Here together for the first time are 10 of the most groundbreaking music videos of all time! Michael Jackson’s short films take you on a wondrous journey through his incredible solo career. Experience his unforgettable music and visual images, from the horror movie magic of Thriller to the morphing miracle of Black Or White!
eyelights: Thriller. Beat It. Bad. Billie Jean. The Way You make Me Feel. MJ’s vocals. MJ’s moves.
eyesores: Rock With You. Don’t Stop ‘Til You get Enough. MJ’s physical metamorphosis.
In 1995, Michael Jackson, the self-proclaimed King of Pop, released a double-album set called ‘HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I’.
Its release was a predictably pretentious affair, taking over the videowaves for a time, and featuring MJ in a banana republic dictator-styled outfit, flanked by seas of soldiers and backed by a huge statue of his truly. It was meant to reaffirm his greatness but, in actuality, it felt rather desperate, a mark of insecurity by someone used to adulation.
You see, by that time, his claim to the throne was already in question. ‘Dangerous’, his most recent offering, had done relatively well, but paled in comparison with his previous one, ‘Bad’, which in turn had paled in comparison with its predecessor, ‘Thriller’. Combined with growing controversy around his unusual behaviour, his star seemed to be fading.
In came ‘HIStory’.
On the one hand a compilation of all his biggest hits (remastered for the first time), on the other a full serving of new material. It felt to me at the time as though it were a ploy to get people to listen to his new material: “We’ll give you all the hits on one disc, but you can’t have them by themselves – you’ll need to get the other stuff too”. Who’s being cynical?
Evidently, a companion video had to be released: Michael Jackson was one of the medium’s groundbreakers, along with Duran Duran. His elaborate and innovative short films had been some of the highlights of ’80s pop culture and were landmarks by which all subsequent videos were gauged. It only seemed natural to compile them all on a home video release.
‘Video Greatest Hits – HIStory’, didn’t feature all of his videos, nor were they in chronological order, but the key ones were indeed on there. Originally released on VHS tape and laserdisc, it was re-released on DVD in 2001. What makes the DVD release special is that the full-length versions of some of the clips replaced the short versions of earlier releases.
After watching ‘Arena‘, I was trying to think of something that was equally significant from a creative and/or pop cultural standpoint. The ’80s were a huge playground for music videos of all types, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should focus my attention on a few of the icons. And, if Michael Jackson’s short films don’t count as mini-masterpieces, then nothing does.
Thus, I decided to revisit ‘HIStory’.
(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)
1. Brace Yourself: This is nothing more than a 3-minute intro to this home video presentation. Backed by a recording of the über-dramatic “Carmina Burana”, the clip consists of footage of mobs trying to see MJ as he travels the world. Then, backed by soldiers, he runs up a walkway and there are short bits of his live performances through the years. Christ… when he was on top of his game, at the height of his powers, this guy was phenomenal, magnetic; it almost makes me want to watch one of his concerts. The bit ends with a pretentious “BRACE YOURSELF” punched onto the screen. Oh, sure: I’m hanging on to my drawers. 8.5/6.0
2. Billie Jean: Listen to that funky bass line! How can you not want to get your groove on to this baby? I love that it starts with a short echoey vocal from MJ; it adds mystery, drama. His vocals are fantastic here, smooth and edgy at once. The song has these great keyboard and funky guitar hooks that really embellish it. And that solo, backed by his vocals, is the perfect bridge. This is what blew the roof off for MJ. Can you imagine that it wasn’t even the first single? “The Girl is Mine” was the first!
The video starts in black and white and then switches to colour. Bizarrely, it’s framed in white down the centre of the screen. It begins with MJ walking down a set that looks like an urban street, lighting up the pave-stones as he steps on them – a simple, but cool effect. He’s flipping a coin, but decides to give it to a homeless man, who immediately turns rich, in a white tux. MJ is looking cool in his black leather jacket and pants, pink shirt and red bow tie. He’s already wearing the white socks with black shoes combo, a stylistic choice that will last for the rest of his career. He’s confident, strutting smoothly.
A snoop in a trench coat, hat and sunglasses is following MJ around, trying to take pictures of him. MJ makes his way to a back alley and up the fire escape to a motel room, getting into bed with an undisclosed individual. He disappears. The snoop gets caught trying to take a picture and is hauled off by the police. The video ends with a shot of the urban street: the pave-stones are lighting up in the opposite direction, suggesting that an invisible MJ and walking back from whence he came.
