“Thriller” may be the biggest-selling album of all time, but 1987’s follow-up, “Bad,” represents Michael Jackson’s career peak as pop’s master craftsman. A blockbuster melange of Motown, metal, hip-hop, world and gospel influences, bound by trailblazing production, “Bad” has stood in its predecessor’s shadow too long, and Spike Lee convincingly makes the case for reassessment with this exhaustive and entertaining if less-than-penetrating docu on its creation. A stronger tribute to the musical monarch’s creative persona than 2009’s hasty hit “This Is It,” lengthy pic won’t do the same platinum business, but could be a lasting hit in ancillary.
Though the film is, of course, branded upfront as a Spike Lee joint, the straight-ahead treatment of “Bad 25” betrays less of the firebrand filmmaker’s touch than much of his nonfiction work. Barring the occasional jovial quip from behind the camera, his personality is largely muted so as not to impose on that of Jackson, with whom Lee enjoyed a firsthand friendship.
This inevitably means that those looking for a more critically perspicacious view on Jackson’s output will find themselves in the wrong place. (Among the exec producers, after all, are Jackson’s attorney John Branca and his co-executor John McClain.) Even devoted interviewees, however, can admit to certain artistic miscalculations on “Bad,” such as the missed opportunity of lackluster Stevie Wonder collaboration “Just Good Friends,” or the curious choice of MOR ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” as the propulsive LP’s lead single. One of several fascinating trivia nuggets unearthed by Leigh in the film is that the song was initially conceived as a Whitney Houston duet; when the soul diva, another prematurely departed pillar of 1980s pop culture, presents Jackson with a career tribute in a choice bit of archive footage, the cutting poignancy of the moment is left astutely unspoken by Lee.
Indeed, no narration is necessary at any point, since the upside of Lee’s closeness to his subject – and, of course, his individual clout – is that he’s been able to assemble a teeming ensemble of top-drawer talking heads, from name enablers like super-producer Quincy Jones and “Bad” video director Martin Scorsese to longtime entourage members to such celebrity fans as Mariah Carey and a typically boisterous Kanye West. The latter contingent adds youth appeal to this silver-anniversary nostalgia piece, though one wonders if Lee is sometimes cheekily using them to further flatter his subject: When current teen phenom Justin Bieber mentions that Jackson’s video for “The Way You Make Me Feel” was an influence on his own hit “Baby,” the artistic disparity between them is politely implicit.
Though very much a gathering of a one-way admiration society, “Bad 25” is refreshingly uninterested in celebrity mythos, focusing principally on the practical and physical nuts and bolts of Jackson’s talent as a songwriter, producer, dancer and vocalist. (Another archive rarity that will thrill fans is a recording of one of Jackson’s vocal coaching sessions.) In this regard, Lee’s unstylish but methodical structure for the docu — moving through the album on a track-by-track basis, the cinematic equivalent of highly detailed liner notes – proves an asset. Even the requisite montage of interviewees’ “where was I when … ” reactions to Jackson’s death is attached to a specific song, the self-realization anthem “Man in the Mirror,” which proved the biggest radio hit from his catalogue in the immediate wake of his passing. As such, weepy sentiment isn’t allowed to overwhelm the dominant spirit of musical celebration.
Tech package is equally uncomplicated, though Barry Alexander Brown’s crisp editing deserves much credit for preventing this minutiae-packed film from feeling overstuffed. Concert footage is limited to a few electric selections from Jackson’s 1987 Wembley show, which are sufficiently galvanizing to prove one collaborator’s smart observation that “Bad” stands as “the first black stadium album.”