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Michael Jackson’s 20 Greatest Videos: The Stories Behind the Vision

The most important visual artist in music history, remembered by the directors he collaborated with

No single artist has shaped, innovated or defined the medium of “music video” more than Michael Jackson. The popularity of MTV itself was rocketed into the stratosphere by a clip so good that it defied antiquated, racially biased ideas of rock music programming. The iconic directors behind decades of cinematic masterworks – The Godfather, Raging Bull, Do the Right Thing, Boyz N The Hood, The Social Network – can all claim his as a collaborator. And 13,597 people in Mexico City didn’t break the world record for dancing to Prince now did they? Here are his 20 best, with stories of how they came to be. By Christopher R. Weingarten

Additional reporting by David Browne

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20. “Jam” (1992)

Michael Jackson and NBA superstar Michael Jordan were the most dominant performers on Earth circa 1992 – how would they work together? "We didn't really chitchat," says director David Kellogg. "It was easier just to play the music and let them go – either dance or play basketball. It was so loud that they couldn't really talk, so they had to let the music tell them how to behave."

David Kellogg, director: We found this rat-infested, abandoned, bombed-out armory in a neglected neighborhood in Chicago. I think it was the Southside. Somewhere near where the Bulls play. The production went into the neighborhood under the guise of a mayonnaise commercial. Neither the police or the landlord really knew what we were planning. Michael Jackson arrived in a motor home. We built a tunnel for him so he couldn't really be seen entering the building. It was followed shortly by Michael Jordan, who drove himself. 

They're arguably the best physical performers in each of their areas of performance. And that was sort of the charm of it, really. How can these two guys that are really great physical performers be so inept at the other's form? Michael Jackson was not a particularly good basketball player, Michael Jordan wasn't a particularly good dancer. Michael Jackson just went in kind of wanting to have fun. My takeaway was that I never saw basketball the same way since. Basketball players are just dancers running around in a choreographed and improvised routine with a prop, doing spectacular acrobatics before a large audience of pumped up fans. 

At one point [Jackson] had the flu or something. He would be sitting hunched over in the corner with his head hanging in his hands, and waiting for us to get our act together with the lighting. He did not look well and I thought we would have to cancel. But when it came time to shoot he pulled it together in such a remarkable way. We'd crank the music and he would step up with such passion and energy and snap that, honestly, it would send chills up my spine. Where did this come from? Standing 0 feet away from this was inspirational. What feats are we capable of? We're griping about standing on our tried feet and lunch break, and this guy goes from zero to 100 with the flip of a switch. 

As long as he was having fun, everybody else seemed to be having fun. He just wanted to have water balloon fights and Super Soakers and run around. That was who he was.

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19. “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” (1979)

Director Nick Saxton had a knack for showing up early – he was a production assistant on George Lucas' first full-length film, 1971's THX 1138, and he shot the very first Michael Jackson solo video, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." A director who loved syncing film to the rhythm of music (or what he called, in 1981, "synchro-cinema"), Saxton filled "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" with bursts of light that streamed when the beat dropped and angles that would switch on a snare crack. From today's perspective, and compared with future Jackson extravaganzas, the special effects used in 1979 were crude and embryonic. But the video is an early example of Jackson mixing new technology, fresh moves and old-Hollywood style: When he dances with himself, he updates Gene Kelly and presages Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime."

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18. “Remember the Time” (1992)

Director John Singleton masterfully turned from the human drama of Boyz N the Hood to this stunning, CGI-laden Egyptian fantasy. "[Michael] said, 'Whatever you want to make this as cool as possible, let's do it. Let's get Eddie Murphy. Let's get Magic Johnson,'" says Singleton. Johnson had recently revealed he was HIV positive. "Michael said, 'We have to put Magic in this video.' I'll always remember that."

John Singleton, director: When I first met him I didn't feel nervous because I kind of felt all my life was leading up to that moment. As a fan, he was always in my life. I was 15 years when I went to the Grammy Awards and saw him win all his Grammys at the Shrine. He asked me, "What songs do you like?" and if I wanted to do a video. And I said, "OK, well, can we put black people in the video?" [Laughs] I was challenging him. And he said, "Whatever you want." He was cool with me because I was straightforward with him, and I felt that everybody was always goose-stepping around him and never telling him the real deal.

 On the set he was mischievous. My choreographer in that video was Fatima Robinson, and the three of us got together and she did the routine with him. It was really a great vibe. Just seeing how he would get every little move, bit by bit by bit, the whole routine, like we were putting on a Broadway show. He said, "Whatever you want to make this as cool as possible, let's do it. Let's get Eddie Murphy. Let's get Magic Johnson." Magic Johnson was going through his thing where he'd just revealed he had HIV. Michael said, "We have to put Magic in this video." I'll always remember that.

