun.

Bad 25 is something of a welcome and much appreciated break in this regard. Yes, there's still Spike's exhaustive approach to documentary film making. He gets a plethora of interview subjects to come and discuss topics ranging from Michael Jackson's note-specific octave skills to the sheer mania surrounding his tremendous popularity. But there's also just a sense of fun and creation since we're watching a man at the height of his creative powers making tunes which he honestly hoped were going to change the world.

It's an experience where I am happy to examine it for what it is, and not what I wish it could have been. Spike uses considerable restraint in avoiding the more complicated aspects of Jackson's life, and I suppose how you feel about this decision will vary depending on how much weight you give the allegations. I never believed he abused or molested anyone, but he was basically a unicorn in pop music, too beautiful and pure to stay unsullied for long. Keeping that in mind, I like that Spike didn't feed into the tabloid longing for more weird stories, and divorced from the sheer volume of their production when Jackson was alive it's easier to see some of them for the racist attacks they were.

We've been on something of a break from Spike these last few weeks, and there are issues raised in Bad 25 which fit the rest of his career well, but this is still a slight, if glowing, film. How did you feel coming back into the world of Spike and the music of Jackson?The handshake“Slight” is probably most in line with what I felt. I've never been a huge fan of Michael Jackson, and the moments in Bad 25 that skimmed the surface of his mass appeal—and hinted at not only how significant a figure he was to fans at the time, but also why—were the most interesting. This is a movie that makes me want to understand more about the deeper fan psychology and social factors of Jackson's success.

Lee and most of his interview subjects are coming from a point where Jackson's genius as a pop megastar is never questioned, and their conversations have the bittersweet joy of a group of friends reminiscing over someone they lost. The depth of feeling is there, and is mostly what Lee seems concerned with—even if Jackson the person is often still playing second string to Jackson the musician. This isn't always the case, of course, and some of the strongest moments involve stories that peek past the commonly accepted persona: a friend recalls one night in a hotel where, the TV playing footage of his legion of fans, Jackson turned and declared “I love this.” Another tells about a time Michael answered the phone in his “normal voice,” before speculating about the various ways Jackson tried to remain a perpetual child.

These scenes show an interesting and personal look at what seemed to be two competing impulses that led to the formation of Jackson's pop persona: the embrace of (and maybe fear of losing) childlike innocence and wonder, and the genuine joy he got from making his fans happy. This is such a different, and refreshing, look at celebrity—one in which the constructed public persona is at the service of a deeper need to entertain and satisfy others (and not simply masking the more cynical, self-serving celebrity cliché we're used to seeing). I wish we got more of it—and maybe Spike isn't interested in exploring these deeper aspects of Jackson's persona too much further because they'd demystify the musical legend—but as it stands these sequences stand out in an otherwise equally joyful documentary.Spike on Scorsese on JacksonNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI truly wonder if that movie, the one that examines the deeper aspects of Jackson's persona, is even possible. What I'm struck by throughout Bad 25, and really Jackson as a cultural icon, is how much of an exposed nerve he was. That story you mentioned of him answering the phone in his "normal voice" is the sort of tale we've told about Jackson ever since he became the one true king of pop. It's also why I'm happy Spike stayed away from telling a "deeper truth", because Jackson was so powerful and vulnerable he was the sort of person to buy out gigantic slots of animation and ad space to create his fantasies and defend himself. Jackson didn't have depths, really, he was just a genius born of a deeply violent household that instilled a sense of responsibility and creativity which fueled back into his desire to be a kid back at home singing to himself. You really get a sense of how incapable of being inauthentic he is when he talks about the genesis of "Liberian Girl" and the interviewer thinks there is a girl in Jackson's life, when really he was just playing some pinball in the game room and came to him.

