*This review was originally posted at The Film Experience.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Lee became one of America’s most influential cinematic voices and directed two masterpieces that remain among his very best work to this day: Do The Right Thing and Malcolm X. But I think it’s fair to say that none of his recent films, at least since the 2006 double punch of When the Levees Broke and The Inside Man, have been able to enter public conversation or the awards race. Fiction projects like Miracle at St. Anna were coolly received and documentaries like If God is Willing... didn’t make a dent either.
He's on my mind after watching his Michael Jackson documentary Bad 25 and for the first time in a while I felt like he was on to something special. The film, which originally screened out of competition in Venice, is quite different from the other nonfiction entries in Lee’s oeuvre and it isn’t particularly innovative in its construction. A song by song breakdown of Jackson’s follow-up to his record-breaking Thriller, Bad 25 is effectively a straightforward examination of the production of the 1987 album through exhaustive research and interviews with several key collaborators with the King of Pop. But the collection of these extremely entertaining memories tell a different tale about Michael Jackson, and one that is sadly overshadowed these days by the events of his later life.
Lee, who knew Jackson personally and directed music videos for him, doesn’t attempt to address any of the controversies that surrounded the singer’s life. His celebrity is of course a prominent feature and it’s impossible to overlook given that Bad was produced at the height of his and the genre’s popularity. Jackson himself was obsessed with the idea of repeating Thriller’s success and that was a central aspect of Bad’s formation. But Lee wants to revisit an artist’s work, not his personal life and he does so with diligence, delving into his creative process and referencing tabloid myths and legends only sporadically and when they are discussed by Jackson himself. The creative process, like that of any other great artist, is absolutely fascinating to watch; and it’s interesting to get this amount of exposure to his methods through his peers.
My favourite part of the film is the interview and accompanying archival footage about that famous Bad music video. Partly because as a film fan I lament the fact that I didn’t live through the golden age of music videos and partly because Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (director and editor of the video, respectively) make a great interviewee duo, I was entirely immersed their collaboration with the singer. Jackson referred to his videos as films and the Bad's production was treated as such, with a character-driven story and elaborate set pieces. That Bad also marks the acting debut of an exuberant Wesley Snipes is the icing on the story’s cake.
If I hesitate to call Bad 25 Lee’s return to form because his role as the director is incredibly understated here. His personality, so often at the foreground in his nonfiction work, has taken a backseat. This is a film about Michael Jackson and he’s content not to interfere. Then again, that’s exactly the stuff great directors are made of. They know when and how much their voice needs to be heard. Lee understands the magnitude of Jackson’s star and he’s happy to let it shine.