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Bad (a film by Martin Scorsese)

tn_badIt’s Michael Jackson’s birthday. Would’ve been his 51st, and if all had gone perfect he would’ve been 17 shows into his run at the 02 in London. Hard to picture. It really feels to me like this country is going through a time of massive change, like the tectonic plates are shifting beneath us. It figures that the same year we have our first black president we also have to lose Michael and the last Kennedy brother. All earlier than I expected, but maybe we’re ahead of schedule. The big live news events of the year: an inauguration and two memorial services. And both Kennedy and MJ instantly reborn as beloved legends.

Now you’re really gonna think I’m a weirdo (though I’ve never owned a chimp) but the truth is I would’ve known it was Michael’s birthday anyway. For some reason it’s a date I always remember, so I usually watch at least a little bit of MOONWALKER. But this year, during all the mourning and memorializing, I picked up the MICHAEL JACKSON VIDEO GREATEST HITS – HISTORY dvd. I had been obsessing over the dancing in his videos. MTV had a marathon, but they kept showing the shorter versions. I was jonesing to see that scene they cut out of “Black Or White” where he smashes the car while grabbing his crotch and yelling. It’s on this DVD (the cover calls it “the controversial ‘Panther’ version”).

But the highlight for me was the “never-before-seen 18-minute long version of ‘Bad’.”

bad-colorI bet you remember this Martin Scorsese directed dance extravaganza in a New York subway station. Michael, dressed in strap-and-buckle-covered black leather like on the album cover, leads a gang of dancers/street toughs in a face off with rivals. They jump the turnstiles, run around hollering like lost boys, one guy roller skates. “BAD” is spraypainted on a wall, a wanted poster of Scorsese is torn down, a vent cover is torn off so their hair can blow around and look cool. Michael does his best “bad” face and even works some old school kung fu taunts into his routine – a “come here” hand gesture, a wipe of his lips as if rubbing off… blood? Sweat? Drool? It all fits in well with the “whoosh” sound effects that happen every time they whip their heads or flail their arms or spin around, which is many times. Another subtle use of sound effects: they actually add in the sound of all those buckles rattling around as he dances. Maybe that’s to match up with the later acappela part where you hear their real stomping and shifting along with his improvised singing about the other guys “doin’ wrong.”

And at the end you keep seeing Wesley Snipes (looking like Tupac in JUICE) and two other guys standing there watching, their faces showing that they’re not amused.

I’m not sure if you even see Wesley in the shortened version, but I remembered it from ’80s MTV, that he’s the one Michael wants to “ask once again who’s bad.” What I didn’t remember, and it sounds like maybe I’d never seen, was the full ten minute intro that sets up this whole conflict between Michael and Wesley.

In this version it’s not as surprising that it’s directed by Scorsese. It’s like the start of a lost ’80s gem, a real movie with opening credits and a keyboard score. It’s shot in gritty B&W like RAGING BULL (same cinematographer, in fact) and it’s written by Richard Price, the novelist and screenwriter who did THE COLOR OF MONEY, CLOCKERS, five episodes of THE WIRE, etc. It’s inspired by the true story of a private school kid who was shot while mugging a plain-clothes cop. (I might have to review the TV movie of that.)

Michael plays Darryl, a kid going to a predominantly white private high school called The Duxton School. The other kids are nice to him, but condescendingly so. One kid tells him he’s proud of how well he’s been doing, and gives him a high five.

We see his long subway commute back to his neighborhood. All the white kids get off long before he does. A Latino kid who’s also in his class asks him, “How many guys proud of you?”

“Three.”

“Shoot. Four guys proud of me.”

It’s kind of a shock to see Michael’s face on the body of a regular person. No armbands, badges or shoulder pads, no sequins. Just a grey hoodie and gloves – two gloves, to keep his hands warm. He never could’ve pulled that look off later on, after more surgeries, but here it works. It’s like yeah, what if? What if Michael were an inner city youth? Never became a star. Moved from Gary to NYC. This could’ve been him. And he’s doing more acting than in anything else, and it works.

