TIFF 2012 Review: BAD 25 Celebrates Michael Jackson, Recording Artist

Featured Critic; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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TIFF 2012 Review: BAD 25 Celebrates Michael Jackson, Recording Artist
It's not so far into Bad 25 when you realize just what kind of film it's going to be - exuberant, energizing, even at times elegiac, this is very much a straight ahead celebration of a particularly exceptional recording.

For the last two years at TIFF, two extremely compelling documentaries were shown about superstar artists coming to terms with the album following a monster success. Both the film on Springsteen (The Promise) post-Born in the USA, and the film about U2 (From The Sky Down) after Joshua Tree, chose to concentrate in general terms on the creative process that's put to the test by enormous, often unexpected success.

The story of Michael Jackson is obviously quite different. Groomed from an extremely young age, honed by disciplinarian parents, schooled through the grind of Motown, and then loosed upon a world where each success was greater than the last, Jackson's story and the magnitude of his successes is unique in the history of popular music. 

In other words, by the time MJ hit with Thriller, by the time that record helped define decades of musical output, it was very much something that was working according to a plan set forth from the beginnings of his career. What's remarkable, of course, is that the bravado bordering on arrogance paid off. Call yourself the King of Pop enough times, and the crown begins to fit.

Bad 25 begins with the briefest of overviews of the Thriller years, taking it as a given that viewers will be well enough familiar with that record and its predecessor, Off The Wall, the first collaboration with Quincy Jones. The album Bad, of course, was the culmination of that remarkable partnership, a record years in the making that attempted the near impossible, to outperform what at that point was the most commercially successful record of all time.

Spike Lee's "joint" takes a very intelligent tact, doing a kind of track-by-track analysis of the record, building up the story of the record by detailing things in an orderly fashion. Spike's voice is occasionally heard off screen, mixed in the surround channels, adding a quip or comment that doesn't shy away from the man behind the lens.

Interview subjects are varied and often quite revelatory. Many of the clips are from vintage interviews; the most notable example is Quincy Jones, who does not appear in a newly shot interview. That said, these archive comments marry extremely well with the new elements. A conversation with Martin Scorsese, for example, dovetails beautifully with his comments shot back in the 80s during the production of the the iconic title track "short film"/video.

Producers, engineers, song writers and (joyfully) several of the session musicians provide detailed and revealing comments about the music itself. Other musicians provide equally eloquent comment, particularly the always delightful ?uestlove finding affection for one of the more esoteric album tracks. Cee-Lo Green, Kanye West and Mariah Carey also provide some fine quips, and Justin Bieber provides a nod to the what the kids are listening to these days. 

The filmmakers have access to some extraordinary archive materials, from behind-the-scene video footage shot by MJ himself, to tapes of vocal exercises. These might seem like mere ephemera to those not enamoured with the music in the first place, but they do flesh out, perhaps in ways not done nearly well enough until now, the nature of the performer and musician outside of the public's view.

Even more so than This is It, the hastily assembled yet quite compelling take on the aborted final tour, we get to see in Bad 25 MJ working as an artist, see the skills and commitment and shade of insanity he brings to this project. The album as a whole is beautiful and bloated, very much a time capsule of immaculate-yet-plastic sounding music that characterized much of the 80s recording style. 

Aside from the technical and musical elements of the record, the film also delves into the story surrounding the record, the making of the many promotional films, the shooting of the cover photograph, and so on. These voices add further rich details to the overall portrayal, balancing out for the casual listener the more technical aspects and providing a richer view of the project as a whole.

By going through in such a diligent fashion, Spike's work does a pretty wonderful thing, having us listen closer, dig deeper into a given track on the record that might easily have slipped by. This isn't at all a complete gushing, forced take on the record as a whole - we're treated to several opinions about some of the more egregious elements (a duet with Stevie in particular) and certain missed opportunities that were overlooked.

Still, there's enough for even the most anti-MJ person to find to like in this film. To see Wesley Snipes make his breakout before your eyes, to hear the exeptional keyboardist Greg Phillinganes break down a lick at the grand piano, or to watch the choreographers relate directly the moves to Soul Train, Bob Fosse and Fred Astaire, it's near impossible not to be sucked in.

At 131 minutes, the film is certainly a commitment, yet in taking its time Spike manages to craft a truly exceptional time. Certain clips are allowed to breathe, certain performances allowed further context allowing the audience to better digest some of the comments from the participants. There's an extended moment where many of the interviewees are asked where they were on June 25th, 2009 when they heard that he had died. We cut from tear-eyed-face to tear-eyed-face, and at first it feels a bit cheap and manipulative. Once we see the number of faces with similar reactions, once we feel the passion by which many of these close collaborators felt with their relationship to the artist, this potentially superficial moment in execution comes across with extraordinary power and effectiveness.