The video is simple but it’s very effective, and it was a standout at the time; it made an instant impression on viewers. Combined with the song, you couldn’t get better. 8.5/8.0
3. The Way You Make Me Feel: While the original starts off with a few introductory beats and then a groovy, heavy bass line, this is actually a remixed version that drags on the proceedings over the course of the 9-minute video. It’s a poor substitute for the original, which features a passionate vocal from MJ and hooky chorus, featuring female back-ups; this one feels diluted to some extent.
Unlike previous home video editions of ‘HIStory’, the DVD features the full 9-minute version of this film. It begins with a busy urban street scene, filled with hoods, cops, people arguing, …etc. Just another day in the ghetto, I guess. MJ gets into an argument with some guys and walks away. He’s accosted by an old man on a stoop, who asks him to sit and chat with him. He tries to impart upon MJ the notion of being his own person, of not trying to be like those other guys.
Then a gorgeous, but impossibly thin, doe-like woman walks down the street and MJ pays notice. He decides to go talk to her, but she ignores him. He shouts at her to get her attention, and he follows that up with some dance moves to try to impress her. He follows her around, acting all cocky. She eventually plays along and consults with her friends while he’s egged on by the guys. It culminated in an extended dance sequence at the end. Guess what? He wins her over eventually. Big surprise.
MJ’s vocals and performance are the driving force of this video – not the music, given that it’s a weak remix. His moves are more precise than ever by this point – you can see how he would eventually become almost robotic, as he did in ‘In the Closet’ 7.0/8.0
4. Black or White: This one starts with a guitar solo and a confrontation between a pre-teen and his father, who asks him to turn it down. Then the song starts, backed by a repetitious guitar riff and a few funky basslines. MJ sings about racial equality, telling the listener that it doesn’t matter if “you’re black or white”. The bridge, which has a rock vibe, has him shouting his outrage in an echoed voice, followed by a rap about the world’s problems before wrapping up. It’s an excellent lead single to ‘Dangerous’.
The video begins with an intro featuring Macauley Culkin as the kid who rebels against his father – played by George Wendt (of ‘Cheers‘ fame). It’s an amusing intro, but it feels childish, with Culkin bringing out a huge set of speakers and his guitar to blow his dad out of the house (in a scene not dissimilar to the opening of ‘Back to the Future’). MJ seems to be catering to a younger audience here, not unlike the way George Lucas suddenly did the same with ‘Return of the Jedi’ and ‘The Phantom Menace’.
The rest of the video is hard to keep up with because it features MJ dancing with all sorts of ethnic groups dressed in their traditional garbs and in a setting inspired by each their own culture – to the point of cliché or even caricature. The sets keep changing at an incredible speed. MJ, wearing his hair down, is dressed in a loose white dress shirt, opened to reveal his undershirt. he’s also wearing an arm brace. At the bridge, he comes out of a wall of fire, followed by the rap, which is lip-synched by Culkin on the steps of a brownstone, surrounded by other kids.
Then came the morphing sequence that wowed most viewers at the time, which has a multitude of people singing the final part of the song to the same choreography and morphing into one another. Clearly, MJ was trying to connect with as large an audience as he could with this video; there are few people who were left unrepresented, on the whole. Well, maybe seniors. But who cares? They don’t buy CDs anyway. Kidding. The thing is that the video strives to be so much that it becomes slightly overwhelming, utterly distracting.
This version of the video is the controversial “Panther” version, as directed by John Landis, which continues after the morphing sequence. At the end, when the panther walks through the set, it then morphs into MJ who goes onto a set that looks like an urban street and begins a solo dance sequence with no backing music. Most of it is a showy tap dancing number, but there’s a lot of crotch-grabbing, a new trend of MJ’s. This contrasted wildly with his family-friendly image – which he was clearly trying to sustain.
That caused some controversy, but there was also objection to the violence that MJ expresses after seeing some racist graffiti, wherein he trashes a parked car. Again, this may be a question contrast, given that he aimed the video at kids, too. For some reason, the graffiti was removed for the VHS version of this release. Did they keep the violence? If so, then it would make absolutely no sense, as the graffiti justifies his aggression. Anyway, the video ends with a short bit of ‘The Simpsons’. Again, trying to everything to everyone. 8.0/8.25
5. Rock with You: This is a middle-of-the-road, disco-tinged pop song; it’s fluff. It isn’t a particularly excellent song by any standard, but MJ’s vocals really shine through and takes it up a level. I’m sure it was popular on the dance floor back in 1979, but, if I recall correctly, it wasn’t even the best material off of its corresponding album, ‘Off the Wall’.
