How Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” Video Changed Pop Culture Forever: Revisit the 13-Minute Short Film Directed by John Landis

Michael Jackson's Thriller, the album, had spent the previous year at the top of the charts before the John Landis-directed video for the title track debuted in 1983. Two previous videos, for massive hits “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” kept him on constant rotation on the fledgling MTV and other networks. It seemed that the “naïve, preternaturally gifted 25-year-old” couldn’t get any more internationally famous, but then, as Nancy Griffin writes at Vanity Fair, “it was the ‘Thriller’ video that pushed Jackson over the top, consolidating his position as the King of Pop."

His naïveté was matched by a shrewd, calculating ambition, and the story of the “Thriller” video highlights both. After seeing An American Werewolf in London, he chose Landis to make a video that would goose Thriller’s sales as they started to fall. Landis, the profane, irreverent director of The Blues Brothers and Animal House, may have seemed an odd choice for the wholesome pop star, who prefaced his zombie spoof with a pious disclaimer about his “strong personal convictions.” (Shortly before the video's release, Jackson, under pressure from the Jehovah's Witnesses, asked Landis to destroy it.)

It turns out, however, that when Jackson called Landis, he hadn’t seen any of the director’s other films (and Landis hadn’t heard the song). It was Landis who suggested that the video be turned into a 14-minute short film, a choice that set the bar high for the form ever since. As he told Billboard’s John Branca on the video’s 35th anniversary, just days ago:

Music videos at that time were always just needle drop. Some were pretty good, but most were not, and they were commercials. Michael’s such a huge star that I said, “Maybe I can bring back the theatrical short.” I pitched him the idea, and he totally went for it. Michael was extremely enthusiastic because he wanted to make movies.

Before “Thriller” even aired, it was a high-profile event. “Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson and Jackie Kennedy Onassis all turned up on set,” notes Phil Hebblethwaite, “and Eddie Murphy, Prince and Diana Ross were spotted at the private premier.” After the video premiered on MTV at midnight on December 2nd, it sealed the network’s “reputation as a new cultural force; dissolved racial barriers in the station’s treatment of music,” and “helped create a market for VHS rentals and sales.”

“Thriller” turned the making of music videos into a “proper industry,” says Brian Grant, the British director who made videos for Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” It “launched a dance craze,” Karen Bliss writes at Billboard, and “a red-jacket fashion favorite.” It won three MTV Awards, two American Music Awards, and a Grammy. In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry, designated as a national treasure.

But as we look back on unprecedented historic impact “Thriller” had on pop culture, we must also look at its continued impact in the present. It remains the most popular music video of all time. “’Thriller’ is thriving on YouTube,” Griffin writes. Celebrities and ordinary people, professional and amateur dance troops, Filipino prisoners and Norwegian soldiers, routinely perform its dance moves for the camera all over the world. An entire genre of how-to videos teach viewers how to do the "Thriller" dance. This past September, it became the first music video released in IMAX 3D.

The video received the documentary treatment in Jerry Kramer’s Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year. Landis tells Branca one story that did not make it into Kramer's movie. After Quincy Jones refused him permission to remix the song, he and Jackson walked into the studio at night, took the tapes, duplicated them and returned them. The song that appears in the video “is very different than the record,” says Landis. “I only used a third of the lyrics. It’s a 3-minute song; in the film, it plays for 11 minutes.” Jones and engineer Bruce Swedien didn’t even notice, says the director, they were so enthralled with what they saw onscreen.

