It’s Halloween again, so it’s time to watch it:
I mean, really sit down and experience it all. Turn on that 480p, shut off the lights, grab a bag of popcorn and if you’re lucky enough to have a significant other, grab him or her too, sit down, and watch “Michael Jackson’s Thriller”. It’s one of the most incredible short films ever created, and its impact on pop culture can never be overstated. We view it every Halloween because it puts air in our tires. It gets us excited for horror films and candy and costumes and–dancing. But before it became a Halloween staple, it was the production that changed music videos and television and the role of the pop superstar forever. As scary as “War of the Worlds” was to radio. As landmark as the Kennedy-Nixon debate was to televised news. As big as “Star Wars” was to movies. “Michael Jackson’s Thriller” changed music and its relationship to all walks of multimedia like no one could see coming.
Perhaps Michael Jackson was talking about the state of music videos when he tells Ola Ray: “I’ll save you from the terror on the screen”, because, whether they were intending to do so or not, John Landis and Michael Jackson decided that having the number 1 selling album of all time wasn’t enough; Michael went ahead and topped it with the number one music video of all time.
It changed everything. For the good. And we’ve gotta be thankful to Michael and Landis for it. Above, is the music video to the Bee Gee’s “Night Fever”. I love this song. It’s the epitome of the greatest of a dead genre of music. Its music video counterpart, however, is just a heap of mid-to-late 1970s ridiculousness. This is what most music videos looked like by the late 1970s: let’s get our band or musician in a studio, get less-than-a-day’s worth of footage of them lip synching (either looking at the camera or off in an arbitrary distance) and, if we’re really ambitious, let’s get some stock footage of a random geographical area and make the difficult decision of green screening it behind them or fading our musicians in and out of the b-roll.
Like, what is the deal with “Night Fever”? There are these weird shots of the Bee Gees that are crossfading and zooming at the same time, with some weird disco ball providing key, back and fill light all at the same time. Then, there is really strange b-roll; like some dudes got in the back of a car and went driving and filmed some stuff, and didn’t bother to get permission to shoot anywhere. Also, I can’t tell: is this 1970’s Sherman Oaks or Downriver Metro-Detroit today?
Look, I love this music video. But it’s total crap. That’s why I love it. It’s still utter crap, though. If you were teaching how to make music videos, this Bee Gees one would be a good example of what not to do.
Michael Jackson got John Landis, and the two combined forces to make videos like “Night Fever” look quickly dated. Landis was known for silly comedies like “Blues Brothers” and “Animal House”, but “Thriller” proved the depth of his artistry, and it showed that Landis had an immense understanding and handle of American cinema. He was the perfect man for the job that Michael Jackson needed to be carried out—
“Michael Jackson’s Thriller” is very much a musical short film. There is a clear narrative that is driven by music and dancing. It wasn’t about selling a song that had already been popular for more than a year, it was by taking a song that had a story and conveying it on screen. “Thriller” takes on a referential respect for American Cinema that Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly were probably proud of (I couldn’t find any record of either of them commenting on “Michael Jackson’s Thriller”, but I would love to hear what they think). I say that because not only did “Singing in the Rain” set the bar for musicals like “Thriller” set the bar for music videos, they both, coincidentally, have a great deal to do with cinema; a love for cinema and how cinema has an affect on our lives.
The video starts out with Michael and model Ola Ray in a 1950s-type horror film. It is an ode to the horror films of Vincent Price’s time–of whom was recorded on the “Thriller” track, and whose name is on the outside of the movie theater marquee in the music video. We leave Ola and Michael on screen to show them watching the very same film in their very 80’s hair and apparel. Ola is scared, and like his werewolf counterpart in the film they are watching, Michael is loving every minute of it. She leaves and Michael goes to console her fears. The whole narrative is genius. It plays with the idea of how cinema and films instill these fears that we sometimes believe to be real. I mean, really, what would the word “thriller” mean if not for the film genre? And that’s what the song is about; the perfect music video to shoot as a short film, because it’s about loving films.
It was the first music video to tell a complete narrative, sure, but it also showed the world what could be done with a music video. You could make a music video that has dialogue and its own score, separate from the popular song that video is based on. In addition, it broke the rules by editing the number 1 hit. Throughout the video, the song’s chorus is cut out. Michael doesn’t sing it after every verse like on the album, he instead sings it at the end of the dancing climax.
And is the end of this video not perfect? That final “key-framed” shot of Michael and his glowing eyes, with Vincent Price’s laugh in the background, gives me chills every time I watch.
Go! Watch it again! It’s truly incredible, especially when put into context. The level of production value is just astounding for its time. And it basically made MTV, as it was the first video to premiere on the new TV station. This would become a staple for musicians throughout the 80s and 90s and TRL. All because of “Michael Jackson’s Thriller”.
It didn’t mean that every music video had to be a complicated narrative, but it did set a new standard for what we wanted from music videos. Take Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al”:
As legend goes, “Call Me Al” was going to be the next single off of Graceland, and Paul Simon knew he needed a music video (to play on the new, big MTV, of course! Thanks, Michael Jackson!). Word got around that big Hollywood comedian Chevy Chase loved the song and knew every lyric, so Paul Simon and company decided that Chevy Chase towering over Paul Simon in stature and in a lip synching battle would provide for a funny, charming music video. And it’s perfect. It’s simple, but perfect! Especially for a song that, within its lyrics, is very much a narrative, and would seem that it would lend to a very visually complex music video, does just well for itself with this video. If I had to liken it to a music video today, I’d liken its simple charm to something like “Blurred Lines”, except Paul Simon isn’t a talentless hack.
“Thriller” put to rest the terrible disco music videos of the late 70s and early 80s, but, recently, as those trends and culture-defining features are becoming more and more popular again today, there are those out there like Bruno Mars who mean to be as referential to those terrible music videos as “Thriller” was to the scary movies from the 1950s and 60s.
WARNING: Foul language in beginning.
This video is incredible. It really is. Because it owes so much to the likes of Tavares and The Whispers. It reminds us of a pre-“Thriller” time, and it tells a story through its production and style.
The point here is–to bring it all back and throw in a shameless plug–we owe more to Michael Jackson and John Landis than just giving us a thrill. They showed us what could be done–how much more can be expected when you do more than just try and sell a song—when you just set out to tell a story, you can create wonders, and maybe just change media and the world with it.
Before you go, check out this narrative music video made in Detroit by Detroit filmmakers and musicians, who take the techniques used in “Thriller” to inspirational levels:
And Happy Halloween, y’all!