This is a very ’70s disco video, with MJ in a sparkly jump suit, dancing to a rudimentary light show. There’s really nothing to it, and his presence isn’t quite honed yet, so if it wasn’t for his voice this would be entirely forgettable. 7.0/6.0
6. Bad: A huge hit and the lead off to MJ’s new album, ‘Bad’, this one starts with a dramatic keyboard intro that emulates a horn section; it was meant to attract attention and introduce the world to the “new” Michael Jackson, not just physically (he’d changed colour and had had a few surgeries), but attitudinally: he was announcing that he was badder than the rest, challenging everyone’s perception of him as a softie. Even his vocals have an edge to them that shows some defiance. The song sounds a bit lightweight now, but its bass breakdown remains interesting and it had some great beats. Obviously, the key feature is MJ’s vocals, which include the affectations that would become his trademarks.
“Bad” was the first time most of us saw the new MJ, and it was a creepy sight: the album cover itself was a shocker: he looked white, was made up like a girl and was virtually unrecognizable. The video was equally shocking because it starts in black and white and MJ looks nothing like he used to; with all the colour stripped out of his face, all that was left was his bone structure and facial features. And, frankly, this could have been almost anybody else – it certainly wasn’t the MJ from ‘Billie Jean”, “Beat it” or “Thriller”.
This DVD features the full-length, 18-minute version of the video, as directed by Martin Scorsese (the VHS had to short version). It begins with MJ leaving a posh private school, after receiving praise from a colleague, and taking the train back to his old hood. It’s relatively contemplative, showing all sorts of characters, many of whom are visibly poor. By the time he gets back to his old haunts, it’s nothing like the the world he had just left: his friends are just hanging around, and his home is empty, his mom being at work.
He ends up hanging around with his old friends (the leader of the gang is played by Wesley Snipes) and gets pushed around for not being one of them anymore. Under pressure, he agrees to assist in mugging an old man at a deserted subway station. He changed his mind at the last minute, though, and this causes conflict with the others, who then accuse of no longer being bad. MJ takes the challenge on and, with the sudden backing of a dozen or so hoods (who come out of nowhere), he proceeds to showing them off to his song.
Now in colour, the resulting choreography is intricate, along the lines of “Thriller”, with the dozen back-ups joining in with MJ. He’s not as showy in his moves: it’s mostly about the group effect. He also goes into an a capella section after the song, which is backed by the dancers, and it feels almost like an improv. It’s a bit convoluted, but it’s good. Obviously, by the video’s end, MJ and Snipes make up. The video was written and choreographed with inspiration from ‘West Side Story’ and it generally works. 8.0/8.0
7. Thriller: The titular track of the world’s biggest-selling album, and a monster single at the time. Sadly, this is a remixed version of the original song, evidently to fit the lengthy video it accompanies. It has longer instrumental stretches, moves Vincent Price’s speech around, and it takes its sweet time to get to the chorus, turning the track into an extended number for the benefit of the dancers in the video. It’s still a remarkably good track, especially when one considers how perfectly it was tailored for the video, but the album version is more fun to listen to.
This is the classic, full-length 14-minute short film, as directed by John Landis (of ‘An American Werewolf in London’ and ‘The Blue Brothers‘ fame). It’s a ground-breaker and is considered by many as the greatest music video of all-time precisely for how innovative it was. Not only were videos never made like short films before (they obviously didn’t have the massive budget Michael Jackson could afford by then), but established film directors also did not make music videos back then. ‘Thriller’ was also inducted in the National Film Registry in 2009, the first (and only, so far!) music video to receive this honour.
‘Thriller’ opens with an homage to ’50s teen movies, with MJ and his date (played by gorgeous Playboy centerfold Ola Ray) stuck in the woods in a car that runs out of gas. He apologizes to her and they agree to walk back together. After a short while he asks her to go steady and gives her a promise ring. He tries to tell her of a secret that he harbours, but the full moon interrupts his confession and he transforms into a werewolf. Frightened, Ray runs away, through the woods, but the werewolf catches up to her. I love this bit because it breaks stereotypes; this is not a setting we would find African-Americans in. Even their clothing is pretty white-bread.