I’ve read that Michael always wanted to be a movie star, and was disappointed that it never came about. He’s such an icon, such a superstar, such a unique physical specimen, that at first it seems funny to imagine him trying to be different people. But if you think about it, why not? Elvis did it. I wish Michael made a bunch of crazy musicals where his unique personality was put into different jobs and eras and situations. A GI, a sailor, an Egyptologist, whatever. A cop. He used to talk about an Edgar Alan Poe biopic, I was always excited to see that, even though I think he wanted to do a serious drama and not a musical. I never was sure.

But oh well. Would’ve been great to have movies like that, but instead he made these. He got to be directed by John Landis, David Fincher, Francis Ford Copolla. And, uh, the guy who did TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. But here he’s directed by Scorsese, and you can tell. scorsesemjScorsese brought out the natural actor in Michael. I mean, Michael did so much acting in his life: as a little kid he was singing about relationships, on stage he was acting happy, later acting tough. In this ten minute intro he gets to do more traditional acting: he stares out windows thoughtfully, he laughs, he tries to fit in, he gets upset.

When Darryl gets back home it’s a rough neighborhood – a drug dealer (Paul Calderon from PULP FICTION and PISTOL WHIPPED) pulls a gun on him and his friends for staring. He hangs out with Wesley and “the fellas” from the neighborhood. They welcome him back from school and seem like they genuinely like him, but underneath there’s a hostility. They tease him, call him “Joe College.” They imply that he’s uppity for spending most of his year living with those rich white kids.

In real life, especially around this time, people were getting upset at Michael for lightening his skin and shrinking his nose. He started to look different and alot of people took that as him denying his black heritage, hiding it, wanting to be white. It’s a justified fear but at the same time, looking at this video, how can you say he’s hiding his blackness? He went out of his way to give himself this rough inner-city upbringing that he never really had. And you could say the same of “Beat It” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” (which also has a slightly extended cut on this DVD).

I think the video shows how he felt about his race: he was stuck between two worlds, not feeling like he fit into either one. The white kids can’t forget Darryl is black, but his black friends think his life is too white. And he tries to be friends with both but neither understand what he’s going through.

Wesley (whose character is named “Mini-Max” according to IMDb) especially resents Darryl’s education and tries to make him feel bad about it, pressuring him to “go for a walk” to mug people in the subway. Michael decides to prove he’s “bad” and takes the lead in mugging an old man. Either he almost goes through with it and changes his mind or he just wants to interfere with Mini-Max’s plan. He tells the old man to run away. Mini-Max feels betrayed, they get into an argument and Darryl’s way of proving that he’s bad is it switches to color, he’s got the leather and a crazy mullet, and he dances in the way we all remember.

At the end, after observing all of this, Mini-Max gives a long, unimpressed stare. Then he says, “So that’s the way it goes down, huh?” and gives Darryl a pound. He raises his eyebrows as he walks away as if to say “what the fuck was that!?,” but the point is that he has decided to accept Darryl – who we now see standing there in black and white with the hoodie.

So it changes the whole meaning of the video, at least from how I remembered it. I always thought Wesley was some bully and Michael had to prove to him that he was bad. Enemies, like the guys in “Beat It” that Michael had to come between to break it up. But in the full length version you know that they’re actually friends. They have differences, but they’re working them out here. He’s earning Wesley’s respect.

See, the color part didn’t necessarily literally happen, it’s a fantasy or a metaphor or something. It shows Darryl/Michael’s true self, the tough guy with the Peter Pan face, the dancer doing James Brown and ballet moves, the guy reinventing dancing and videos and film and music and himself. Instead of going along with the fellas and doing something he believes is wrong he has to stand up for himself, show them his true self. And they may not think it’s cool, they may not understand it, but they will be overwhelmed by its badness and be forced to accept it. And then they’ll just shake their heads and beat it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, August 29th, 2009 at 4:58 pm and is filed under Musical, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

