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'Michael Jackson's Vision' Into the Future

Still from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video

The Moonwalker's short films are brought together here in a single collection. Are you still down with Michael? Are you down? Are you bad?!

A young black male from the meager side of a bustling city comes home from an exclusive school in the suburbs. At school, he struggles to fit into the privileged and affluent lifestyle of his peers, who are mostly white. In the city, his new experiences threaten to uproot him, as existing friends view him as aloof, uppity -- a sellout.

Spending the day with his buddies, the young man finds comfort in familiar surroundings. The crew quickly reestablishes a rapport, despite the young man's growing pains and his newfound knowledge of things far removed from the claustrophobia of his old neighborhood. They walk the streets together, they laugh, they play fight, and all is right with the world, except for maybe the slight cultural and economic rift that develops when our young hero corrects a friend who misidentifies the fashion sensibilities of the private school crowd ("Turtle shell glasses?"). "That's 'tortoiseshell'," replies our hero, haughtily, sternly, his voice trembling slightly. One friend takes offense, "Excuse me, brotha," and the others seem put off by his tone. Awkward.

Still, all is going well, until the plot thickens with the reality of street life. After dark, this young man's friends are looking to rob an unsuspecting victim. They'll take his money, maybe. Or snatch his valuables. Was this something our main character would have done before going off to private school? Perhaps, but what we do know for sure is that our traveling, displaced young man does not agree to it now. For siding against his crew, he's ridiculed, accused of going soft.

"You ain't down with us no more!" bellows the de facto crew leader. He taunts him, "You ain't down! You ain't bad." He pushes him. "You ain't bad!"

"You ain't bad, you ain't nothin'!" the young man screams back.

The young man disappears and, like a superhero in a comic book, is replaced by a tougher, flashier version of himself, dressed in all black. His overcoat becomes a black leather jacket with all manner of zippers and metal. His boots are better suited for combat, not study hall. He faces his challengers, stares them down, and launches into a world premiere dance routine.

This, in my loose translation, was the 18-minute video for Michael Joseph Jackson's "Bad". With acclaimed director Martin Scorsese in the mix, Jackson pushed his visuals into a realm seldom contemplated by popular musicians in the '80s. Who else could settle a street beef by transforming into a dancing, leather-clad, crotch-yanking superhero? Imagine someone else from the era in the "Bad" video. Replace Michael Jackson with, say, Luther Vandross (forget it, although a Vandross poster does appear in the video). Or Jon Bon Jovi (no way). Or Boy George (giggle). Rick James, maybe? Prince, in response to the suggestion that he and Jackson might have performed "Bad" as a duet, joked about the first line being "Your butt is mine," remarking that he couldn't imagine either of them singing that line to the other. Fine, and I love Prince to pieces, but I also suspect a video with any type of storyline would've been a problem for the duet. Take a look at Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon, or (if you dare) Graffiti Bridge -- Michael Jackson was the better actor.

This brings us to the fact that Michael Jackson's videos are quite fascinating. His was a unique perspective, informed by his fame as well as his personal troubles and his increasing reputation for weirdness ("strange eccentricities", he calls it in "Childhood"). Yet, he also inspired awe and wonder with each perfectly timed body-folding dance move, at once preaching a gospel of togetherness ("Black or White", "Heal the World") while seeking to distinguish himself as a King among artists. Michael Jackson met and exceeded the limits of what a superstar was expected to be. He was helped in part by his music since, after all, if "Bad" wasn't at least catchy, no video would have saved it. Fans loved his songs. "Thriller", penned by Rod Temperton, is another good example of this. There just aren't many occasions, outside of Halloween, that call for a funky, macabre number about zombies and ghouls returning to scare the daylights out of your main squeeze.

Michael Jackson's innovations in video comprise another, equally significant part of his art. With the arrival of MTV, Jackson captivated audiences worldwide through a previously underdeveloped medium. Where he had relegated his tunes to the trailing glitter of the disco era ("Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough", "Rock With You"), videos for "Billie Jean", "Beat It", and "Thriller" expanded the possibilities and left indelible images in their wake. Michael Jackson made the sidewalk light up with his footsteps in "Billie Jean", stopped gangland turf wars in "Beat It" with flashy and sophisticated choreography, and became a zombie in the landmark video for "Thriller". From there, Jackson kept releasing videos as grand artistic statements, bent on staying ahead of the curve.

