“Bad 25” is a “rockumentary” that marks the creative reunion of two black entertainment powerhouses. The film—which makes its broadcast TV premiere Thanksgiving night on ABC—reunites director Spike Lee with Michael Jackson, the late King of Pop and the most successful entertainer of all time according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Having first collaborated in 1996 for the music video “They Don’t Care About Us,” Lee now works with Jackson posthumously to create an informative and fascinating documentary.
Offering a behind-the-scenes peek into the making of Jackson’s “Bad” album, Lee’s film reveals how the King of Pop felt duty-bound to top sales of his 1982 masterpiece “Thriller,” which remains the best-selling album of all time (“Bad” ranks fifth in all-time album sales).
Produced under the auspices of the Michael Jackson estate, “Bad 25” gleans insights from musicians who worked and toured with Jackson, including director Martin Scorcese, singer Sheryl Crow, keyboardist Greg Phillinganes and more.
BlackAmericaWeb.com recently caught up with Spike Lee, and got the 411 on the documentary, Michael’s enduring influence and more.
BlackAmericaWeb.com: Describe how you made your creative decisions on this documentary.
Lee: The manifesto for this documentary was that we wanted to deal with Michael’s creative process. This documentary is not focused on anything but his music. I think there’s far too much written and talked about Michael’s other stuff, so let’s just deal with his music. That made it very easy. People were more than happy to talk about Michael’s creative process, because they were a witness to genius. They were there in Westlake Studios, or they were there at Michael’s personal home studio, creating these pieces of music that would stand the test of time.
BlackAmericaWeb: There’s a lot of footage in the film that few people have seen before.
Lee: All the stuff came from the estate. A film like this would not be possible, because with the involvement of the estate—that stuff is from the vault. There’s loads of stuff in this film that the world has never seen before, ever. Stuff like the rehearsal footage, or the clips of Michael Jackson videotaping Siedah Garrett’s demo for “Man in the Mirror.” There’s a lot of amazing footage, and some of it was shot by Michael himself.
BlackAmericaWeb: The documentary chronicles the creation of most of the songs featured on “Bad,” but you devote the most time to “Man in the Mirror.” Why?
Lee: I think it was either (journalists) Jason King or Joe Vogel. One of them made the observation that when John Lennon died, people turned to “Imagine,” and when Michael died people turned to “Man in the Mirror.” That’s the reason we focused a little more on “Man in the Mirror.”
BlackAmericaWeb: You’re known for making films that examine the role race plays in America. What impact did Michael and his music have on race?
Lee: People forget that MTV initially did not want to play the “Billie Jean” video. It was (former CBS Records president) Walter Yetnikoff who threatened to pull every single Columbia/Epic artist off the network if MTV didn’t play “Billie Jean.” They had to cave in. At the time, MTV did not play any black artists. They told Yetnikoff that playing a black artist like Michael would turn off their viewership, but it was the exact opposite. In fact, you could say that Michael Jackson made MTV.
BlackAmericaWeb: You directed the music video for the controversial track, “They Don’t Care About Us.” What’s your feeling about the allegations of anti-Semitism leveled against Michael?
Lee: First of all, Michael loved everyone. He loved people, and he wanted to reach as many people as he could. That label ‘anti-Semitic’ hurt him deeply. I feel that what happened to Michael was unprecedented in the history of music. “They Don’t Care About Us” was on the “HIStory” CD. Under pressure from some groups, Sony Records was forced to pull the record off the shelves. They put it back later with some scribbled stuff over the track so that you couldn’t hear the lyrics. (Michael) had to have a disclaimer on “They Don’t Care About Us,” because of the couplet “Jew me, sue me, kick me, Kike me.” They took it out of context. I just found that amazing.
BlackAmericaWeb: But many would argue that those are, indeed, extraordinarily strong lyrics…
Lee: As a songwriter, it’s often not your point of view. If (Talking Heads singer) David Byrne writes a song called ‘Psycho Killer’—that’s not him. Nobody assumes he’s a psycho killer. There’s many examples. But they were out to get (Michael). A lot of people quietly were not friends with Michael after that. They just abandoned him, and it hurt him.
BlackAmericaWeb: In your documentary, a journalist comments about the severe discipline imposed on Michael as a child. What’s your take on Michael’s upbringing?
Lee: I’m not going to be one of the people that condemns (Jackson’s father) Joe Jackson. He got his family out of Gary, Indiana. His children did not have to work in the steel mills.
BlackAmericaWeb: What was the biggest challenge in directing this documentary?
Lee: Anytime you do a documentary, you have to work with people’s schedules. Their lives and schedules revolve around what we’re trying to do, so that’s why we weren’t able to get Quincy Jones. So here are the people we approached… we asked Prince, but he didn’t want to do it. Madonna was on tour. Justin Timberlake didn’t want to do it, and Lady Gaga was on tour. So we went with what we got. No matter the money, the schedule, or whatever, you always go with what you got.