39 Responses to “Bad (a film by Martin Scorsese)”

  1. Not to be snide, but I liked this!!!

  2. Vern, good stuff. I liked Michael Jackson growing up, even though in the early 90s you were considered a dork/sissy for liking Michael Jackson (I’m from the rural Midwest). Just nobody like him, and his albums and videos were such an event. Pageantry, man. And real substance and charisma underneath it. Thriller, man—a horror video musical. No one’s ever done anything like that before or since. Moonwalk. Nothing else like it. Like, with Madonna, it was total hype and histrionics, and people tried to make her stuff into an event (Like a Prayer), but with her it always felt (feels) like a ploy for attention or just some hamhanded shock tactics. Michael was weird but not just for the sake of weirdness. He really transported you to another world and defied you to understand him or get to know him. If he hadn’t existed, who could have thought up such a life? Who would believe it? It was weird, because when he died, I was almost kind of relieved in a weird way. Just as he started to assert that he was King of Pop, around the time of the Dangerous album, well, that’s when it was clear that things were crossing a line. His face wasn’t just lighter. It was weirder. He wasn’t just grabbing his junk, he was really giving it the business in that black or white video. And people weren’t buying the records like they used to. And since then, it’s just been a sad, bizarre, slow motion self-destruction. I remember that guy moonwalking at the Apollo. What the heck is that? How in the world did he do that? The shiny glove. How could a shiny glove be so stinkin awesome? But it was. Who can rock a fedora without it feeling like a cheesy throwback. Doing We Are the World. Making great music. People going crazy for him like the Beatles. All over the world. Then he’s reduced to a fifty year-old guy in a surgical mask breakdancing on top of a van and doing a straight-to-video movie with Eric Roberts (no offense to Eric Roberts). The early death isn’t nearly as tragic as the last 20 years of his life.

  3. Fascinating thoughts. Vern, I’m surprised you didn’t review MOONWALKER instead. Its a mess, alot of it an ego-masturbation fest by MJ, but man that “Smooth Criminal” video fucking kicked ass. I think I might agree with ThatGuyWiththeGlasses website: Its better than the Thriller video.

    Yeah, I said it.

    Then again, wasnt the closest that MJ came to doing a movie was a musical of PETER PAN with Spielberg, before that fell apart and later became HOOK that lame movie.

  4. I gotta be honest, I didn’t finish the review. Obviously Vern loves his Michael Jackson but I still don’t “get it” and I don’t really feel that it’s my right to even understand.

  5. RRA – I’ll give Moonwalker a proper review some day, but I’ve been waiting for the proper time to sit down and watch it again. I actually had 2 weeks after he died where I was desperately searching my apartment for the VHS tape (I finally found it in the back bottom of a closet full of heavy boxes). Then I felt like I didn’t want to watch it because it would be too sad. Now I think I’m ready but I have to wait for a day when I can really sit and focus on it.

    And yeah, of course it’s an ego trip, it’s a home video feature film all about Michael Jackson. That’s why it’s awesome. He turns into a kid, a bunny, a 30s gangster, a car, a robot, a spaceship. Joe Pesci tries to kill him. What could be better? But I’m glad you like the Smooth Criminal part. Maybe my favorite too. That dance/fight at the pool table where he blows chalk in the guy’s face. Fantastic.

    I never heard about the Peter Pan thing. That’s too bad it never happened – another non-existent movie to lament the loss of.

  6. Smooth Criminal is the best part of Moonwalker.

    I remember sitting there in my local cinema, 13 years old(I think) and not having a clue what was going on up there on the big screen. The whole movie felt like an huge videoclip compilation(I liked the “Leave me alone” bit too). Then, the “real” movie started and Joe Pesci showed up(I had no idea who he was back then, but he was evil, because he had SPIDERS, lots of ’em…). Everything makes no sense whatsoever, but then MJ walks into the bar and Smooth Criminal begins…FANTASTIC! The “movie” stops and delivers one of the best musical numbers ever and puts a lot of other “musicals” to shame. GREAT stuff.
    Then the weirdness continues and everything falls apart…then MJ turns into Starship Michael and takes off to space. weird…

    So, my verdict on Moonwalker is: A gigantic ego trip of a man who had to much money and fame and could do everything he wanted back then. The result was to much of everything. sad.

  7. who’s bad?

  8. “And then they’ll just shake their heads and beat it.”

    Probably on account of the way he made them feel.

  9. I cried reading this. They played the full version of this video on tv some years back. I thought it was very silly then but Vern’s description is great………..as usual.

    No one makes super-long videos that ARE FUN TO WATCH anymore

    Nice work Vern.

