The subject of Spike Lee's latest documentary is a legendary talent who was better known as a tabloid figure in the last two decades of his life. But with Bad25 -- an in-depth look at the creative process behind Michael Jackson's 1987 album on its silver anniversary, airing Thursday (ABC, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT) -- the director re-introduces us to the staggeringly gifted young man the world knew before all the circuses and scandals.
"For too long, people focused on that other stuff," Lee says. "When you do that with an artist, you do it to the detriment of the art. I think people are beginning to refocus on Michael Jackson's music now."
Lee spoke with numerous musicians, choreographers and filmmakers who collaborated with Jackson on Bad, among them one of Lee's heroes and close friends, Martin Scorsese, who directed a short film for the album's title track. There's also archival footage of Jackson -- in an interview, in the recording studio, shooting videos and performing on tour -- and commentary from stars who worked with or were influenced by him, among them Sheryl Crow (Jackson's onetime backup singer), Mariah Carey, Kanye West and Questlove.
"People at the top of their fields make it look so easy," Lee says. "You think Michael Jordan came out of the womb dunking, or Frank Sinatra was born with that voice. But it doesn't happen like that -- these people bust their (butts). Michael Jackson sang for his supper from the time he was five."
Some of those interviewed reflect on the toll that a life in show business might have taken on Jackson, and the pressure that Bad specifically posed in following 1982's Thriller, which 30 years later remains the best-selling album of all time. But the emphasis is on Jackson's artistry. "Sheryl Crow said he could change the molecules in a room," Lee notes. "I never heard a description like that. But it's very apropos."
Lee didn't fulfill his wish list for the documentary entirely. "I really wanted to get Quincy Jones," who produced Bad as well as Thriller and its predecessor, 1979's Off the Wall. "But we couldn't work it out with his schedule, so we had to use archival interviews." Lee also sought out Wesley Snipes, who appeared in Scorsese's video for Bad. "I visited Wesley in prison," where the actor is currently serving a three-year sentence for failure to file federal income tax returns, but Lee wasn't granted permission to shoot. "It's too bad, because he has some amazing stories."
Though Lee himself worked with Jackson, directing a pair of short films for the pop star's single They Don't Care About Us in 1996, he never considered adding personal insights. "We weren't close -- I'm not going to front. He was going through some things then."
Veteran music journalist Alan Light, director of programming for PBS' Live From the Artists Den, nonetheless thinks Bad25 is a good fit for Lee, "who started emerging as an artist and media figure around the time Bad came out. And Spike Lee takes on ambitious themes; he looks at big questions -- and Michael Jackson obviously poses big questions."
Bad25 already earned acclaim at this year's Venice and Toronto Film Festivals, where it was shown at its original length of 131 minutes. The ABC cut is about half that, but a full-length DVD is expected early next year. Meanwhile, Lee is grateful for the attention that the TV special will afford his work and its subject.
"Of all my documentaries, this one will be the most watched ever," Lee says. "Thanksgiving night in America? That's huge. All families, all races will be watching. I'm happy that ABC came forward."