The film continues after the attack, taking us to a cinema. MJ is eating popcorn excitedly, clearly enjoying the picture. Ray, however, is very uncomfortable and asks to go. He doesn’t want to, but she leaves anyway. After a few moments’ consideration, he follows her out. As they walk out of the cinema, the extended remix of “Thriller” begins to play in the background. He playfully begins to sing to her the main body of the song, to tease her about being scared of the horror film. She is amused by this, and they walk through the empty streets together, passing by a cemetery along the way – to the sound of Vincent Price’s eerie narrative section.
Continuing along on their merry way, they are unaware that the undead are rising from their graves behind them, a rather memorable sequence. Unfortunately, they are soon surrounded by these ghouls in the street. They don’t know what to do, and at one point Ray turns around to see that MJ is one of them – a pretty punchy reveal (especially given MJ’s amazing undead make-up – the best of the lot). MJ then proceeds to doing an elaborate choreography with the other ghouls to the chorus of “Thriller”, which had been thus far held back in the remix – a superb combination if ever there was one. What restraint!
Eventually, Ray runs to the nearest safe place, a derelict, deserted brownstone. Unfortunately for her, the ghouls are on her tail, and they break through the door, the floorboards, and come after her. Then she looks again and she’s in MJ’s house. He offers her a lift home and they leave – but not before he looks back at the camera and we see his werewolf eyes, and Vincent Price cackles maniacally. Even at this length, and having been played to death (pardon the pun), this remains a truly entertaining music video. Sadly, it would be the only one like it in MJ’s repertoire: he regretted having made it afterwards, as it conflicted with his religion. 8.25/9.5
8. Beat It: The third single from ‘Thriller’, this is one of the biggest hits of the ’80s, and an utterly unforgettable tune, this one starts with these sort of electronic gongs, adding drama to the piece – it’s a unique calling card that can never be repeated. The beats are light on this one, dancier, but the track is given a lot of heft by the edgy guitar work and the solid bass groove. MJ’s hooky vocals carry it all the way through from start to finish, though – there isn’t a moment that you’re not hanging onto every word he sings.
The video starts in a late-night diner and takes us to the streets as two rival gangs start to gather for a showdown. MJ is first seen lying on top of his bed, singing the tune. He gets ups and leaves to go join the gangs, sporting his iconic red leather jacket with the zippers and silver shoulder designs. He pretty much sings and dances his way to the confrontation, stopping by the diner and a pool hall the gangs met in. As the switchblade duel between the two gang leaders begins, MJ arrives, intervenes and proceeds to start a choreographed dance routine which the gang members join into.
It’s a simple video, but it’s totally iconic, a classic. It has a feel of authenticity, partly because it was filmed on location instead of a set, but also because it involved actual gang members as the extras. I also like that MJ’s moves are stylish, but not excessively complex, because it’s not too showy – it’s just enough to impress without taking away from the rest of the video. This guy was really at the top of his game at this point – not necessarily as a dancer or as a singer, but overall. He had that charisma. But it’s hard for me to watch it without thinking of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s spoof. 8.5/8.5
9. Remember the Time: This one is a pretty standard dance number, a little soft around the edges; it’s apparently classified as a new jack swing number, whatever that is. It starts with a groovy bass breakdown, but there’s not much to this song other than layers of production work. It’s a very catchy tune, chiefly due to the vocal harmonies, but it feels superficial, maybe somewhat incomplete, in some ways. It wasn’t a knock-out follow-up to “Black or White” and it’s not surprising that was just a mild hit.
This 9-minute video, which was directed by John Singleton (of ‘Boyz N the Hood’ fame), is an Egyptian-themed, CGI extravaganza. While it takes place on only one or two lavish sets, it features Eddie Murphy, Iman and Magic Johnson in a short film about Ramses trying to entertain his Queen. All the performers fail to amuse her: the stickman is sent to the lions and the fire-eater is beheaded. Then comes in a robed figure, who throws some magic beads onto the floor, steps into them and disappears – only to reappear, reformed as MJ.
MJ performs his song for the Queen, which suggests that they’d known each other before and had had a love affair. Her attention has finally been drawn, but the Pharaoh is not amused and he has his guards chase MJ, who escapes to the courtyard and mingles with the locals. He later makes his way back to the palace and meets with the Queen. They kiss. Then a dozen men and women come out for an elaborate, extended choreography, at the end of which Ramses and his guards arrive. MJ smiles at them, does a quick spin and disappear.