What continues to drive “Thriller’s” popularity? The combination of good clean fun and perfectly-pitched camp horror—Vincent Price voiceover and all? The virtuoso dance moves, zombie choreography, and irresistibly sleek 80s fashions? All of the above, of course, and also some indefinable sum of all these parts, a perfect combination of cinematic depth and shiny pop culture surfaces that set the benchmark for the format for three-and-a-half decades.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Blade Runner Getting Adapted into a New Anime Series, Produced by Cowboy Bebop Animator Shinichiro Watanabe

You may remember, in the run-up to the theatrical release of Blade Runner 2049 last October, that three short prequels appeared on the internet. Black Out 2022 (above), the most discussed installment of that miniature trilogy, stood out both aesthetically and culturally: directed by famed Japanese animator Shinichiro Watanabe, it expanded the reality of Blade Runner through a form that has drawn so much from that universe over the previous 35 years. "I just want an animated bladerunner series now," says the current top-rated comment below that video, "this was magical." And so, a year later, the answer to the prayer of that commenter (and clearly many other viewers besides) has appeared on the horizon: a Japanese animated series called Blade Runner — Black Lotus.

Overseen by Watanabe in the producer role and directed by Kenji Kamiyama and Shinji Aramaki, the latter of whom worked in the art department on Black Out 2022, the new series will take place in 2032, between the events of the short and those of Blade Runner 2049.

"It will also include some 'established characters' from the Blade Runner universe, but that could mean all sorts of things," writes The A.V. Club's Sam Barsanti. "Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard would already be in hiding at that point after fathering the miracle replicant baby, so it could be about him going off on some cool guy adventures, but Deckard doesn’t exactly seem like a guy who goes on cool guy adventures. Ryan Gosling’s K probably wasn’t 'born' yet, since he’s a Nexus-9 replicant and those weren’t created until later in the 2030s, but we don’t know for sure."

Perhaps supporting characters from both movies, "like Edward James Olmos’ Gaff (he might still be an LAPD cop) or Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace (he’s definitely hanging around, being an evil rich guy)," will show up. Whatever happens, the thirteen episodes of Blade Runner — Black Lotus will certainly have no small amount of both familiarity and surprise in store for fans of Blade Runner, as well as those of Watanabe's other work. That goes especially for his philosophical space bounty-hunter series Cowboy Bebop, itself the source material for a new live-action television series on Adult Swim, who will air Blade Runner — Black Lotus at the same time as it's streamed on anime site No release date has thus far been announced, but odds are the show's debut will happen some time in 2019 — the perfect year for it, as everyone thrilling to the prospect of more Blade Runner already knows.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Andy Kaufman Creates Mayhem on Late Night TV: When Comedy Becomes Performance Art (1981)

While there are many styles of comedy, the contract between comedian and audience is a fairly standard one. The comedian endeavors to get laughs. The audience understands that sort of currency, and is eager to lavish it on deserving candidates.

The late Andy Kaufman wasn’t much interested in that sort of exchange.

His comedy was experimental to the point of performance art, and often felt experimental in a scientific sense as well. When he read long passages from The Great Gatsby to comedy club audiences, went after professional wrestlers twice his size, or insisted he’d found Jesus and gotten engaged to a Lawrence Welk Show singer, it was as if he was conducting a stress test. How much disorientation would an audience put up with?

He was a genuine weirdo. The genius kid who seems hellbent on winning the animosity of his classmates with his cryptic remarks and odd behavior.

Knowing young comedy fans who idolize prankster Sacha Baron Cohen’s shapeshifting stunts may find it hard to appreciate just how unsettling the off-kilter Kaufman could be.

Witness his 1981 guest spot on Fridays, a rival network’s short-lived attempt to duplicate Saturday Night Live’s success.

In the sketch above, Kaufman wanders pretty egregiously afield of expected conduct. In an era where guest stars appeared not infrequently bombed out of their gourds, it wasn’t entirely surprising that one might appear confused, or have trouble reading cue cards. But Kaufman seemed to be making a deliberate choice to scupper his career, or at the very least, the goodwill of Fridays’ cast and crew, by refusing to play along in a sketch about restaurant patrons sneaking off to the bathroom to get high.

