Michael Jackson reinvents the music video with the help of classic movies

Happy Halloween!

If there’s one song you’ll hear throughout the holiday, it’s without a doubt Thriller, the iconic and groundbreaking Michael Jackson single that owns Halloween. The single off of the album of the same name (which is also the best selling album of all time) was actually the seventh and final single to be released. It wasn’t even released near Halloween, it actually came out in February of 1984. In concept, the Thriller album is much more darker than Jackson’s previous Off the Wall drawing heavily from darker and supernatural themes that are evident in its beats and lyrics.

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The 14-minute short film that accompanied the song is timeless but it mixes something many may not talk about when it comes to Michael Jackson: his love of classic Hollywood. Jackson’s genius was heavily influenced by old Hollywood and Thriller wasn’t the first instance where he paid homage to his favorite films. On the same album, the music video for Beat It, Jackson rewrites West Side Story. Rather than the two rival gangs being torn apart, in Beat It, they come together through the power of music and dance.

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In Thriller, Jackson chose to collaborate with director John Landis after seeing American Werewolf in London. He thought Landis would be the perfect choice to bring this horror musical to life. If you’re going to create a horror musical, why not add one of the greatest actors of the genre to it? Well, that’s exactly what Jackson did. Vincent Price was brought on to lend his signature voice to a monologue on the track. By all accounts of the making of this film, Price was delighted to take part and recorded his session in just two takes.

In an interview with Johnny Carson, Price said he was given a choice between taking a percentage of the album proceeds or being paid a flat $20,000. He chose the flat rate as his career was well-established and money wasn’t a big issue. When Carson suggested that Price could have done a lot better if he had chosen album proceeds, he laughed and said “How well I know!” There’s been some accounts that Price actually demanded more money after the albums sales have soared but I haven’t read reputable sources for that, just random internet message boards so take that as you will.

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Not only is Price’s voice in the film, his name appears prominently on a marquee at a movie house where Jackson and his date (portrayed by Ola Ray), you can see it as they leave the movie theater. There is also poster of one of his most famous horror films, House of Wax, outside the theater as well. Price got a kick out of the song and in this clip delivered his voice-over on a late night show complete with the creepy laugh that still haunts me!

Jackson would go on to infuse classic movies into his work in other ways. In the music video for Leave Me Alone, there are images to his close friend Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor and Jackson were kindred spirits in many ways. The most obvious way was the fact that the two were former child stars who grew up in the public eye and with the intense pressure that comes from that. Leave Me Alone was his way of sticking the middle finger to the tabloids.

Leave Me Alone was featured in Jackson’s short film, Moonwalker, but the real staple of Moonwalker is Smooth Criminal. Smooth Criminal is Jackson’s love letter to film noir and Fred Astaire. The film is an homage to Astaire’s Girl Hunt Ballet from The Band Wagon. In Smooth Criminal, Jackson is in a 1930s style lounge wearing a white suit and fedora similar to the style of suit Astaire wore in The Band Wagon. 

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Astaire once commented on Jackson’s dancing saying, “Oh, God! That boy moves in a very exceptional way. That’s the greatest dancer of the century.” Jackson dedicated his 1988 autobiography, Moonwalk, to Astaire. It’s fitting that the video Jackson paid tribute to Astaire features one of his most iconic dance moves, the anti-gravity lean. It’s still jaw dropping ever time you watch it. Below is Smooth Criminal with The Girl Hunt Ballet underneath to compare.

In one of his final music videos, Jackson brought on close friend and legend Marlon Brando for You Rock My World. Similar to Smooth Criminal in its aesthetic,  Jackson wears a suit and fedora along with Chris Tucker and try to get the attention of a woman. Brando pays a sort of mob boss with Michael Madsen thrown in the mix. At over 13 minutes long, it’s another short film but not as grandiose as the others. Still – it was one of the final things Brando acted in and his presence is felt throughout even if it’s a glorified cameo.

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I always get a kick out of watching the little nods to classic movies in Jackson’s music videos. I didn’t get to delve into Billie Jean, Remember the Time, and Liberian Girl but perhaps that’s for another post.

They don’t make artists like Michael Jackson any more. We were lucky he entertained us.

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