This is exactly what I was on about with “Beat it”: by this point in his career, MJ was far too showy and it detracted from the experience. The abundance of “wow factor” basically negates much of it. When everything is loud, it all becomes noise; you need nuance to create excitement. So, although I enjoyed the video the first time around, I soon tired of it and stopped paying attention. The same thing that happened to the song: at first I enjoyed it, likely because of its placement on the album, but it didn’t last. 7.0/7.5
10. Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough: MJ’s first single from ‘Off the Wall’ and his first #1 in many years, this groovy disco-funk number is really infectious. While this song doesn’t make the most of MJ’s voice or his brand of vocalisms, it’s got some really interesting musical arrangements; this is clearly played by a band and not something that was cobbled together by producers. It’s vibrant, alive, and must have been a huge draw on dance floors.
This is a very rudimentary video, though, featuring MJ in an ill-fitting tuxedo, with swirling images behind him or crudely inserted on cheap backgrounds. His dance moves are not elaborate but they’re good; he’s looser, more natural here. The only thing that makes this video noteworthy, really, is that at one point he dances with two copies of himself – this is pretty cool because, in making it work, it shows how precise he could be. 7.25/6.0
11. Heal the World: Pretty much a spiritual sequel to “Heal the World”, but not as poignant, it has an idealistic message and a catchy melody that are sort of neutered by its saccharine musical backdrop. It’s a real shame because it aspired to be so much more, but we had already heard this before – plus which it came out in a more cynical time, so this only likely played well to select audiences. You know… children and grandmothers.
This is one of the only videos in which MJ doesn’t appear. It begins with jerky footage of children in orphanages, followed by a young girl reading a few lines to introduce the song. The video mostly consists of the contrast between children playing in poverty and adults in war zones and in various conflicts (including the KKK). Then the children come out to join these adults and they drop their weapons. The video ends with a candlelight vigil of some sort.
I’ll have to commend MJ for not showing up in this one because it let the message speak for itself. However, having said that, it felt trite and heavy-handed to me. I can’t really watch the video, although the song is decent enough. I probably would have preferred something a bit more subtle. But, MJ wasn’t about subtlety, was he? 7.75/6.5
Watching these short films, it’s hardly surprising that Michael Jackson became the legend that he was; you could barely outdo him as a performer, and he had a presence that was unmatched, an unmistakable star quality. When he blossomed as a solo artist, there was no one else like him; he had unique characteristics that made him an idol to millions.
But then there’s the dark side of the equation.
It’s hard to put together the messages that he conveyed in his songs with the image of him that has been portrayed in the media. I realize that images are honed, and that the naked idealism that he infused his songs and videos with could very well have been manufactured, but he hardly comes across as the creep that many claim he was.
Of course, it’s also hard to wrap your mind around the images of him in his younger years compared with those of him in his later years. Seriously, someone could have replaced him between ‘Thriller’ and ‘Bad’ and no one would have been the wiser. Or between ‘Bad’ and ‘Dangerous’, really – visually, there is no correlation between those Michael Jacksons.
In my estimation, anyone who is willing to morph themselves to such a degree could easily have as much a chameleonic personality as their look. So who’s to know what went on behind closed doors, what really laid at the heart of Michael Jackson’s psyche? We may never known the truth, given how much interference there is from the many invested parties.
The fact remains that many of his videos are culturally relevant and are small masterpieces of the genre. Some the accompanying songs are classics in the same vein as those of The Beatles, immeasurably popular tracks that will transcend generations. It’s just a shame that there is so much stigma attached to him, forever tainting his art.
Truth be told, even in writing this blurb I felt a smidge of worry that I would be perceived as an apologist, as though just talking about his art would give the impression that I condone any of the grotesque acts that he’s been accused of. I had to fight the urge to make that a central discussion, to even offer a disclaimer before getting started.
It’s f-ing horrible, because, for many of us, there are tons of fond memories attached to his music. Many of us grew up with Michael Jackson firmly ensconced in the cultural landscape, popping up at every turn. We followed his every move, tuned in for every new release and development and watched him transform into the so-called King of Pop.
Now we want nothing to do with him and, thus, with all of it – and, consequently, our memories. We’re turning our back not just on his history, but a piece of ours as well.
Date of viewing: April 29. 2014