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‘Thriller 40’ Revels in the Magic of Early Michael Jackson — and Sidesteps His Controversies

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Michael Jackson about to win 12 Grammys for ‘Thriller’ at the 1984 awards. At his side is his date Brooke Shields. At the time, says Mary J. Blige in a new documentary, Jackson was considered ‘super-duper-duper sexy.’ (Ron Galella/ Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

In 2023, thinking about Michael Jackson in any kind of meaningful way is thoroughly depressing. There are the sexual abuse allegations against him, the strange and isolated life he led, the way he died, the grief of the children he left behind, his extraordinary amassing of debts despite a lifetime of success. All of it is sad. So sad, in fact, that sometimes it’s tough to remember the sheer amount of joy that Jackson brought audiences during his early solo career.

In a choice that’s sure to anger some viewers and delight others, Thriller 40, a new documentary from Showtime and Paramount+, willfully sidesteps all of the most discomfiting elements about Jackson. Instead, the film takes us back to that time — roughly 1979 to 1984 — when he was still in the middle of transforming himself into the King of Pop. The biggest challenges Jackson faced back then were escaping the shadow of The Jackson 5, winning as many Grammys as he thought he deserved and dealing with MTV at a time when the channel refused to play videos by Black artists.

That final hurdle is particularly astonishing when one considers the lasting cultural jolt provided by the videos that eventually emerged from 1982’s Thriller album — and just how much they boosted MTV’s audience. (If you ask anyone who was alive in the ’80s where they were when they first saw Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, they can usually tell you. That degree of impact — usually reserved for national tragedies — had never happened before Thriller, and it hasn’t happened on that scale since.)

Thriller 40 explains the infuriating lengths to which Jackson and his team had to go to get his videos played. At one point, Walter Yetnikoff — then group president of CBS Records — threatened to pull all of the label’s artists from the channel if MTV didn’t start playing Jackson. Yetnikoff is heard in the film explaining in voiceover: “I screamed bloody murder when MTV refused to air his videos. They argued that their format, white rock, excluded Michael’s music. I argued that they were racist assholes. I’ve never been more forceful or obnoxious.”

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Between this and other telling anecdotes, Thriller 40 illustrates what it took for Jackson to be considered a true “crossover artist” — a mainstream pop star rather than an R&B one — at a time when racial divisions in the industry were uncompromising, to put it mildly. His duet with Paul McCartney, “The Girl Is Mine,” wasn’t just the first single released from Thriller because of McCartney’s musical cache; it was about what the Beatle represented and the demographics of his audience. When Jackson asked Jane Fonda to introduce him at a press conference in 1983, she was chosen for similar reasons.

Thriller 40 is first and foremost, however, a documentary about the Thriller album. That means a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage, the chance to hear a few original demos (the one for “Billie Jean” is a particular treat) and present-day interviews with the session musicians involved in making it. There are also reflections on how influential the album was from artists including Mary J. Blige, Usher, Maxwell, Mark Ronson and Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Raphael Saddiq.

For younger generations, Thriller 40 is a modern history lesson in how pop music once worked: how it was controlled by a small group of gatekeepers, but also had the power to seep into every aspect of the culture. For those who lived through that period, Thriller 40 offers an immersive nostalgia and a reminder of one of the last points in pop culture before it felt like we’d seen everything. For me — a childhood Jackson fan who hasn’t willingly listened to his music since the sexual assault allegations first started — there was something soothing about revisiting this very specific, more innocent moment in time.

Regardless of how you feel about what Jackson became later in his life, there is no escaping the fact that Thriller was and remains the best-selling album of all time — a record unlikely to ever be beaten. According to the film, 100 million copies have been sold around the world, and the album is now streamed over 2.6 billion times annually. There’s also no denying what Jackson’s extraordinary talent, tenacity and (borderline maniacal) ambition yielded for other Black artists and the wider culture.

Producer Nelson George — who also directed the documentary — sums up Thriller’s impact perfectly just before the movie comes to an end. “That idea,” George says, “that I can take dance, music and visuals and turn the world on its ear? That idea that [Jackson] crystalized with Thriller has not gone away. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.”

Thriller 40 is a gentle reminder of where it came from in the first place.

‘Thriller 40’ begins streaming on Showtime and Paramount+ on Dec. 2, 2023.

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