This is actually why I'm happy Spike spent such a long time on Martin Scorsese's collaboration with Jackson. If there's any other artist who would understand a wish to keep the world a certain why, or return it to some fictional ideal which never existed, it's Scorsese. Spike creates such a unique mood during these moments, flipping between the somewhat befuddled Scorsese of the '80s with an entertainingly puzzled Thomas Price wondering just what the heck they're doing filming a black dance-off, and the modern look back at what the music video for Bad became. Envy is what I initially thought the mood was, but that's wrong. When Spike sets his camera behind Scorsese, with Scorsese's head framed small against the gigantic television they're watching the video on, it attains a rarely documented sense of awe. Spike has deep respect for Scorsese, and Spike's obvious love of Michael Jackson keeps Bad 25 brisk overall, but there's a quiet reverence to this moment which I adored.

That adoration and awe is something Spike captures well no matter the scenario, it's just in that moment it becomes palpable. Other moments detailing the physical creativity of Jackson stirred great admiration inside me as well as the interview subjects. There's a frequent thrill recalled when they speak of working with Jackson and they still puzzle just how he managed to pull off some of those dance steps. I love how Spike visually connects Jackson's modern showmanship with the deep lean to the understated showmanship of Buster Keaton in the film College. From underappreciated soul singers, to classic film stars, Spike does a great job connecting the disparate threads of entertainment into Jackson's specific imagination.

I wonder if your distance to Bad 25 isn't so much a wish of Spike to go deeper into the persona, and instead just tell stories of how it functioned in different environments. We get a lot of sad glimpses at this, like when he had to disguise himself to go out with fellow Jehovah's Witnesses, or how each of the interview subjects seems to have their own version of when Jackson told them he just wanted to be left alone. But this total authenticity is weird in documentaries, especially since my favorite documentary film maker Errol Morris' specialty is in examining how people create a version of the truth for themselves to dominate others. Would getting direct glimpses of this Jackson - say in business deals or just trying to eat - helped, or would it have tipped the balance of Bad 25 too far?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThat's a good question, and maybe part of what I wanted from the movie was not so much to understand the fuller, more complex nature of Jackson's success so much as to feel the kind of enthusiasm and reverence the interviewees do. At one point they talk about the importance of The Beatles to Jackson, both as reference points for his own place in the pop landscape and musically, and I'm curious what experiencing that type of phenomenon as the target audience would have been like.

I'm sure we do have something akin to that in contemporary pop culture and just don't recognize it because there's not the necessary distance yet—but certainly no one jumps to mind as having the widespread sort of appeal Jackson did. That's another thing that stands out about the documentary: the focus is almost entirely on Jackson as a performer and entertainer. Obviously the music is a key part of that, but it's presented as one tool on the same level as his physical performance abilities, the choreography, the formal craft behind the videos, and his success in wielding his own persona. These are key elements in any popular musician's career, but the degree to which Jackson was engineering an experience than simply singing a song seems to set him apart.I feel so limitedNewer Andrew cutout commentaryYour issues recall the problems we both had getting into Kobe Doin' Work a month or so back. Both Bad 25 and Kobe Doin' Work do a good job at getting into the technical nitty-gritty of a profession at a specific time. But since neither one of us are much into sports, the questions raised at the periphery of Kobe Doin' Work were more interesting than the physical toll and marshalling skills Kobe Bryant brought to the court.

Interestingly, that's been a common through-line with many of Spike's documentaries. Kobe marshaled his basketball comrades in Kobe Doin' Work, much like General Russell Honore brought humanity back to the treatment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina in When the Levees Broke. Jackson is doing much the same here, but in the broader context of a multimedia spectacle, while Spike doesn't neglect the physical toll it was taking. Since I already love most of Michael Jackson's work, I was able to get swept away in the little stories everyone had to tell, but this is still one of Spike's slighter works. I won't say lesser, because it's nice to see even a director as forward-thinking and experimental as Spike can cut loose and just have fun - something I felt lacking in Kobe Doin' Work.

Plus, I got to hear some great tunes, and it's the rare Spike Lee film where noticing those above the screen is kinda the point.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryYeah I'm actually surprised I didn't consciously make that connection, since Spike's use of music in his fiction films is usually so prominent. I'm also interested to see him stage another full-on musical with Chiraq later this year—the attention to the formal elements of Jackson's videos here seems like it could have been a perfect primer for that project, since he's long been threatening to make a proper musical. Even though I wasn't totally floored by this one, I'm really curious what a new Spike Lee musical will look like.

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Posted by Andrew

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