Call it one entertainment icon’s tribute to another.
When Michael Jackson’s classic release “Bad” debuted in 1987, Spike Lee’s filmmaking career was just starting to take hold. The director pays tribute to the fifth-best-selling album of all time — which yielded such singles as the title cut, “Man in the Mirror,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Smooth Criminal” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” — in the documentary “Bad 25,” which ABC gives a Thanksgiving night television premiere Thursday, Nov. 22.
Lee interviews such other Jackson collaborators as fellow moviemakers Martin Scorsese and Joe Pytka in creating a remembrance of how “Bad” came to be, utilizing archival footage that also recalls the global concert tour Jackson launched in support of the album. Results included sales of approximately 45 million copies and five chart-topping singles, a record tied only relatively recently by Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.”
“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X” maker Lee recently took a break from his New Orleans filming of what he calls a “reinterpretation” of the South Korean melodrama “Oldboy” (starring Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson) to speak with Zap2it about the making of “Bad 25” and his personal ties to Jackson.
Zap2it: How long had it been in your mind that “Bad” was coming up on its 25th anniversary?
Spike Lee: The original plan was to do [a commemorative documentary on Jackson’s album] “Thriller,” but the Jackson estate said, “Let’s wait on that, and let’s do this.” It was in conjunction with Sony, a whole big plan to remaster and re-release the album.
Zap2it: Did your personal connection to Michael Jackson make the making of “Bad 25” either easier or harder for you?
Spike Lee: It makes it easier as a filmmaker. I know the subject matter, and I know all the music. I was born in 1957, Michael was born in 1958, and Prince also was born in 1958. Who knew we’d all grow up together? I was in Brooklyn, Michael was in Gary [Ind.], and Prince was in Minnesota … and it’s amazing I got to work with them. And with Stevie Wonder, too.
Zap2it: How much say did the Jackson estate have in what you did with “Bad 25”?
Spike Lee: They had their opinions, and the studio (Sony) had opinions, too. [Those affected the filmmaking] not at all, not at all. They are the ones who chose me for this, so we have a great relationship.
Zap2it: Did you put a lot of thought into whether to do the project?
Spike Lee: When they asked me, I said “Yes” right away. I didn’t have to blink. I like challenges, but I also love what I do. I don’t really even consider it work. To me, it’s a joy and a treat to do something like this. Michael was, is, and always will be a part of my life — and I also know how much he meant to the world. There’s been a phenomenal response to the film all over the world.
Zap2it: You directed Michael in the music video “They Don’t Care About Us.” How was that experience?
Spike Lee: If I wanted to do something 100 times, he wanted to do whatever he had to do to make it perfect. He wanted to do art that would last a long while. He never called videos “music videos,” he called them “short films.”
Zap2it: When did you first meet him?
Spike Lee: The first time was at a dinner in New York where he was honored, and he got the award at the Waldorf-Astoria. To be honest, there was something like a million people there, so we just had a drink, and that was it.
Zap2it: Are you pleased with the way “Bad 25” is being unveiled to the public, with the ABC?television broadcast coming on the heels of showings at such film festivals as Venice and Toronto, then a limited theatrical run?
Spike Lee: I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was just trying to make the best film I could.
Zap2it: In making “Bad 25,” you handled some of Michael’s work with other directors, including Martin Scorsese. How was that process for you?
Spike Lee: Oh, it was great. It was a wonderful experience having Marty and Thelma [Schoonmaker, the longtime editor of Scorsese’s films] sit down in front of an editing machine and watch it. They hadn’t seen that footage in 25 years. I know Marty very well, so we had a lot of fun doing that.
Zap2it: How different is the television version of “Bad 25” from what you prepared for theaters?
Spike Lee: With TV, you have commercials, so it’s shorter. The theatrical version runs two hours and 11 minutes … and for television, it’s something like 64 minutes. [That editing was] painful, but that’s TV. At the same time, it’s being shown on ABC on Thanksgiving, so there will be a ton of people who will be in front of their televisions that night. I’m happy about that.
Zap2it: When “Bad” initially was released, your filmmaking career was just starting to take hold. Is there a significant connection between the two for you?
Spike Lee: Yeah. I was working on my second film, “School Daze”; “She’s Gotta Have It” had come out in 1986, but I’d been a Michael Jackson fan since I saw him on “The Ed Sullivan Show” with the Jackson 5. That was a long, long time ago.
Zap2it: Your earlier documentaries “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” and “4 Little Girls” got wide exposure on HBO. Do you enjoy your apparently ongoing connection to television?
Spike Lee: That’s where I really feel I have a home now, on cable. It means the world, because I would say they’re doing the most interesting stuff out there today, and there are more opportunities there than in feature films. And it lets me do the material I like to do.