TORONTO - Michael Jackson's "Bad" interested director Spike Lee for several reasons — the 1987 record found Jackson attempting the impossible task of topping his historic smash "Thriller," it was imbued with unruly sums of both cash and ambition, and it arguably marked the tail end of Jackson's creative pinnacle.
But Lee, who directed a documentary about the making of the album that will air Thursday night on ABC and CTV Two, says the 25-year-old record was intriguing for another reason: "Bad," he says, was Jackson's attempt at reaffirming his relationship with black fans possibly alienated by the pop icon's increasingly odd personal behaviour and gradually lightening skin tone.
"There was a definite plan (with) the powers that be to reconnect with black people with the 'Bad' album," the 55-year-old director said in a recent interview in Toronto. "The first video (for 'Bad') takes place in Harlem? Dealing with the Edmund Perry shooting? And you got Wesley Snipes up in there too?
"Michael did not do anything by accident," he added. "The five years between 'Thriller' and 'Bad,' there were black people who were like: 'Wait a minute.' So 'Bad' was (meant to say): 'I'm still here. Don't worry about me. I got you. I didn't forget who I am.'"
Not that Lee's own belief in Jackson ever really wavered.
That much is clear from "Bad 25," Lee's respectful — even reverential — documentary. Under the guise of a simple making-of doc (and there's plenty of in-studio nitty-gritty in the film, which takes a track-by-track approach to the material), Lee also seeks to shine a light on Jackson's famous work ethic, his sometimes-obsessive perfectionist streak and his chops as a writer, which Lee thinks have been overlooked.
"Great, great songwriter," Lee murmurs emphatically during this interview.
So Lee sets out to depict the long, long hours poured into making hits including the lithe "Smooth Criminal" and the album's funky title track.
Much of that work is depicted through thrilling archival footage. Fans will delight in clips of dance rehearsals where Jackson and his choreographers are uncommonly bent on innovation, in recordings of vocal tune-ups that find Jackson traversing his rarely heard lower registers and in time-capsule pleasures, like a 1988 clip of Sheryl Crow — buried under a wall of hair — crooning alongside Jackson on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You."
With stars including Justin Bieber and Kanye West gamely paying lavish tribute to Jackson's legacy, "Bad 25" is an overwhelmingly positive depiction of the King of Pop, who died in 2009 — and Lee makes no apologies for that.
"I think we state the purpose of the film at the very beginning (when) Michael Jackson says: 'I'm elated, I'm having a celebration.'... Very rarely, people get to see the hard work that goes into something.
"Well, 'Bad 25' shows you the hard work not just by Michael, but by the record company, by musicians, by (producer) Quincy (Jones), (recording engineer) Bruce Swedien — the hard work everybody put in to make an album that still sounds fresh."
The film also tries to shed light on Jackson's ambition, which is best illustrated in his all-consuming drive to top the record-smashing sales of his previous album, "Thriller."
While putting "Bad" together, Jackson adopted the habit of scrawling "100,000,000" on mirrors and notebooks, intending the graffiti as a constant reminder of the lofty sales goal he had in mind for "Bad."
Well, "Bad" managed to sell "only" around 40 million copies, a mark that Lee surmises must have disappointed Jackson.
"We showed that 100 million thing with his own handwriting — he wrote that everywhere. So in my opinion, he had to be somewhat disappointed that he did not reach that 100 million sales."
Meanwhile, former CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff attests onscreen that Jackson's goal was impossible.
"You couldn't tell that to Michael," Lee responded. "That's what made him so great. He didn't put limits on himself."
Part of the goal of "Bad 25" — not unlike the hastily made 2009 concert doc "Is This It" — seemed to be recalibrating the discussion surrounding Jackson to focus on his unsurpassed gift for pop rather than his erratic behaviour and circus of a family.
So it's not surprising that Lee steers completely clear of the scandals that signalled the gradual deterioration of Jackson's public image over the decades after "Bad."
"What's the point?" said the two-time Oscar nominee. "I mean, I think there's been far too much focus on that. When people choose that take — to me — I think that's the way to undermine his genius, undermine his artistry.
"I just wanted to focus on his art, his music."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the documentary aired on CTV rather than CTV Two