Not quite up to the bar set to Olympic heights with Scorsese's Bob Dylan and George Harrison documentaries, Spike nonetheless shows that he's more than up to the task in creating this powerful, memorable work. Naturally, there are enormous gaps in the story of MJ here, entire subject matters (mostly of a salacious kind) that are essentially ignored. For some, this is the entirety of the fascination with the man, a bitter fact that is the subject of the song "Leave Me Alone" from the record.

The film concentrates on the man as performer, those that helped him achieve his lofty goals, and reflections upon the pieces that were crafted. Sure, when the likes of Sheryl Crow gets a bid maudlin it can be offputting, but overall we're treated to both a celebration of the recording, a re-examination of this period of pop-music, and a recognition of the contribution of many that went into the production of this remarkable recording.

Bad 25 may have you moving in your seat, or even dancing in the aisles. Even if you stubbornly refuse to get down with the heavy, heavy grooves on this recording, you may in fact find a new appreciation for both the record itself and the musician behind the headlines. Spike's film is a testament to the joy of this record, something that would occasionally get lots in talk of shipping numbers and grammy wins and the line.

A quarter century from the album's release, and now years after his death, the myth of Michael Jackson continues to be written. There's room for a definitive look at the man, his personal challenges over the scope of his career, and I very much look forward to one day seeing that film. 

This, of course, is not that work. 

Bad 25 is, instead, a celebration, but a knowing one, not simply a hagiography of the project nor a shallow glorification, but instead a committed, detailed look at the record as a whole.

I think it a pretty wonderful thing that this film has managed to gather such remarkable participants, marrying well their comments with rare and powerful footage, all while staying true to the focus of the original recording. For younger fans, it will serve as an introduction to this remarkable era. For those of us old enough to be around way back then it does a very fine thing, giving us a penetrating, insightful look at the album, the phenomenon that is Michael Jackson's Bad.

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Spike LeeMichael JacksonGlen BallardJohn BarnesJennifer BattenDocumentaryMusic
nobodySeptember 12, 2012 7:01 AM

Michael Jackson did not call himself that or demand that people call him that. His fans and Elizabeth Taylor referred to him as that.
They were the ones who called him the King of Pop. He never said "I am the King of Pop." There is no evidence any where to suggest that he ever said anything of the sort.

Do your research before claiming that someone is arrogant.

elke hassell September 14, 2012 2:24 AM

like nobody tells it already, why spoil an otherwise reasonable article by spinning the Facts. #Facts is that Dame Elizabeth Taylor at an Award Ceremony when preparing the audience for Michael Jackson's Entrance and Acceptance of his Award she openly announced him as being the True King of Pop, Rock and Soul. How, if you are from around the Bad Era could you have missed this! To me it looks like you just jumped on everyone's bandwagon by rattling down a Story of Michael/BAD, because simply everybody has been doing it since his death. You refer in your article for your desire of seeing a Movie being made about "his personal challenges" over the scope of his career, well Lord have Mercy, if you don't know these by now, especially since you were around in Mr. Jackson's career and since you are now a critic/writer you surely could not have missed those challenges as they were broadcasted to us in all sorts of dehumanizing forms possible. Why would you want to see this on screen now, or are you secretly referring to the usual sarcastic statements we were fed with throughout his career, about his "weirdness, wackiness, and more salacious remarks that I don't wish to repeat? If you truly knew the Mr. Michael Jackson, and truly investigated the Man, you would know that Mr. Jackson was light years away from being so self centered as to call "Himself" the King of Pop. You would know that Mr. Jackson stayed humble throughout his Life, never failed to acknowledge anybody no matter what walks of life they came from, to simply extend his LOVE to ALL HUMAN SOCIETY. Your article lacks SOUL and mostly SINCERITY, you should learn from Joe Vogel, how to write with these traits. But only people, who actually "BELIEVE" in their Subject can accomplish this. Yours was just o.k.

J Gorber-Filmfest.caSeptember 15, 2012 10:45 AM

Heh, thanks for the comments, nice to see the MJ acolytes find their way here.

When you've actually seen the film, and seen how they present some of his more delusional-yet-admirable goals he had for this project, I'd welcome you re-read my review and see what I was hinting at.

My general point above, naturally, is that this is not the documentary about the salaciousness that some want to see for reasons far beyond any discussion we'll rationally have. It is, however, an exceptionally well made piece, it's a lot of fun, and it's well worth seeing, points that should not be lost by those that cannot see past the newspaper headlines that dominated this era. I've been going on the film at length all week, and was certainly one of my more enjoyable experiences at this year's fest.

