Michael Jackson’s Music Videos

On the night of Michael Jackson’s death, my girlfriend, roommates and I watched a DVD called Michael Jackson: Number Ones (which I had picked up at the site of another recent demise: the closing of the Union Square Virgin Megastore). The disc itself is not at all a definitive portrait of Jackson’s career as a groundbreaking video-maker – though it does have alternate cuts of certain videos and includes the 10-minute version of “You Rock My World,” all of which are absent from either of the more complete Jackson DVD collections, HIStory on Film, Volumes I and II (which I don’t own). But despite its technical shortcomings, it serves as a welcome survey of the Gloved One’s video work.

The DVD runs chronologically and starts with two tracks from Jackson’s debut on the Epic label (and the album a lot of folks wrongly assume was his solo debut), Off The Wall. “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” sound dated in a way that doesn’t detract from them at all, but the songs’ videos are laughably low-rent, with cheeseball chroma-key effects and laser light backgrounds. Only at one point during “Don’t Stop,” when three Michael Jacksons appear onscreen and dance a few a steps in unison before going into separate moves, is there a sense of the magic Jackson would pull off through the medium of video – especially those he would do a few years later for the songs from his breakthrough album Thriller.

My girlfriend had never seen the “Billie Jean” video and, as it played, she asked me what I thought of the different cuts and video effects (I’m also a director and video editor). My reply was that I couldn’t be critical. After all, this was “Billie Jean.”  This video has been on TV more frequently in my lifetime than The Wizard of Oz or A Christmas Story. At this point, “Billie Jean” is a given. But still, you can see that Jackson was trying to push the envelope with a more cinematic creation, even if some of the cheap-looking attempts at flashiness common to early music videos still linger. And it’s obvious that although he was playing it humble in his acting, the fact that Jackson can light up the sidewalk or anything he touches in the video already points to the narcissism that would contribute to his eventual downfall.

“Beat It” is another step closer to making Jackson’s videos resemble short films. The obvious model here is West Side Story and director Bob Giraldi succeeded in making this paean to replacing knife fighting with choreographed dancing look simultaneously gritty and goofily stylized. “Beat It,” like the later video for “Bad,” is a little hard to take seriously – not only for its shameless flip-flop between reality and dance-fantasy land, but because one can’t help but think of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s spot-on moment-by-moment parody of the video, “Eat It.” Even though it’s not there in Jackson’s version, when the gang members start to fight, it’s near-impossible not to picture a rubber chicken in their hands.

“Thriller” is, needless to say, the absolute high point of Jackson’s video-making career and – as music channel Top 100 lists have been saying for years – is probably the best music video ever made. Unlike later attempts to fashion a story around Jackson’s songs (which usually involved an elaborate set-up paid off with Jackson simply singing at a woman and dancing), “Thriller” actually has a decently written story that pays tribute to classic horror films with equal parts reverence and offbeat cheekiness. This is certainly the contribution of director John Landis, making a companion piece here to his comic horror flick An American Werewolf in London. Plus “Thriller” contains the most famous dance recorded on film since Gene Kelly sang in the rain, where Jackson trumped his own unlikely image of dancing gang members with dancing zombies.

For the next album, Bad, Jackson tried to top the “Thriller” video by getting Martin Scorsese to direct, and novelist Richard Price (Clockers) to write, the video for the title track. And while these pro filmmakers slathered on a good deal of artsiness (the 13-minute black and white story portion of the video), it just feels like padding. I wasn’t disappointed that the Number Ones DVD chose to go with the short version of “Bad,” because the dancing is the real show. My girlfriend noted that Jackson seemed to be more at home with his own moves by this point and was just cutting loose. There are only two things that detract from this one: 1) The bizarre sound effects whenever Jackson whips his hand around (which again brings to mind Weird Al’s spot-on parody in the “Fat” video); and 2) Jackson’s unconvincing attempts to appear…well…bad. After all, this is the high-voiced guy who busted out crying at the end of singing “She’s Out of My Life.”  Putting on a vaguely fetish-y leather get-up for this video does not make him tough. It doesn’t help either that this is the first glimpse of “white” Michael. Watching “Thriller” and “Bad” back to back, you can see that Jackson still basically has the same Jheri curl but with a significantly new face underneath. In 1987, it seemed possible to deny it; now, it seems like the first sign of decline.

