TORONTO - Spike Lee's new documentary "Bad 25" captures Michael Jackson in the turbulent time before he crafted 1987's "Bad," a period when the notoriously meticulous King of Pop worked with feverish obsession on trying to top his own megahit "Thriller" while the tabloids vigorously devoured the remnants of his personal life.
But even after "Bad" made good and topped charts around the world, the album's release saw the decided shift of attention from Jackson's pristine pop to his apparently bizarre personal behaviour (Chimps! Amusement parks! The Elephant Man's bones!).
And for that media-fuelled rubbernecking, Lee says there's plenty of shame to go around.
"People, they had the hater-ade. They were drinking hater-ade," the two-time Academy Award nominee said in an interview from a swanky hotel suite Saturday during the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie screened.
"Read the reviews of the 'Bad' album. They wrote like this was some piece of (crap). And (they) don't call him by his name — 'Wacko Jacko?' It's shameful.... Those people should be ashamed what they did to him."
And while Lee's reverential film remains studiously focused on Jackson's work, it also reveals much about an intensely private man who really never experienced privacy.
"Bad 25" picks up in the wake of the titanic success of Jackson's second album as an adult solo artist, 1982's game-changing stunner "Thriller." The best-selling album of all time, "Thriller"'s sales numbers are still too gaudy to believe — after all, it's been certified platinum 29 times over in the U.S. alone while going twice diamond in Canada.
But Jackson wasn't satisfied with that. Just as he was determined to make "Thriller" a much bigger success than his 1979 disco-informed classic "Off the Wall," Jackson thought he could similarly top the biggest hit of all time. As Lee's film uncovers, Jackson even used to scrawl "100,000,000" on mirrors and notebooks as a reminder to himself of the impossibly lofty sales number he wanted to achieve with "Bad."
Of course, that produced an almost unprecedented amount of self-imposed pressure for a pop artist.
So Lee's film captures Jackson obsessing over not just the 11 tracks that formed "Bad" but also its ambitious music videos (one of which was directed by film luminary Martin Scorsese), the choreography of the album's eventual epic tour (which included a show in front of 72,000 fans at London's Wembley Stadium) or even bits of promotional minutiae only tangentially related to Jackson's music.
(As an example, one of the film's lighter moments arrives in the form of self-shot archival footage of Jackson acting out specific instructions for the animators of a California Raisin commercial that was to feature his image).
Lee says Jackson believed that he couldn't stop pushing himself or everything he had worked to build would deteriorate.
"He was not stupid," said Lee, clad in a glittering Michael Jackson T-shirt with matching custom Nike kicks.
"He saw people, black artists, who were at the top and then broke. He saw many great black artists who were confined to just being black artists.
"Michael's about breaking boundaries."
Still, Lee can't necessarily relate to Jackson's unyielding eye for detail.
"There's nothing wrong with being a perfectionist. Now, me, I'm not going to do 80 takes like David Fincher of somebody picking up a magazine. I'm not going to do that!" he adds, laughing as he picks up and slams a nearby lifestyle mag for emphasis.
"But it was his money.... He put his money into his work."
And Lee does identify with Jackson in other ways.
The legendary filmmaker behind "Do the Right Thing" and "Malcolm X" was born in 1957, a year before Jackson.
He vividly recalls seeing Jackson as the overwhelmingly gifted young phenom headlining the Jackson 5 when they first shimmied across the stage at "The Ed Sullivan Show." Years later, Lee was a film-school student left so enthralled by the videos for "Thriller," "Billie Jean" and, yes, "Bad," that he aspired to helm such clips himself.
So when Jackson died in summer 2009 after a cardiac arrest (his doctor, Conrad Murray, was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter), Lee was devastated.
"I was messed up for months about that," said the 55-year-old. "I grew up with Michael. I'm a year older than him. When I was 10, he was nine. So I didn't know him, but I saw him grow up."
Along with Lee's film, the 25th anniversary of "Bad" is being celebrated with a spiffy new deluxe re-release on Tuesday.
The new two-disc set includes a remastered version of the original album, plus a slate of worthy B-sides that were once axed from its concise tracklist. (With characteristic honesty, Lee dismisses a portion of the second disc's new material, screwing his face into a frown as he warns: "Forget about the remixes.")
Lee doesn't think there's room for debate over how the record — which featured such hits as the title track, "Man in the Mirror," "The Way You Make Me Feel" and "Smooth Criminal" — wears its age.
"Look at the Billboard charts when 'Bad' was released 25 years ago, and then listen to those songs, and see if they still sound contemporary or dated," said Lee, whose film will air on ABC on Nov. 22 in Canada.
"'Bad' still stands up. Those other songs that were on the Top 10 list 25 years ago? Who were they? Thin Lizzy? Are we still speaking about those people?" he asks incredulously. (In actual fact, Billboard's Top 10 the first week "Bad" topped the charts included Whitney Houston's sophomore album alongside the "La Bamba" soundtrack and records by Whitesnake, Def Leppard and Heart.)
"The greats will stand the test of time. It's not even an argument."
Although Lee has condemned those who eagerly gawked at Jackson's downfall (the film doesn't cover the accusations of child sexual abuse brought against the singer in 1993), he does admit to some level of curiosity about one specific element of Jackson's life: his gradually lightening skin tone.
While it was later reported that Jackson's colour was changing due to the skin condition vitiligo and treatments for lupus, Lee watched the transition with some interest.
"Black folks were wondering about (that) — I'm not going to lie," Lee said with a chuckle, pinching his own skin. "Because Michael never came public that he had this disease. I was one of them. Like, 'Wait a minute man. What's up brother?'
"I'm not going to lie. That's full disclosure. And I'm not speaking on behalf of 45 million African Americans, but there were discussions about Michael's complexion."
Of course, there were discussions about virtually every element of Jackson's life.
Lee had access to a deep well of sensational archival footage, supplementing original interviews conducted with Jackson collaborators including Scorsese and director Joe Pytka (as well as such admirers as Kanye West, Mariah Carey and Canada's Justin Bieber) with clips of Jackson in the studio or warming up on video sets.
But amid all the shots of Jackson fervently fretting over some seemingly insignificant tone or lyric, there are revealing insights about the strange way he lived his life.
This is a man who adopted devious disguises just to meet up with his brothers for dinner, whose every public appearance devolved into hysteria and whose earliest memories of childhood were indivisible from showbiz.
"He had to sing and dance to eat since he was six years old," Lee said simply.
At one point in the film, a teary-eyed confidante of Jackson's relates a conversation they shared in which the singer yearned to be a fly on the wall at a party, to see what normal people talked about.
And one of the bonus tracks on "Bad 25" is the knotted, claustrophobic "Price of Fame," in which Jackson laments the cost of dealing with the demands of a massive audience that's blindly obsessed with him.
Lee doesn't think long when asked what that cost was.
"Look, he's not here. He's not here. Not in this physical form," he replies.
"You get to be the most recognizable person on this planet, there's a price for that.... You could say he paid with his life, really."