I do find your kneejerk reactions to what's really a positive endorsement of the film pretty fascinating - heck, I've never been slammed so hard for a film that I loved!

Hope you enjoy it when you see it, it's especially worth checking out on a big screen with excellent sound if that's possible in your area.

layne4September 15, 2012 11:22 AM

Mr.Gorber: Wanted to thank you for your insightful and quite spot on review of Spike's film. Very refreshing to hear from someone who actually can focus on Jackson as the genius artist he was. And, I agree, there is more than enough room for a definitive story of the man's life....this time, it's terrific that this most important aspect of that life is so beautifully revealed.

TabinformedSeptember 15, 2012 11:56 AM

This is a really great review and I appreciate that you really enjoyed the film. I plan to thoroughly enjoy it as well. Michael Jackson was a genius who created and lived on a whole other plane than most people. An artist of that caliber will always think outside the box and will constantly want to break out of the box that others want to put him in. I am thankful that Michael Jackson was exactly who he was for without that, the great art that he brought to us would not exist.

It seems the writer is upset with some of the comments and knowing how much garbage has been written about Michael Jackson, I hope Mr. Gorber can understand why the use of "insanity" and repeating the myth that Jackson is the self-proclaimed King of Pop upsets Jacksons' admirers. Jackson was not insane but clearly aimed high. Without aiming high and his obsessive attention to detail, his art would not stand the test of time that it has. I have seen newspaper clippings as far back as 1984 that proclaimed Michael Jackson as the King of Pop. In the end, it doesn't matter where it came from, Michael Jackson really is the King of POP in terms of record sales, awards, record setting concert attendance, his continued influence on both the business and creative aspect of music and his 40 year career to which he gave everything.

LOVE is my messageSeptember 15, 2012 1:29 PM

no one is "slamming" you it's just you keep saying michael proclaimed himself to be the king of pop and made people call him that, that was never the case, everybody who knows at least anything about michael knows that elizabeth taylor was the one who dubbed him the king of pop, rock and soul,later during his shows the fans would bring signs that said "king of pop:", so i think by saying other wise, fans (people who know michael) tend to believe that, heck this guys doesn't really knows what you're talking about if he is using media driven lies, because for some reason the media likes to pick one thing about michael, twist it and suggest innuendos, in this case that he was arrogant, full of himself, but in all reality, the goals that he wanted to realize, that critics called, delusional..michael actually made come true, thriller till this day has sold 110 million albums world wide, owning the rights to all of his music & half of sony music, creating short films to promote singles, they called him crazy for thinking like that, but in all honesty, he was ahead of our time. we just couldn't catch up. when it comes to the title, "king of pop" i just wish people did their homework. other than that i personally enjoyed your review and cannot wait to see it in November on prime time, thanksgiving night :)

MarkRBentleySeptember 15, 2012 1:55 PM

I enjoyed your review and look forward to the inside look at an undisputed musical genius deep in creative and work process. Please try to listen and perhaps acknowledge what's behind some of the responses you have received to your review. Most if not all Jackson admirers have valid complaints about the media coverage of him for many years--including the meme about him being super-weird (while the likes of Prince, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger get a pass..) and worse.

This history is not the imaginings of "acolytes." For example, newspaper headlines from 1984 use the phrase "injured King of Pop" after the burn accident. This makes the common usage of "self-proclaimed KOP" an irritant. It also begs the question of how much copy-and-paste, groupthink, and piling on occurs by supposedly unbiased journalists expected to give their personal honest take based on factual information. Another example might be that Rolling Stone in Australia recently featured Michael Jackson on its cover with a celebratory article about BAD 25. RS in the USA is silent on the subject--why is that?

Here is a credible theory as to why--

Pen DragonSeptember 15, 2012 1:55 PM

Mr Gorber - It's great to read such a positive review of this documentary from someone who is not a particular fan of Jackson himself. As you say BAD defined an era as Jackson continued to push the bar and produce an amazing album, the tracks on which have now become classics, both visually and musically. What comes across most in your review is the high regard and genuine affection those who worked alongside him had for both the artist and the man -something often brushed aside by his detractors.

There is a fine line between "insanity" and genius - Jackson's vision and ambition may well have seemed like madness at the time, but with hindsight we can recognize someone ahead of his time, thinking outside the box, breaking barriers and establishing a cultural legacy which lives on in the wake of his passing.

MelmermeSeptember 15, 2012 3:35 PM

Thanks for your review of Bad 25. It sounds like it will be a real treat to see for everyone. Mr. Jackson wasn't treated kindly for the last couple decades of his life and was very misunderstood. Finally books, articles, and documentaries are making their way into the public eye now revealing the true creative genius and warm kind generous unique and special man behind the tabloid garbage.