The rest of the videos included from Bad are tossed together with seemingly little care.  “The Way You Make Me Feel” features Jackson essentially stalking a woman up and down a street, singing and gyrating at her, while his male friends cheer him on like lechers. The video features a lot of crotch-grabbing – which became as signature a move for Jackson as the moonwalk – but it ends with a chaste hug. This display of unleashed, then repressed, sexuality is immediately followed awkwardly by the video for “Man in the Mirror,” which is just clips of harrowing news footage eventually giving way to images of hope. It’s an okay way to treat the song, but a choice that causes the video to feel distractingly like a public service announcement. Then comes the blurry radio-edit version of “Smooth Criminal” from the end credits of Jackson’s feature film Moonwalker (unfortunately out of print in the US). Needless to say, the full nine-minute version from the body of the film, which features Jackson as a 30s gangster singing and dancing and shooting up a juke joint with a tommygun, would have been preferred. And then there is a fairly generic pseudo-live version of “Dirty Diana” where Jackson and a band mime to the track in front of an arena audience, after which Jackson goes backstage only to find Diana waiting there for him (!).

There is only one video included from Dangerous, presumably because there is a different DVD devoted solely to that album. Unsurprisingly, the video included here is “Black or White” (although I’ve always preferred the star-studded clip for “Remember the Time,” even if it is basically just another video where Jackson dances and sings at a woman).  The message of interracial tolerance in “Black or White” was obviously dear to Jackson’s heart, although with his continued use of plastic surgery to lighten his skin color, the song’s title prompted the inevitable response: “So which are you, black or white?” “Thriller” director John Landis was back on hand for this video, although at this point he had morphed from the John Landis known for directing The Blues Brothers and American Werewolf in London, to the John Landis who would be known for directing Blues Brothers 2000 and The Stupids. Once, Landis was able to make an amusing horror narrative into a timeless masterpiece, but here he can’t even keep things coherent. The video begins with Macaulay Culkin rocking his guitar so loud that it blasts his dad to Africa and ends with Jackson turning into a panther and smashing a racist car to bits with a crowbar while grabbing his crotch and yelling. The Number Ones DVD avoids the uncut version and goes with the more common TV ending, which leaves out the car-smashing/crotch-grabbing. It’s probably just as well, since Jackson is probably the only one who fully understood what he was trying to say with that ending.

Next, Number Ones offers some videos from HIStory but not “Scream,” the only video from that album that is widely remembered, for its overblown computer-generated, Kubrick-inspired spaceship of mischief, inside which Michael and his sister Janet Jackson got to behave like the overgrown brats they were. Instead there is “You Are Not Alone,” a wonderful ballad ruined by imagery of Jackson’s china-doll-white skin revealed in half-naked poses next to his tanned former wife Lisa Marie Presley, who was frankly five shades darker than him in the video. There is also “Earth Song,” which comes from the same cautionary place as “Heal the World” and “Man in the Mirror,” and depicts Jackson singing in a burnt-out apocalyptic forest. As with “Man in the Mirror,” however, the video ends with a vision of hope, as the earth is returned to its former glory.  Of course, it only does so through the use of computer-generated magic, implying either the intervention of a Higher Power or at least the man who was able to light up the sidewalk by walking on it.

By the time the penultimate video, “Blood on the Dancefloor,” played, my girlfriend noted that Jackson had pretty much stopped dancing more than a few steps in the videos. It was true. Even the song that had “Dancefloor” in the title features more shots of Jackson sitting than moving. Knowing that he had died of a heart attack at 50, I could only assume that even 10 years ago, Jackson’s body was no longer as reliable and sturdy an instrument as it had once been.

The final video on the DVD is for “You Rock My World,” and it is included in a slightly shortened version that effectively makes the barely coherent story of the video even less so. Mostly, it’s a mishmash of a bunch of older videos: bizarre famous people cameos (as in “Remember The Time”), period costumes (“Smooth Criminal”), Jackson proves his toughness by busting some moves, backed by a dancing gang (“Bad”), and Jackson stalks the object of his affection with song (“The Way You Make Me Feel”). It comes off as slipshod as the surgery which left Jackson with a sliver of a nose for this video. Oddly enough, the song was one of his best in about a decade or more and deserved much better visual treatment. Not even Chris Tucker could lighten the proceedings, but he gave it a shot, reminding viewers of the “Bad” video by telling Jackson to “Chamone!”

Watching this DVD, one is struck not only by the visible transformation of Michael Jackson’s appearance, but by how his ambition as a videomaker led him from creating a few great videos to one masterpiece, with a ton of glorious, expensive misfires afterward and in between.

To say that this trajectory mirrors that of his career or even his life might be a bit pat. Or it might just be true.

by Justin Remer