  10. How do I put a phot up? I wanna be cool like the cool people who have pics up! You no pic guys are lame!!

  11. Snide: if you find out, let me know.

    I’m tired of being lame.

  12. Go to http://www.gravatar.com and you’ll figure it out. Then you can sit down at the cool kids’ table with the rest of us. We got a secret handshake and everything.

  13. Excellent. I’ll bring punch!

  14. When I was a kid I thought the video clip for Bad was the coolest fucking thing I’d ever seen in my life. When I got a little older I realised just how ridiculous it is, MJ running around in leather and buckles trying to look intimidating. It’s pretty hilarious. Still awesome though.

  15. One random thought about the “Black & White” clip: I think it’s the best use of morphing ever. It always amazes how the people are not just morphing, but also how their hair is moving, falling down and stuff, when it changes its length.

  16. you didn’t even finish reading the review? Who’s Bad?

  17. that was just great. might have to grab that DVD sometime.

  18. Speaking of MJ and movies, I heard on the radio today Stan Lee talking about how years ago, Michael wanted to buy the Spider-man movie rights, and Lee thinks he intended to star as Peter Parker himself. Cannot picture how that would have looked at all.

  19. Well actually, one thing I could imagine: Spider-man moonwalking up a wall/on a ceiling.

  20. hi vern,
    great to find your review, cause i’m just finishing a storytelling blog with this film as its theme.
    i took the liberty of suggesting visitors to read this, by adding a link in one of the posts.
    will you take a look? it’s pretty must done now… maybe some layout things and that’s it. i don’t intend to write there unless i need to make text reviews. i hadn’t written that must english for a long, looooong time.
    i’d appreciate your opinion.
    thanks,
    goodgirlgonebad

  21. Glad you liked the review, thanks for the link. I’m still getting over MJ’s passing, but I’m happy to see him finally being celebrated. I can’t believe how many times I hear his songs playing from stores, bars, before concerts and from passing cars these days. I don’t think he’s been this popular since Bad came out.

  22. Vern – What you thought of that post-mortem single release “This is It”?

    Sorta underwhelming I thought.

  23. Well, maybe that’s why he didn’t release it. I’ve only listened to it once so far but I thought it was pretty good myself. Not a memorable classic but solid MJ.

    The context of the release makes it seem like it’s something he was working on when he died, but that’s not true. You can tell it’s older, it doesn’t sound like 2000s Michael. But I just checked Wikipedia and it says it was made in 1983 for a guest appearance on a Paul Anka album!

  24. Wow another really great review. I’ve never seen the full length video but this really puts it into context. Must admit I was a bit misty reading Skani’s thoughts. It was so true that you just felt sorry for him towards the end but you still remember how great his music and dancing made you feel. I still can’t hear Man in the Mirror without thinking of the concert footage where people are passing out left and right and crying. And all he’s saying is that sometimes you need to reassess where you’re going and think about what you’re doing. Maybe you’ll make some changes in yourself that can help make someone else better off.

  25. Vern, is “The Girl is Mine” truely the worst THRILLER song? Its not like you ever hear anyone specifically bring that track up when talking THRILLER.

    That and “Say Say Say” are prime examples of when star power (MJ/McCartney) sell a record more than a good beat, good lyrics, good vocals, anything else essential for a good song.

  26. “The Girl Is Mine” represents the wussiest fight in the history of pop culture. The only thing that could beat it would be if Woody Allen slap-boxed Sofia Coppola and lost.

  27. The wierd thing is the HISTORY CD (or HIStory HIS-STORY or whatever) features THE GIRL IS MINE but not HUMAN NATURE, PYT, DIRTY DIANA (a US No. 1), or SMOOTH CRIMINAL; i.e. big hits that a lot of people actually like (and for those of us outside the states and Canada, I would add LEAVE ME ALONE). I would have thought that was a strange choice even in 1995. Looking it up it seems like it was his first hit in the 80s, so I suppose that goes someway towards explaining it. I guess it only bothers me because that’s the only album up to that point I have on CD.

  28. Pacman – I guess, but shit I would understand “Say Say Say” more because that was a #1. And that was excluded from the Number Ones album. Sorta like the Beatles 1 album didn’t have “Please Please Me.” Logic be damned.