He was a very visual guy. They weren't videos to him. They were short films – visualizing the funkiness of what he was trying to accomplish in the music. He was always trying to set the bar higher.

 

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17. “She’s Out of My Life” (1979)

It was 1979, many years before Sinéad O'Connor and D'Angelo would garner critical accolades for stark, one-take performance videos, but Jackson was already ahead of schedule, plumbing the emotional depths of Off the Wall's most passionate ballad. It's Jackson at his most stripped down and raw, showing him capable of carrying a highly intense video before anyone even started thinking about zombie makeup or CGI spaceships.

Bruce Gowers, director: What you're seeing on there is one complete take, it was shot multi-camera. [This and "Rock With You"] were both shot on the same day. I think we shot one at like three in the afternoon and one at 5… Very emotional he was in that. I was worried that he was actually going to break down and cry – which would have probably been a bit wonderful if we got some tears rolling down the face. That almost happened but not quite.

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16. “Man in the Mirror” (1987)

"He was just bawling," says director Donald Wilson about the first time Michael Jackson saw an unfinished cut of "Man in the Mirror." "He walked out of there and just reached for me and hugged me." With raw footage of hunger, war, homelessness and racial violence – and just one shot of Michael – the video was a powerful statement to deliver to personality-driven MTV.

Donald Wilson, director: Larry [Stossel, Epic exec] told me Michael wanted to do something real heart-wrenching and tell a story, and could I go meet with him. This was the day after Thanksgiving. We met in the attic of [Jackson manager] Frank DiLeo's home in Encino – even just the attic was a palace. So, Michael and I sat down and just started making a list of things that we could think of. I had two or three hand-written pages of ideas. Michael wasn't the kind of guy who told you what to do, he would inspire you to go do it with his backing.

I went to all these places that have archival news footage and say, 'Give me all your worst stuff.' And by the end of the day, I'd looked at dead bodies and massacres and famine. After a while, I would go to a bar – immediately. It was brutal.

I probably had 200 hours of footage. My goal kind of was, if you could take the video and play it in reverse, it starts from the planet out in space and then a child in an incubator and then young children; and by the time you get to the end of the video, all hell's broken loose. It's just sort of man's laziness about doing things. I'm gonna make this thing out of 80 percent news footage that people have already seen and they change the channel because it's too hard to watch, or it's too boring. I'm gonna use the same stuff and make them go, 'Wow, I've never seen that before.' Oh yeah, you have.

Before Michael passed we were actually thinking about doing an updated version. I would have hated to do it and not be better, which is kinda the reason I didn't go for it. That thing was so magical in a weird kind of way.

 

15. “Captain EO” (1986)

Director Francis Ford Coppola and producer George Lucas helped imagineer the sci-fi epic to "Thriller"'s horror fantasy – a 17-minute special effects extravaganza realized in 3-D at Disney World's Epcot theme park — not to mention plush toys of Fuzzball in the gift shop. "With three strong creative voices involved – Lucas, Jackson and Coppola – it was no surprise Captain EO ran over budget," said Disney's then-CEO Michael Eisner, who claims the final budget was 17 million. "The biggest factor was special effects, some 150 of them, more per minute than Lucas had used in Star Wars."

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14. “They Don’t Care About Us” (1996)

Jackson cold-called acclaimed director Spike Lee three times to direct "They Don't Care About Us" – Lee hung up twice because he didn't believe it was MJ on the line. Recalled Lee, "I said, 'Mike, let's go to Brazil to do this.' And he said, 'Let's go, Spike!' And it's great when you work with people who say stuff like that." The pair traveled to Salvador da Bahia and the Rio de Janeiro favela Dona Marta – in 1996, a center of drug activity that would be literally transformed by the colorful performance clip. "This process to make Dona Marta better started with Michael Jackson," said Claudia Silva, press liaison for Rio's office of tourism. "There are no drug dealers anymore, and there's a massive social project. But all the attention started with Michael Jackson."

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13. “Say Say Say” (1983)3

"Paul was terribly insecure about appearing next to Michael, in terms of dance," said "Say Say Say" director Bob Giraldi. "And who wouldn't, if you're going to go onstage and be choreographed next to Michael Jackson?" For the superstars' first and only video together, Giraldi envisioned "Mac and Jack" as Old West scammers, selling cure-alls and performing vaudeville routines. Paul even danced. "In all my years of working in film and commercials, I've worked with some of the worst divas and superstars of all time," said Giraldi. "Paul and Michael were not that."

