Every subgenre needs its classic, and so Spike Lee's Bad 25 is what amounts to the greatest Behind the Music episode of all time. Frenetically paced, ingeniously constructed and brimming with hilarious anecdotes, the look back on the creation of 1987's Bad (the one that had the enormous task of following Thriller), elevates the rock doc to an art form. At over two hours in length, what could have felt like a bloated obituary is unmistakably alive. Although it's unlikely that it would have been assembled were it not for the death of its primary subject, Bad 25 proves that Jackson's legacy has nearly made him immortal.
This movie gave me a new respect for an album I have listened to more times than I could possibly estimate and have grown to dislike over the years. I'll always prefer the warmth, clarity and weirdness that defined the early, more analog-driven part of the ‘80s over the flabbier last half of the decade, but Bad's craftsmanship, as elucidated by Lee's film, is undeniable. Its cultural significance is most clearly underlined via the insight of ?uestlove, one of the film's stable of talking heads that also includes Kanye West, L.A. Reid, collaborator Siedah Garrett (her Blossom hat is worth the price of admission), Mariah Carey (who, in a role she sometimes plays in her songs, is just a giddy pop music fan here), Justin Bieber and journalists Nelson George, Danyel Smith and Jason King. ?uest refers to Bad as black pop's first stadium album. He calls the underwhelming duet with Stevie Wonder, "Just Good Friends," Bad's "coffee break." He draws the line from James Brown's catalog to the Bad track "Speed Demon" since virtually all of the instruments involved are used for percussive purposes. If you didn't know before, now you do: The Roots' drummer is among the greatest cultural critics of his time.
Kanye, meanwhile, has a tremendous bit about "Smooth Criminal" ("I never quite understood who Annie was. And why does it matter if she's OK?"). There is a motif of gentle Jackson teasing that makes the veneration feel human and modern. Richard Price, who wrote the screenplay for the 18-minute, Martin Scorsese-directed "Bad" short film, snorts, "He goes to the Italian asthmatic and the Jewish asthmatic to make him a homey." Throughout, Jackson's engaging with and deviating from culture's expectations of him as a black man/musician is handled with nuance and compassion. It's not surprising that Lee could achieve that type of portrait (clearly, he gets it), but it's so satisfying nonetheless.
Lee uses Bad's songs to discuss different facets of Jackson's legacy. "Smooth Criminal" handles his dancing, for example; "Leave Me Alone," frames the section on Jackson's public image; "Man in the Mirror" intertwines with reflections on Jackson's death (the song experienced a surge in popularity after he died). As much as I appreciated the irreverent tone of the movie, I found the montage of tearing-up people whose lives Jackson touched to be incredibly moving. It's only at the end of the film that this sense of sadness joins the pronounced emotions flowing within the discussion of Jackson's work – as a device, this makes the great cultural loss of Jackson resound better than any discussion of his death has until this point.
The film features a host of archival footage. Some of it is in the form of old interviews — Quincy Jones, weirdly, does not appear to have been interviewed for this movie and his comments (and abstract Bill Cosby sweater) are vintage. There's amazing and hilarious footage of Jackson being goofy while imitating the California Raisins in expressive detail or lamenting the constraints of his endlessly buckled "Speed Demon" costume ("I wish I could [move]. I feel so limited. This stuff is so tight on me."). It's all so humanizing for a figure who kept the most vulnerable aspects of himself hidden from public view.
Bad 25 is playing in limited theatrical engagements this week and next in advance of its Thanksgiving airing on ABC. I saw it in a theater in New York's East Village on Saturday that was filled with vocal fans (they booed Bieber every time he was on screen – I barely heard a word he said). One guy maintained a running commentary that was almost as loud as the film's soundtrack, but he was ejected from the theater within the first quarter of the film. The woman who sat in front of me, nodding emphatically any time anyone made any point and then did spirit hands during the climax of "Man on the Mirror," was allowed to remain throughout, but at least she was quiet.
The rest of the audience sang and clapped and made their love known, albeit in less distracting manners. "It's a jubilation, really," is how Jackson described the release of his album. A quarter of a century later, it still is.