  29. BTW PacmanFever, where you live mate?

    As for the infamous first disc of HISTORY, you know what MJ should have done? Instead of rehashing alot of the same shit (and in some instances, weak picks), he could have squeezed in some B-sides that hadn’t been released on an album, like “Can’t Get Outta the Rain” or “Todo Mi Amor Eres Tu.” Or Demos too I suppose.

    I know the story Vern told about that whole HISTORY snafu, but man if you’re gonna force people to possibly retread on same old shit…make it lucrative to fans.

  30. I don’t know, RRA. My instinct was to agree with you, because “The Girl Is Mine” sure isn’t my favorite song on Thriller. But in fairness I put the CD in and listened to it and as corny as that song is there’s some kind of goofy charm to it I think. So if aliens came down and forced me at laserpoint to remove one song from Thriller I would probly choose “Baby Be Mine.”

    You ever notice that on Bad he had a song “Just Good Friends” where he was fighting over a girl with Stevie Wonder? Why are Michael’s duet partners always trying to steal his girl? But that’s a much funkier song because it just sounds like an ’80s Stevie Wonder song with Michael singing every other verse.

  31. I’m from England, living in Norwich at the moment to be precise.

    I actually think the concept of HISTORY, of combining a greatest hits with a “new chapter”, was an interesting (if arrogant) one, but it didn’t quite play it in execution; maybe it needed another disc?

  32. Fun Fact: For THRILLER, MJ had planned (even recorded) a duet with Freddie Mercury. Man that would have been fucking cheestastically awesome.

  33. The world of 1982 could not handle that much unabashed enthusiasm in one song. Maybe now we’re ready, but I doubt it.

  34. Bumping this cause I just received the 25th anniversary remastered version of the BAD album as a gift. One of the best things I’ve ever received though I could definitely do without Pitbull’s raps but it’s a small price to pay for an otherwise pretty kick ass package.

    RE: THRILLER’s filler – Baby Be Mine is way better than The Girl is Mine. Then again I’ve never ever liked The Beatles; especially Paul McCartney.

  35. It’s briefly mentioned here, but what’s everyone’s take on COLOR OF MONEY? Personally, it’s my favorite thing Scorsese has ever done. Pool was somewhat revered by my dad as he played as a hobby, and we had a VHS rip of it in my house for years and years. I just watched it again and it’s still fantastic. Martin might have been doing this as a hired hand as opposed to his more revered personal projects, but it still has a filmatist’s touch to it and 30 years on doesn’t feel very dated at all.

  36. Been a while since I saw it, but I’d rank COLOR in my low favorite Scorsese’s. Cruise had a run in the late 80’s playing the young apprentice finding his way through Life Issues (COCKTAIL, COLOR OF MONEY, RAIN MAN), guided by an older wiser man (even his special-needs brother Rain Man taught him how to not be a selfish asshole), so I thought Scorsese was just taking a Hollywood job on the side in agreeing to do this. But I’d like to revisit it someday.

    If we’re talking favorite Director For Hire Scorsese, then CAPE FEAR, for its awesome Saul Bass opening and score, for its pulpy, purple noirish visuals, for De Niro chewing those visuals from his first scene, and for Scorsese not trying to hide the films amorality behind art, like TAXI DRIVER has been accused of (not by me).

  37. I can unequivocally say it’s worth revisiting, but I have an obvious bias about it. You basically boiled down Tom Cruise’s performance, but the real draw here is Paul Newman, playing the old lion, slowly returning into the jungle. The montage of Felson getting his shit together and ending in that great shot of the pool hall in Atlantic City never fails to give me goosebumps.

  38. Pleasantly surprised to come across MEAN STREETS on netflix last night. It’s never had a DVD release over here and my old vhs is long gone, so watching it was a treat.

    The scene in the bar as De Niro walks the room in slow motion to the tune of Jumpin Jack Flash reminded me why I fell in love with Scorsese all those years ago. Cinematic flourishes like that elevate all the improv scenes that feel like an actor’s warm up for greater things.

    And I only just picked up that it was David Carradine playing the drunk who gets shot while taking a piss, by his brother Robert (Revenge Of The Nerds) Carradine.

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