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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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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."

 

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