When Martin Scorsese Directed Michael Jackson in the 18-Minute “Bad” Music Video & Paid Cinematic Tribute to West Side Story (1986)

In 1983, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the biggest album in the world, and he was the biggest pop star. And then he was expect­ed to top it. But could he? The mount­ing pres­sures of fame and mon­ey, his falling out with his fam­i­ly over the Jack­sons tour, and his per­fec­tion­ist sta­tus as a musi­cian meant the fol­low-up album kept being pushed back fur­ther and fur­ther. He became more reclu­sive and strange-look­ing, and went from being a sex sym­bol to being the butt of jokes. And in the back­ground of all that was his increas­ing addic­tion to pain killers, which had start­ed after a mal­func­tion­ing pyrotech­nic burned his scalp to the bone.

Mean­while his clos­est com­peti­tor, Prince, had been releas­ing an album a year since 1999. And, in 1986, as this Spin pro­file men­tions, the two met for an odd, most­ly-silent “sum­mit.” What­ev­er was said, it spurred Jack­son to final­ly fin­ish his next album.

Jack­son had worked with John Lan­dis on the “Thriller” video, and then with Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la for Cap­tain EO, but for the title track off of his come­back album, he hired Mar­tin Scors­ese to direct, work­ing from a script by Richard Price. Scors­ese and Price had just worked togeth­er on The Col­or of Mon­ey, and the latter’s script was orig­i­nal­ly about a pri­vate school kid who gets killed in a Harlem shootout. A lot of that is still there in the fin­ished full video, although the mur­der is not. Instead, Jack­son turns the “Bad” music video into some­thing mul­ti­lay­ered.

For Scors­ese it allowed him to mix the street real­ism of his clas­sic New York City tales, and to indulge in a musi­cal num­ber with its sev­er­al nods to West Side Sto­ry. Scorsese’s orig­i­nal film clocks in at over 18 min­utes and it takes until half-way for the music video to begin, when the black’n’white real­ism gives way to col­or, and typ­i­cal NYC win­ter wear turns into b‑boy dance attire, includ­ing Jackson’s black buck­le jack­et. Chore­o­graphed by Jack­son along­side Gregg Burge and Jef­frey Daniel, with input from Geron ‘Caszper’ Can­di­date, the team cre­at­ed a per­for­mance that is a col­lage of styles, from Jerome Rob­bins’ musi­cal the­ater dance to moves from the days of Soul Train (Daniel and Burge had both been fea­tured per­form­ers), to Jackson’s own idio­syn­crat­ic moves. Scors­ese was there to cap­ture it all with his always-mov­ing cam­era.

Also of note is the debut of Wes­ley Snipes, play­ing the antag­o­nist Mini Max. There are few actors who can take a sec­ondary role in a music video and make it stand out, but Snipes’ per­for­mance was so pow­er­ful, audi­ences and cast­ing direc­tors took notice.

And while most broad­casts of the video end with the final line of the song, the orig­i­nal film ends with a most amaz­ing sequence. Jack­son sings a capel­la, while his back­up dancers repeat his impro­vi­sa­tion, a call and response straight out of gospel music, caught on three cam­eras in one take. This scene, even more than the sur­round­ing video, is Jack­son plac­ing him­self in the his­to­ry of Black enter­tain­ment, call­ing up the pow­er of James Brown and Mavis Sta­ples (from whom he got “sha­mone”) and numer­ous oth­er singers. It was the rawest he had even been, and you can see all the ten­sion of those four pre­vi­ous years spill out. He wasn’t a freak show or an oddity—he was part of a tra­di­tion that reached back through the 20th cen­tu­ry, a lin­eage that the doc­u­men­tary makes clear.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

How Michael Jack­son Wrote a Song: A Close Look at How the King of Pop Craft­ed “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

The Ori­gins of Michael Jackson’s Moon­walk: Vin­tage Footage of Cab Cal­loway, Sam­my Davis Jr., Fred Astaire & More

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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