You remember hearing that album growing up?
Oh yeah, summer of 1979. I had finished Morehouse in May and was starting NYU’s graduate film school in September, but I was lucky enough to get an eight-week internship at Columbia Pictures between the two. So I was in Los Angeles when the album came out, and I mean, I’d hear it everywhere I’d go.
When you listen to this album now, what do you hear?
I still hear something that sounds like it was made yesterday. It doesn’t sound like a late-Seventies album; it still sounds fresh and innovative. I hear a lot of what’s in music today, being worked out and recorded 35 years ago. Pharrell says it in the film: My music is directly influenced by this man and this album. Justin Timberlake says it! The Weeknd says it! You can hear a lot of Off the Wall in recent stuff.
How did you pick folks to speak about Michael for the film? Folks like Pharrell and Questlove are no-brainers; Kobe Bryant showing up was a bit of a surprise.
It proves that Michael’s influence was everywhere, not just in music but with athletes too. Game respects game! [Laughs]
“I’m telling you know, if I do end up doing [Thriller], I’m going after MTV. I’m sticking both my Air Jordans up their ass, believe me!”
When you started combing through the archives …
I don’t want to talk about what we find, you’re going to give all our secrets away! People gotta watch to find out.
But we can talk about that incredible letter you found, yes?
Oh yeah, the letter that he writes that says he’s wants to become the greatest entertainer of all time! He’s already visualizing what he wants to do, who he wants to become … how’s he going to get to that point so he can become that person. You can see he had a blueprint, he had a plan even when he was young. It was not haphazard. It was not an accident. This shit was planned! Let’s be clear about one thing, though: He made that shit happen. There was no hocus pocus, abracadbra going on here; he worked his ass off to get to that level.
Why do think he was so driven and such a perfectionist? Do you think that came from coming out of the Motown factory of hit makers?
There were a lot of factors that played into it, I think. He had a strong work ethic, which he got from his dad — the man got up every morning and went to a steel mill to put food on the table for his 11 kids. And then he saw firsthand, when his dad worked all his sons and rehearsed them night and day, ran them through their steps, how hard work could pay off. Same with Berry Gordy and the Motown work ethic. But you gotta remember, he got to see some of the greatest artists of the day at work up close and personal: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Diana Ross. Then he gets to go on the road and he’s standing in the wings at the Howard Theater, the Apollo Theater, and watching James Brown and Jackie Wilson perform. He saw all that firsthand. The kid was a human sponge!