VENICE – In a strangely programmed day at the Venice Film Festival — no competition films are premiering, so we’re feeling the effects of the slimming-down of the lineup this year — so Spike Lee is enjoying the plum screening spot with his music documentary “Bad 25.” It played for the critics this morning, and had its grand outing this evening, following a ceremony where Lee was presented with the festival’s Jaeger-Le Coultre Glory To The Filmmaker Award.
It’s the start of what should be a busy publicity trail for the film, a thorough, track-by-track study of the making of Michael Jackson’s mega-selling 1987 album “Bad” — marking, as depressing as this is to contemplate, the 25th anniversary of its release. (How did we ever think we could live so large and get so old?) The film will also play as a Special Presentation at the Toronto Film Festival, and ushers in a lavish reissue of the album itself on September 18, with all manner of bells and whistles. Meanwhile, Lee’s two-hour-plus film will be televised by ABC on Thanksgiving in November — though whether that precludes any form of theatrical distribution in the US, I haven’t yet worked out. (It’ll surely see the inside of a few more theaters internationally.)
It’ll certainly make good holiday viewing for all loyal subjects of the late King of Pop. I’m not in a position to write a review of the film here, having already done so over at Variety. So permit me, as self-serving and this may be, to quote my own review:
“Thriller” may be the biggest-selling album of all time, but 1987’s follow-up, “Bad,” represents Michael Jackson’s career peak as pop’s master craftsman. A blockbuster melange of Motown, metal, hip-hop, world and gospel influences, bound by trailblazing production, “Bad” has stood in its predecessor’s shadow too long, and Spike Lee convincingly makes the case for reassessment with this exhaustive and entertaining if less-than-penetrating docu on its creation … Though very much a gathering of a one-way admiration society, “Bad 25” is refreshingly uninterested in celebrity mythos, focusing principally on the practical and physical nuts and bolts of Jackson’s talent as a songwriter, producer, dancer and vocalist.
The film was very warmly received at this morning’s screening: The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney raves that it’s “a sensational snapshot of the peak of the music video as art form, as well as the intricately layered process by which superior pop is crafted,” while The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw agrees that Lee’s “exuberant reverence for the lonely King of Pop is contagious… It’s impossible to watch this film without a great big smile on your face.” Some are less excited, and the film doesn’t aim to reinvent any wheels. It’s a straightforward compilation of archive footage, trivia and all-star talking heads (the Bieber generation has been catered for); it’s a testament to Jackson’s art, not Lee’s.
Though the ABC airing will surely secure it a dream audience — funny to think that’s it on course to become the most widely viewed film of Lee’s career — it’d be a bit of a shame for it not to receive the same cinematic treatment as Kenny Ortega’s more rushed, less insightful box office hit “This It It” in 2009. Meanwhile, the TV appearance takes the film right out of the Oscar picture — not that the Academy ever takes even the best of examples of such pop-oriented documentaries seriously.
Either way, after the largely indifferent reception for “Red Hook Summer” earlier this month, it’s heartening to see a semi-kinda Spike Lee joint — and one he’s clearly invested in emotionally — earning some love. It could be his best turnout since 2006’s superb “When the Levees Broke” — which also premiered in Venice before winding up on American TV. Non-fiction really seems to be where his head’s at these days. Nice for Venice, too, that their career achievement award coincides with a credible film.