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12. “Can You Feel It” (1981)

Conceived and written by Michael, this Jacksons clip was an ambitious production from Robert Abel & Associates, the special-effects team that worked on the 1982 sci-fi movie Tron. Some of its visual feats include tidal waves, explosions and the Jacksons towering over a city, spreading glitter and rainbows. Toward the end, a crew of actors helps provide a visual to lyrics like, "All the colors of the world should be/Lovin' each other wholeheartedly." Said Questlove about seeing it on Soul Train, "I was confused 'cause I never saw a video in which the makers of the song didn't sing the song in their video."

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11. “In the Closet” (1992)

"It's not about outrageous sets and 50 dancers this time," said director Herb Ritts. "It's really about bringing Michael's energy out in a new way." With Jackson's curls confined to a tight ponytail and his wardrobe little more than an undershirt and jeans, this is the most sexually charged performance of his career. Ritts, who died in 2002, was an acclaimed fashion photographer who had shot everyone from supermodels to world leaders – including Jackson for a 1992 Rolling Stone cover. Here, he got pop's most kinetic body to cavort in the dusty desert with a young Naomi Campbell.   

10. “Who Is It” (1995)

Before becoming an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, David Fincher was one of the most in-demand directors of the MTV era. His collaboration with Jackson foretells the elegant, sinister, uncompromising style he'd bring to his movies. The gorgeous video, in which Michael falls for a high-priced escort and stares sadly at the city skyline, survives on video anthologies and has racked up 6 million YouTube plays. "To me it was very simple: Either we agree on what we're gonna do or we don't," said Fincher about working with musicians. "But, I'm not gonna trick you into doing something you don't wanna do." 

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9. “Black or White” (1991)

Lions, Bart Simpson, Michael turning into a black panther, and Macaulay Culkin battling Norm from Cheers – "Black or White" was an explosive hodgepodge. Jackson's requests for production equipment were excessive. "Michael, why do you want all this?" said John Landis, who returned to the video director's chair for the first time since "Thriller." Jackson responded, "Well, maybe we'll get an idea." Jackson's crotch-grabbing, car-smashing dance moves caused a scandal, and the famous "morphing" sequence cost $100,000 and took a month. Landis says, "Now, of course, you can buy the software at Best Buy and do it on your laptop."

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8. “Leave Me Alone” (1989)

"For most directors, when they were done shooting the live action, they were kind of done," says Jim Blashfield, who directed "Leave Me Alone." "We had just begun." Blashfield's "absurd process" for the clip meant a three-day shoot with Jackson, followed by a nine-month animating trek. Commissioned to do a video on "Michael's idiosyncrasies," Blashfield and his team of animators shot Jackson on 35mm film, had those images turned into stills, then cut figures out with X-Acto knives and layered them by the dozens. The playful, self-aware results sent Jackson through a fun house of tabloid rumors that added another level to the song's anti-media anger.

Jim Blashfield, director: Michael was really very open to this [idea]. The fact that he would think it would be OK to represent his plastic surgey, with the nose and the scalpel, it was just pretty great. I heard through the grapevine Michael's mother didn't like that particular image that much. Bubbles was not a problem. Bubbles, your job here is to crawl all over the rocket ship as it slowly rotates on this thing that you use to shoot car ads. Bubbles, please crawl over from here to here. And then please do not harm the python.

Michael was always up and ready to go, good-spirited. He was mostly in one set of clothes. It was an easy shoot for Michael. His hair didn't catch on fire or anything. 

If you wanna know how come it took nine months, we're down on an animal preserve photographing llamas and peacocks. And then we're off at Oak's Park, the local amusement park, photographing things there. We're out photographing skies. Some skies are better then others.

Each and every bit of it is made up of still images that are all stacked on top of one another on a piece of glass. Look in any one scene and look how many different things there are going on, so each one of those had to have its own shoot. There's a splash that shows up throughout the entire video, and that was so time consuming to cut out that we just had one and it was passed around. Whoever was doing the scene and needed the splash would get to use it for a while. There was a guy, he specialized in that splash, and I think he worked on it for weeks. He also was responsible for hair. So he looked like somebody out of Dickens. He sat on this tall stool kind of hunched over, with these odd glasses that jewelers or somebody wears. Just cutting one 32nd of an inch after another.