“I can’t play stoned,” he breaks character to announce, mid-scene. Hmm. Seems like the kind of thing one might bring up during the table read. An a-hole would wait till dress rehearsal, when such a move would for sure inspire the enmity of cast and crew. Kaufman waited till the sketch was being taped in front of a live studio audience.

But then, Kaufman’s experiments needed an audience to succeed.

As with Sacha Baron Cohen’s elaborate ruses, it helped to limit the number of people who were in on the joke.

Actor Melanie Chartoff recalled how she and Kaufman’s other two scene partners, Mary Edith Burrell and Seinfeld’s Michael Richards, were tipped off fairly late in the process by producer/announcer Jack Burns, who was thrilled to snap up the live wire whose antics had permanently burned his bridges with Saturday Night Live:

Andy's gonna bust out of the show tonight," he gleamed. "He's gonna mess up and break the fourth wall from the top of the monologue. It's gonna be great. It's gonna kick our ratings through the ROOF!

And so it did, abetted by benighted crew members who sprang to provide back up, when a furious-seeming Burns stormed the set as if to kick the ornery guest star’s ass.

But the piece de resistance came the following week, when producer John Moffitt went on air to satisfy the public’s need to know, confessing that the stunt was indeed a fake and piously suggesting they should take it as a reminder of the “spontaneity of live television, something that rarely happens in this basically passive medium today.”

Then Kaufman—who genuinely hated that his sleight of hand had been revealed—turned on Moffitt for the halting, miserable, and seemingly forced 4 minute apology below.

When the live audience laughed delightedly, he lashed out, insisting that his previous week’s actions were about to cost him his gig on the hit sitcom Taxi, all future roles, a number of friendships, and his marriage.

Never mind that he was unmarried.

This comedian played a long game, and easy laughs were never the goal.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this December for the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the next monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch David Bowie Take MTV to Task for Failing to Play Music Videos by Black Artists (1983)

The old vaudeville phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” has its roots in the late 19th century, specifically in Horatio Alger’s novel Five Hundred Dollars; Or Jacob Marlowe’s SecretLike all of the books Alger wrote extolling the virtues of thrift, study, grooming, industry, etc., this one articulates a middle American bootstraps philosophy and rags-to-riches mythology, while giving the entertainment industry a colorful way to sum up the small-town audiences who embraced Alger’s straight-laced ethic, and who needed to be pandered to or they wouldn’t get all those big city jokes and references.

Peoria has been many places in the U.S.—from Tulsa to Boise—but whatever the test market, the assumptions have always been the same: the American mainstream is insular, middle class or aspiring to it, culturally conservative, unfailingly white, and fearful of everyone who isn’t. Such demographic dogma has persisted for over a hundred years. Even when it is shown to be outmoded or plain wrong, broadcasters and journalists continue to play to Peoria, genuflecting to a static, populist version of the U.S. that ignores large, rapidly changing segments of the population.

In the early eighties it took an Englishman with a very high profile to interrogate this state of affairs on the air. You may have seen the interview making the rounds in 2016, after David Bowie passed away and social media began several months of mourning and memorializing. One thread that got a lot of attention involved the transcript of a 1983 interview Bowie gave the fledgling MTV, in which he “turns the tables on reporter Mark Goodman,” writes Takepart’s Jennifer Swann, “to grill him about the youth-oriented network’s lack of ethnic diversity.”

“It’s a solid enterprise, and it’s got a lot going for it,” says Bowie. “I’m just floored by the fact there’s so few black artists featured in it. Why is that?” On the spot, Goodman reaches for a marketing term, “narrowcasting,” to suggest that the network is deliberately targeting a niche. But when Bowie keeps pushing, Goodman admits that the “narrow” demographic is the very same supposed mass market that existed in Alger’s day, when the only representations of black entertainers most white audiences in Peoria (or wherever) saw were in blackface.

We have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest. Pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces, or black music. We have to play music we think an entire country is going to like, and certainly we’re a rock and roll station.

