Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking dance routines and unique vocals have influenced generations of musicians, dancers and entertainers for decades. He was one of entertainment’s greatest icons, and like most gifted individuals he was always pushing boundaries, reinventing himself, and testing his limits. The New York Times once described him as one of the six most famous people on the planet, but I’d like to up the ante by saying, he was the most famous person on the planet. Of his many achievements, Jackson helped elevate the music video, turning it into an art form with complex story lines, never-before-seen dance choreography, elaborate special effects and famous cameo appearances. And while he developed some of the greatest music videos of all time, it wasn’t always easy for him. At first Jackson struggled to receive coverage on MTV because he was African American. Pressure from CBS Records persuaded MTV to start showing his videos Billie Jean and later Beat It on regular rotation. This led to a long time partnership between the channel and Jackson, and helped break down racial barriers. With his rise from star to superstar, Jackson helped other black musical artists gain recognition, and the popularity of his videos helped to put the relatively young MTV on the world map.
His biggest accomplishment, and most famous of these examples was Thriller, a 14-minute short film featuring choreographed zombies performing alongside Jackson himself. The campy horror-fest was directed by John Landis who had previously directed the hit film An American Werewolf in London, and was choreographed by Michael Peters who worked with Jackson on his previous video Beat It. The video contains a spoken word performance by horror film veteran Vincent Price, co stars former Playboy centrefold Ola Ray and features the famous red costume made by Landis’ wife Deborah who later told the Wall Street Journal that she wanted to make an outfit for Jackson that would make him “absolutely pop off the screen,” especially during the famous graveyard dance sequence. The short was shot on 35-mm, includes expensive sets, multiple shooting locations and impressive dance choreography. Landis would also call in a favour from American Werewolf in London collaborator Rick Baker (the Oscar-winning makeup artist behind the creature effects) and ask him to design Jackson’s man-to-werewolf transformation. Incidentally, the short also contains original music by Elmer Bernstein, the man who composed the score to Werewolf in London.
The video’s high-in-demand reception, whipped up by multiple daily showings on MTV, and would more than double album sales, driving Thriller to becoming the biggest selling LP of all time, a record it still holds to this day. And in January of 2010, it was designated a national treasure by the Library of Congress, the first music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry.
The video set new standards for production, having cost $500,000 to shoot – only Landis and Jackson were given $100,000 to work with, so producer George Folsey Jr. came up with the brilliant idea of producing a behind the scenes documentary about their video that they could sell to the networks to help finance the project. MTV and Showtime both bought the rights to air the documentary for $250,000, each providing Landis the money he needed to shoot his original vision.
Landis had decided he wanted to crush Jackson’s asexual image and wanted Jackson to satisfy his young female audience by giving him a girl – something missing in his previous videos Billie Jean and Beat It. Landis would write a story line inspired by the ’57 Gene Fowler pic, I Was a Teenage Werewolf in which Michael would go on a date with a young attractive girl in two separate time periods, the 50s and 80s. As the 50s guy, Michael would be the shy, polite, boy-next-door type, before transforming into a werewolf under the full moon. As the 80s guy, he would dazzle her with his cocky attitude and seductive dance moves before turning into a ghoul and terrorizing her across town.
Thriller has become a part of global pop culture, replicated everywhere from Bollywood to the Philippines. After its release, music videos would never be the same again. The Thriller short film firmly cemented the notion that videos could be something more than just commercials for singles. The result here, is an exciting film full of gothic imagery, and one that still holds up decades later.
– Ricky D