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7. “Beat It” (1983)

If "Billie Jean" established what Michael's feet could do, "Beat It" took care of the rest – the red leather jacket, the mix of sensitive and macho, the movie-musical choreography, a fame so massive it seemed to engulf the pop world itself. Director Bob Giraldi gave the video its edge, thanks to a knife-fight climax. "On the second take, I gave a real switchblade to my AD and told him to quietly substitute it for the dancer's rubber knife," said Giraldi. "[The other dancers] were backing away from the knives – really backing away – because they were actually afraid."

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6. “Rock With You” (1979)

Working in a pre-MTV era, when "music videos" were called "promos," Bruce Gowers (the video pioneer behind Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody") created a smoky space tunnel in an L.A. soundstage for Jackson and his sequined suit to shine.

Bruce Gowers, director: In those days they were done for peanuts. Absolute peanuts. I think about all we could afford was the laser. This one was probably about $3,000. If you look at it, there's nothing there but a laser and Michael Jackson. When we did this, this was the start of his solo career. He was very, very timid, very quiet, very unassuming. Really nice, he's an absolute professional, even in those days.

It was filmed on a little stage in L.A. called the 800 Stage, a little stage that we got cheap because we were shooting quite a lot of music videos. There was minimal editing as well, because obviously in those days editing costs money. It was about $350 per machine per hour. If you were using two playbacks and one record, that was a lot of money Everything was rented, trust me: the cameras, the stage, the Duvetyne drop, the smoke.

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5. “Smooth Criminal” (1988)

For the 42-minute "Smooth Criminal," the centerpiece of Jackson's 1988 movie Moonwalker, director Colin Chilvers wanted the lighting of a noir classic and Jackson wanted to pay tribute to an MGM musical. Together they visualized Jackson's second most famous dance move — a gravity-defying lean. Chilvers, who had done special effects on Superman, affixed Jackson's heels to the ground and kept him from toppling over with piano wire.

Colin Chilvers, director: I showed Michael a movie that I felt would fit the theme of the piece, The Third Man. He loved the look of it, that sort of film-noir look, so we used that to get the camera man to light it in a similar way. The dance piece was a tribute to Fred Astaire. And actually, he wears a similar kind of costume that Fred had used in one of his movies – Band Wagon. We had the pleasure of having Fred's choreographer come on the set. [Astaire's choreographer] Hermes Pan visited the set while we were doing the song and dance piece and said that Fred would have been very happy and proud of being copied by such a wonderful person.

The lean that we did, obviously that was a bit of a heritage from my days of Superman. 'Cause we had Michael on wires and fixed his feet to the ground so he could do that famous lean. I fixed their heels to the ground with a slot, so that they were locked into it. If you look in the video, when they come back up from that lean, they kind of shuffle their feet back – they were unlocking themselves from the support they had in the ground. 

We had 46 dancers plus the choreographers, hair, make-up, everything else. And every day, lunchtime, we'd go and watch the dailies from the day before. And it would be like a party going on in the screening room. Michael would be there as well and they would be hoopin' and hollerin' when they saw themselves and how good it looked – or else, Michael would say, "We can do better than that." Not the usual way to make a Hollywood movie, that's for sure.

It was Michael's movie and he was going to do exactly what he felt he needed to do to make it perfect. The producer, Dennis Jones, was coming in from outside the studio and obviously he was concerned about the time we were taking. He had a habit of walking towards me and looking at his watch. And [fellow director] Jerry Kramer, didn't drop a beat and said, 'Dennis, with Michael, you don't need a watch, you need a calendar." Michael wanted it to be perfect and that's the way he was.

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4. “Scream” (1995)

Though director Mark Romanek disputes "Scream"'s legacy as the most expensive video ever made, this dystopic, playful spaceship dance-off between Michael and sister Janet was no fly-by-night affair, totalling $7 million. "We couldn't go to the 'spaceship location'… so we had to build one," says Romanek. "We were only given two weeks to design and construct a dozen pretty large-scale sets. The only way to get it done was to throw manpower and lumber and money at the problem." The result is stark yet sumptuous, based on Romanek's love of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jean Cocteau's novel Les Enfants Terrible, a story of two siblings playing games in isolation.

Mark Romanek, director: [Michael and Janet] obviously had a deep affection and love for one another and were very excited to finally dance together on camera for the first time. There was some very healthy and good-natured sibling rivalry going on there in that scene.

I was surprised by how normal, likable, and approachable he was. I spent a good deal of time with him in his trailer and between takes just talking about hobbies and movies and various random topics. He was very charming, in that he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and my opinions about things.

It was the experience of being that close to him when he moved that's stuck with me the most. It seemed like a magic trick, like your eyes were deceiving you.