Michael Jackson's Vision presents these memorable video sequences in a single package. Billed as the "first-ever complete collection" of Jackson's short films, the boxed set contains three DVDs, one of which is a bonus disc, with a running time exceeding four and a half hours. The 42 videos contained herein represent Michael Jackson's solo output, essentially in chronological order, from albums Off the Wall (1979) to Invincible (2001), along with three earlier videos of his work with family band The Jacksons ("Blame It On the Boogie", "Enjoy Yourself", and "Can You Feel It") and a previously unreleased video for "One More Chance" from Jackson's Number Ones compilation (2003).

Extras are scarce here, and nonexistent in terms of commentary from contributors or video directors such as Spike Lee (two versions of "They Don't Care About Us"), John Singleton (the star-studded Egyptian-themed "Remember the Time"), Scorsese ("Bad"), Mark Romanek ("Scream"), and John Landis ("Thriller", "Black or White" and its ethnicity-morphing technology and infamous Jackson rampage ending). There isn't any behind-the-scenes footage either.

Aside from this, though, the packaging and formatting are exemplary. The boxed set is bathed in a stately gold, enshrined in a transparent sleeve bearing a Jackson silhouette that leans in the gravity-defying pose of the "Smooth Criminal" video. A sleek, lean booklet, about 60 pages, accompanies the set, consisting of credits for the videos and photographs from each era in Michael Jackson's career, mainly Off the Wall and beyond. The front of the folding cardboard DVD case utilizes "lenticular virtual imaging technology" to recall the memorable video scenes. Tilting the case in different directions prompts the scenes to move, dance, and shuffle with precision. It's great fun, actually. Meanwhile, the collection's "Random Mix" option, allowing you to shuffle the order of the videos, is almost as cool.

It's just as well that the videos are presented in so straightforward a fashion. This way, the videos speak for themselves. A cursory view might be temptation enough to tag Jackson's body of video work as indicative of the excesses of superstardom. This, we might say, is what you get when you have a large enough budget and too much license. They are slick, heavy on special effects, and often populated by Michael Jackson's celebrity friends and contacts. Jackson's social reach enabled him to grab high profile directors and granted him cameos from popular musicians and Hollywood's A-list. It's no surprise, then, that his videos are extravagant affairs that look like miniature movies. Opulent, as if no expense could be spared to meet the imaginations of Jackson and his handlers, his videos are magical, with explosions, lightning bolts, energy currents, people who evaporate or morph into other people, sidewalk blocks that light up, vixens who tease and cajole, zombies haunting moviegoers, and ransacked forests that regenerate as Earth takes back control of its destiny.

We should probably be thankful for his ability to dream big. Not only did he offer plenty of eye candy to accompany his hook-laden and groove-centered pop confections, Jackson's videos provided platforms for up-and-comers. Look closely at the dancers in the "Beat It" video, and you'll find Michael DeLorenzo of New York Undercover fame. Jackson's adversary for "Bad" was none other than a pre-blockbuster Wesley Snipes. Further, Jackson's videos are varied in stylistic approach, and filled with people who represent an even wider array of cultures, classes, and colors.

In the larger scheme, Jackson's impact on, and through, the world of video is inescapable. Artistically, his videos inspired others, and opened the door to new vistas for creative expression in conjunction with music. MTV benefitted from Jackson's work, of course, as did the "Black" artists who weren't getting their videos played by the music network before Jackson's cultural ascension.

On that point, Jackson's appeal as a crossover artist was arguably due in part to the adventurous nature of his videos. One fed the other, as his popularity enabled him to star in these videos to further his music, and his videos made him more popular. Thanks to the videos, Jackson's imagery rivals his dancing and signature vocal stylings -- his clarity of voice as well as his "hee hee"s. His crossover stardom, by the way, shouldn't be discounted, as it demonstrates that his music speaks to a wide and diverse audience, going well beyond gender, race, economic status, and nationality. Admittedly, it probably makes us feel good to think that our shared love for the "Billie Jean" video or for his spot-on synchronized dancing in "Beat It" might help change the world. I suppose we can champion our togetherness through one man's iconic status, pat ourselves on the back for our collective tolerance. But, being less glib, it is a big deal when an individual can seemingly captivate an entire planet, and in this regard Michael Jackson is in elite, if not exclusive, company.

All of this comprises the surface of what you see in this collection. Below that, there's the substance of his artistry, and it's interesting to note how Jackson was so often willing to chop up the original songs and reassemble them for his videos. Audio portions are added, breakdowns and instrumentals might be extended or interrupted -- all to fit the scheme of the visual story. In addition to the flashy dance steps, the flawless choreography, and the video storylines, Jackson's imagery and music merge to espouse three general themes.

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