Review originally published September 11, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto Film Festival.
Hello. My name is Jordan Hoffman, and I am one of twelve people on God's green earth who holds no particular fondness for Michael Jackson. I own only one of his albums, "Off the Wall," and, frankly, I borrowed that from an ex and never returned it. (Dear Mindy Silverstein, if you are reading this, I'm sorry.) The point is this: if a film can bring me to tears — TEARS — by a performance of "Man in the Mirror," a song I normally roll my eyes at when I hear it at CVS, a song that reflexively fires my "change the station" maneuver on the car radio, this is an indication that something special is going on.
Spike Lee's "Bad 25" is, on the face of it, nothing too removed than one of those "Classic Albums" programs that used to air on VH1. Songs are discussed one by one, with tidbits about the recording and writing, and sometimes the mix is finagled so we get to focus on what the bass player is actually doing. "Bad 25," however, is a Spike Lee film. While his off-camera voice is only heard once in a while, and to great effect, the collage of clips and talking head interviews burst with an exuberance worthy for a subject who called himself the King of Pop.
"Thriller" or the early Motown Jackson 5 era may seem like a juicier topic of focus, but "Bad" proves to be quite fertile ground. "Thriller," a worldwide cultural phenomenon if ever there was one, left Jackson with an impossible act to follow. The record executives suggested he do an album of covers to give him some distance. Instead, Jackson and collaborator Quincy Jones dove straight into the deep end, looking to represent every musical genre, creating what ?uestlove calls the first album of stadium music by a black artist.
With incredible access to Jackson's estate, "Bad 25" shows just how involved he was in every aspect of the album, from writing, recording and producing, as well as the business. For Jackson, of course, an album wasn't just the music. It was the style, choreography and "short films" that accompanied each track.
A great number of music videos were created for "Bad," so it provides plenty of doc-ready source material. Some may be surprised to recall that the title track's video was directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Steven Prince. Both are on hand, along with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, to provide detailed commentary. "Bad" is the first track to get analyzed in "Bad 25," and it's here where you'll see what kind of film this is — "Bad 25" celebrates the man by focusing on the work.
Jackson's drive is made evident through phone messages to collaborators, rehearsal videos shot all through the night and copious notes to self from his diaries. The influences are as diverse as Mavis Staples, Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire and "The Third Man." It is impossible not to feel tremendous respect for this artist.
Jackson's life is full of sadness, too. His collaborators (some famous, some not) all describe his inability to live a normal life. His idiosyncrasies aren't dismissed, but they are put in context. Try to dance a mile in his shoes.
Lee breaks from the standard talking head doc format in discussing Jackson's death. Everyone — and the list of boldfaced names is as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Justin Bieber, Will Vinton and Greg Phillinganes, to just scratch the surface — gets a moment just to bear witness. It is fascinating portrait of grief, a "where were you" collection of anecdotes like those that people trade about the Kennedy assassination or 9/11.
This is followed by an analysis of "Man in the Mirror," bringing an enormous weight to the story of that important anthem's birth. "Bad 25" concludes with a live, complete performance of the song from Wembley Stadium that, I swear, was one of the more emotional moments I've had in a theater all year.
No one needs more hagiographic documentaries about famous people. "Bad 25" isn't that. It is one of the most energetic and sublime investigations into the creative process put to film. Non-fans will be enthralled. Actual fans will be ecstatic.