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3. “Billie Jean” (1983)

"Billie Jean" was already a Number One single on a Number One album before it even aired on MTV, but when it did, its cultural impact went beyond mere chart success. The clip broke the network's racially segregated rock-centric play­list and made Jackson its dominant star. (CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff has said he threatened to pull his label's videos if the network didn't put "Billie Jean" in rotation.) British New Wave video director Steve Barron tweaked a King Midas theme he was going to use for a Joan Armatrading clip. A pre-"Thriller" budget meant Barron couldn't afford a sidewalk that lit up when Jackson stepped on a square (an electrician had to do it by hand), but the shoot itself was still charged with energy. "When he came forward through that chorus, literally my eyepiece steamed up, and I'm thinking, 'Fucking hell, this is amazing. He is incredible,' " said Barron. "We shot that first take, got to the end, and everyone – up in the gantries, eating their sandwiches, reading the paper, painters working on another set – just burst into applause. We all just knew we'd seen another era of superstar."

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2. “Bad” (1987)

Jackson and iconic director Martin Scorsese teamed up for an 18-minute, big-budget epic. Filming near condemned Harlem buildings, Scorsese paired Jackson with a young Wesley Snipes for a dramatic black-and-white confrontation – then the video's second act bursts to life with a West Side Story-style combat dance staged in a Brooklyn subway station. "We went over schedule; it was two and a half weeks of the dance sequence alone," said Scorsese. "I was mesmerized by it. The video monitor made us all dancers."

Martin Scorsese, director: I remember meeting him at a bungalo at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was very quiet. The first thing he asked me was, Do you know about

Michaelangelo? And I said, Yes! And we started talking about Michaelangelo. He’d just discovered his paintings – the Sistine Chapel and the sculptures. He was taken by all of that.

It was a different form for me. The big issue really was the temptation to do this really major dance piece with camera moves and cutting which we had planned on page based on his choreography. And working with Michael Chapman, who choreographed the fight scenes in Raging Bull. Shooing the big dance scene was the allure of it. Michael was never a person who was overly enthusiastic. He was quiet. Accepting. How should I put it? He was very precise about what he wanted in the choreography. He was concerned, like with any great dancer, they like to be seen full figure. But that wasn’t the case because I’d planned other things. The use of close-ups, and tracking him. Eventually he understood that. There was never any resistance, but questions. He was open to everything.

The most interesting thing about it, is when we cast the picture, Wesley was the man. Michael went through those scenes in the film and he was toe-to-toe with every one of those aators. It was quite moving and powerful performance I thought. Like that scene in the hallway. We did that maybe 40 times. He stood up to Wesley, and Wesley is a wonderful actor. Formidable. Strong presence. And Michael did it. It was quite something.

We shot it in Harlem, and when he goes home to his apartment, he was very quiet looking around. The apartment was quite nice, actually. But it was in Harlem. Across the street the buildings were torn down or condemned. He took me aside, "Do peole live here?" I said, Well, yes, this is actually a well-done apartment!…I think he was overhwlmed by what he saw…These tenements had, when you come in the front hall, there’s an apartment in the back on the ground floor. There was an unfortunate person in there, in bed prety much, coughing and seemed like on his last days. Michael said, Do you see what’s in there? And I said, Yeah I know. He was in the place and it worked for him. It worked for him as a performance, but his compassion for the people came through. It was very moving.

 He was very sweet. He came to our apartment. My mother cooked dinner. He was very easy to be with. There was a genuine sweetness about him. And treating everybody the same way. Didn’t matter who it was — my family, the crew. The only time he expressed [a production demand], and again it was out of compassion — the older man is getting mugged and gets pushed at one point. And we did it a couple of takes and he was nervous about that. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt. We didn’t know if we had it on film and we said, Let’s do it again. And he begged me not to do it again. He said, 'Please, this shouldn’t be violent.' So I didn’t do it.

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1. “Thriller” (1983)

"Thriller" was the most important moment in music television since the Beatles rocked Ed Sullivan. "After Michael Jackson, when American artists got a sense of the potency of a well-thought-out video," said Duran Duran bassist John Taylor, "everything became more expensive." Director John Landis remembered CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff screaming and swearing when he heard the proposed budget. But its lofty aspirations came with vision: "Thriller" had the gloss of Hollywood; special-effects genius Rick Baker transformed a shy superstar into a beast; and co-choreographer Michael Peters helped create a historically iconic dance sequence. "He's not a trained dancer," said Peters. "He would say to me . . . 'I want something that's hot and angry.' He would describe it in emotional terms." "Thriller" turned a suburban street into a horror flick and helped make video a new kind of art. As Michael says in the clip: "I'm not like other guys."

 

In This Article: Michael Jackson

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