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.
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.