What does the Isley brothers, asks Goodman, mean to a seventeen year old? To which Bowie replies, “I’ll tell you what the Isley Brothers means to a black seventeen year old, and surely he’s part of America as well.” To the defense that it’s just way things are, especially in radio, he gives a reply that might be derided by many in the readymade terms that routinely pop up in such discussions these days. Bowie, who successfully crossed over into playing for black audiences on Soul Train in the mid-seventies, would have sneered at phrases like "SJW." As he says in response to one young fan who ranted in a letter about "what he didn't want to see" on MTV: "Well that's his problem."

The Peoria effect, says Bowie, “does seem to be rampant through American media. Should it not be a challenge to make the media far more integrated, especially, if anything, in musical terms?” The “lines are beginning to blur,” Goodman admits. At the end of that year, Michael Jackson’s John Landis-directed “Thriller” video debuted and “changed music videos for ever,” breaking the primetime barriers for black artists on MTV, transforming the network “into a cultural behemoth,” as Swann writes, and giving the lie to the Peoria myth, one Bowie knew had little to do in actuality with the country’s culture or its tastes but with a narrow, archaic view of who the media should serve.

See Goodman's full interview with Bowie just above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A New Christmas Commercial Takes You on a Sentimental Journey Through Elton John’s Rich Musical Life

The Bitch is Back…or is he?

Yes, Elton John is spending the next couple of years bidding adieu to fans on his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road world tour.

And yes, there’s a soon-to-be released biopic, Rocketman.

On the other hand, there’s the ridiculously pneumatic two-minute television commercial above, upscale department store John Lewis’s attempt to best rivals Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer in the unofficial British holiday advert bowl.

These annual productions are as hotly anticipated as Superbowl ads, but this year's entry, in which viewers travel backwards in time nearly 70 years to the three-year-old Elton (née Reginald Dwight) receiving a (SPOILER!) piano from his granny, has proved a bit of a misfire.

Viewers are flocking to social media to lambast the ad for inadvertently suggesting that Elton John is the reason for the season. (Popular subjects from Christmases past include Paddington Bear, penguins, and boxer dogs.)

There’s also a bit of cynicism surrounding the fact that John Lewis hustled to add digital keyboards to its inventory prior to the release of “The Boy And The Piano”…

And then there's the rumor that Sir Elton took home £5 million for his participation in the four day shoot.

Several of the star’s most outré looks have been faithfully recreated, but, Christmas aside, it’s hard not to feel that this portrait is rather too sanitized. You won’t find any friends rolling ‘round the basement floor here. His dad, an RAF officer with whom he had a thorny relationship is similarly stricken from the record. There's nary a whisper of drugs or diva-esque behavior.

As columnist Stuart Heritage notes in The Guardian before offering a hilarious alliterative script in which Sir Elton screams profanities, flings vases, and badmouths Madonna:

Elton John isn’t a great pop star because he sings songs about little dancers, crocodiles that rock, and being able to stand up. No, Elton John is a great pop star because he is knotty and complicated and, well, a bit of a dick sometimes.

A number of spoofs have already cropped up, and naturally there’s a Making Of, below—also set to "Your Song"—wherein the young actors who embodied Sir Elton at various stages of his life and career, sometimes with the help of prosthetics, hold forth.

Also… while we don’t dismiss out of hand the possibility that sentimental attachment could have caused Sir Elton to hold on to his childhood piano, we’ll eat our platform boots if that’s what constitutes his Christmas tree.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this December for the 10th anniversary production of Greg Kotis’ apocalyptic holiday tale, The Truth About Santa, and the next monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Get a First Listen to David Lynch & Angelo Badalamenti’s Long-Lost Album, Thought Gang

All of David Lynch's movies, television shows, music videos, and commercials — and also his paintings, photographs, and comic strips — express a consistent, and consistently Lynchian, vision. But that vision depends on more than just the visual: the sonic has also played a vital part in its development at least since the nightmarishly intricate sound design of Lynch's 1977 debut feature Eraserhead. And just imagine how much impact later Lynch projects like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, The Straight Story, and Mulholland Drive would have lost without the rich and often haunting scores of Angelo Badalamenti, a composer with whom Lynch has worked at seemingly every opportunity.

Lynch made his own official debut as a recording artist seven years ago with Crazy Clown Time, and this November he and Badalamenti will release their first collaborative album Thought Gang. According to its Bandcamp page, this "esoteric jazz side­ project of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti evolved from the seeds of Twin Peaks’ trademark slow cool jazz and blossomed into more experimental pastures: horizonless vistas of acid­-soaked free­jazz, laced with spoken word narratives and sprawling noisescapes." If that sounds good to you, you can get a first taste of the album from the track "Woodcutters From Fiery Ships" above.

The Thought Gang sessions happened 25 years ago, between the end of Twin Peaks' second season and the production of the Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk with Me. Out of those sessions came a quantity of music that Lynch describes as "sort of like jet-­fueled jazz in a weird way... but it’s all based on stories.” Two of those tracks, “A Real Indication” and “The Black Dog Runs at Night,” appeared on the soundtrack of the movie, and two others, "Frank 2000" and "Summer Night Noise," (as well as the instrumental mix of another, “Logic and Common Sense”) feature in Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired on Showtime last year. More connections to Lynch's other work surface in "Woodcutters From Fiery Ships," beginning with its title, which adorned a Lynch-themed, seemingly never-developed CD-ROM game twenty years ago.

Much of the Lynchian imagery that fills the song — talk-sung by Badalamenti himself, who, says the Bandcamp page, summoned "such a violent laughter­-fueled excitement from Lynch that he literally induced a hernia" — may also sound familiar. A character called Pete "saw the girl next door take off her clothes last night and walk through her house nude." At a diner, "he heard a man say that the doctors had cut him down his neck and into his chest." A "grey man with big ears lit a big cigar" and "smoke drifted over Pete's apple pie." Badalamenti at one point declares that "things aren't making sense. For instance, why is that boy bleeding from the mouth?" True fans will recognize that line as the title of one of Lynch's paintings. And so the grand Lynchian project continues, somehow getting both weirder and more coherent all the time.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

One Second from Each Episode of Twin Peaks: Experience David Lynch’s Groundbreaking TV Drama in Less than a Minute

Even if you watched Twin Peaks during its original broadcast on ABC in 1990 and 1991 and have never revisited the show since, you'll vividly remember a great many moments from it: some because of their emotional impact, some because of their aesthetic impact, and some because you had no idea what to make of them. But despite the incomprehension it famously caused its viewers, Twin Peaks nevertheless slowly and inexorably drew them into its reality: the reality of the eponymous small Washington logging town whose homecoming queen has been murdered and in which FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper has arrived to investigate.

David Lynch and Mark Frost planned it that way: people who tuned in week after week to find out who killed Laura Palmer would, in theory, keep watching even after that unsolved part of the story had long since faded into the background. But pressure from ABC eventually forced the creators to resolve that mystery, at which point even many die-hard Peaks-heads wondered whether the show had lost its way.

You'll see that period, as well as every every other, represented in the video above, which compresses the entire run of Twin Peaks — the thirty episodes of the original two seasons plus the eighteen episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, which aired last year on Showtime — into less than a minute, drawing one second from each episode.

Other respected television shows, like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, have undergone this treatment before. But to watch Lynch and Frost's groundbreaking drama as an assembly of particularly powerful individual seconds provides an entirely different kind of experience, one that may well bring back memories of surprise, confusion, hilarity, and even a kind of awe. Perhaps it doesn't allow you to inhabit the distinctive long-form Lynchian (and Frostian) vision in the way that the series itself does, but this condensed, single-shot version may well get you wanting to visit Twin Peaks again, whether you last visited 27 years ago or just yesterday.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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