Thrilled to be 30

Three decades on, and one spooky video still stands tall above all oth­ers.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MUSIC - by Bryan WaWzenek

ON Dec 2, 1983, MTV pre­miered Michael Jack­son’s new mu­sic video, Thriller. It was an event – MTV’s first world pre­miere. And it lived up to the hype. Nearly 30 years later, when peo­ple con­sider the best mu­sic videos, Thriller of­ten comes out on top.

That suc­cess is re­mark­able given the dis­pos­able na­ture of mu­sic videos. Essen­tially, th­ese clips are just ads for new mu­sic. Around the time of MTV’s launch in 1981, lit­tle ef­fort or money were put into th­ese short clips. For ev­ery band (such as Talk­ing Heads) that ap­proached videos like ex­per­i­men­tal art films, there were thou­sands of acts that stood around in a stu­dio or on a stage and pre­tended to play their new sin­gle in front of a few cam­eras. The vast ma­jor­ity of videos were shot in a day, if not a few hours.

This was the way things were done long be­fore MTV, dat­ing back to the mid-1960s and the “promotional films” made on the cheap, fea­tur­ing a new sin­gle and aired on TV va­ri­ety pro­grams. Even The Bea­tles’ A Hard Day’s Night, the 1964 fea­ture film with se­quences that came to be un­der­stood as the ge­n­e­sis of the mu­sic video, was made on a shoe­string bud­get.

Now, back to the 1980s – an era in which many artists strug­gled to get com­fort­able with pre­sent­ing them­selves on MTV. Jack­son was not some­one who had a prob­lem with this. Hav­ing come up as the adorable lead singer of the Jack­son 5, he seemed to be born with an in­nate charisma as a per­former, as a dancer, as a star.

His early videos dis­played this, even if they forced the one-gloved pop singer to ex­ist in a seizure- in­duc­ing world of disco lights ( Don’t

Stop ‘Til You Get Enough). By 1983, Jack­son be­gan to func­tion a lit­tle less like a mu­sic star and more like a movie ac­tor. The clips for Bil­lie

Jean, Beat It and Say Say Say (fea­tur­ing for­mer Bea­tle Paul Mc­Cart­ney) told sto­ries to the au­di­ence, en­hanc­ing the mu­sic with vi­su­als bor­rowed from film noir, West Side

Story and vaude­ville. Be­tween the qual­ity of the mu­sic and videos, Jack­son be­came the first sig­nif­i­cant African-Amer­i­can pres­ence on MTV. And then came the video for

Thriller. It was big­ger, bolder, longer, more ex­pen­sive and more in­ter­est­ing than any mu­sic video con­ceived at that time (and, some would say, since). Thriller was the third video re­leased from its name­sake al­bum. To help boost the sales of an al­ready block­buster LP, Jack­son wanted to break new ground.

To make this hap­pen, he con­tacted movie di­rec­tor John Lan­dis, be­cause Jack­son had loved Lan­dis’s 1981 horror film An Amer­i­can Were­wolf In Lon­don. At the time, big-shot film di­rec­tors con­sid­ered mu­sic video shoots a sig­nif­i­cant step down, but Lan­dis was in­trigued by Jack­son’s en­thu­si­asm and con­cept. The di­rec­tor and the mu­si­cian col­lab­o­rated on a script that ex­tended a mere mu­sic video into a 13-minute horror flick. Ex­ten­sive zom­bie makeup and “were­cat” ef­fects were de­vel­oped by Rick Baker (who also worked

on Amer­i­can Were­wolf). Dozens of dancers were cast. Ac­tress Ola Ray was hired to play Michael’s love in­ter­est – and vic­tim. The whole thing ended up tak­ing mul­ti­ple days to shoot, cost­ing about US$500,000 (some say even more). Re­gard­less, it was the most ex­pen­sive mu­sic video made in that era.

As it turned out, Jack­son, Lan­dis and ev­ery­one in­volved gam­bled and won. The video was a mon­ster suc­cess for MTV, which aired Thriller as of­ten as pos­si­ble. Most peo­ple who were alive in the early 1980s have dis­tinct mem­o­ries of the video – a sig­nif­i­cant fact con­sid­er­ing that MTV used to air videos one af­ter another in those days. I was a tod­dler at the time, and my mem­ory is see­ing zom­bie Michael on a wall of big-screen TVs at an ap­pli­ance store. I freaked out when I saw one of the danc­ing zom­bies ris­ing from a grave. As such, I would stop my Mom from lis­ten­ing to the song

Thriller when she played the LP at home. For many years, Side One ended with The Girl is Mine.

I was trau­ma­tised, but the rest of the mu­sic world was en­thralled. Mu­sic videos be­came big busi­ness, with record la­bels throw­ing money at bands, di­rec­tors and spe­cial ef­fects, hop­ing that enough cash would re­sult in “the next Thriller.” They tried. And some re­ally in­ter­est­ing videos were cre­ated – from videos that brought a cin­e­matic sweep to the small screen (Guns N’ Roses’ Novem­ber Rain) to clips that fea­tured some of the ear­li­est uses of com­puter an­i­ma­tion (Dire Straits’ Money For Noth­ing). In the 1990s, mu­sic videos be­came a step­ping stone for film di­rec­tors to get to Hol­ly­wood. Some of to­day’s most cre­ative and suc­cess­ful film di­rec­tors (David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michael Bay) got their start at the helm of a five-minute mu­sic video. Fran­cis Lawrence, the di­rec­tor of The Hunger Games: Catch­ing

Fire, once made videos for Brit­ney Spears, Aero­smith and Jen­nifer Lopez.

While ev­ery­one else was try­ing to out-do Thriller, so was Jack­son. He con­tin­ued to work with A-list di­rec­tors (Martin Scors­ese on Bad, John Sin­gle­ton on Re­mem­ber The Time and Lan­dis again on Black Or

White). The bud­gets got big­ger, the con­cepts grew more elab­o­rate, the co-stars be­came ac­tual celebri­ties (in­clud­ing Ed­die Mur­phy and Mar­lon Brando). Yet, even MJ couldn’t top Thriller. Not even with 1995’s Scream, di­rected by the great Mark Ro­manek, fea­tur­ing Janet Jack­son and boast­ing the largest bud­get in mu­sic video his­tory: US$7mil.

When it came to videos, Jack­son never quite es­caped the long shadow of Thriller. How could he? Long af­ter MTV stopped show­ing videos and started get­ting “real,” we’re still fas­ci­nated by Thriller. Con­victed crim­i­nals chore­o­graph their own

Thriller videos. Towns host Thriller fes­ti­vals. A Thriller Broad­way mu­si­cal is in the works. Years from now, af­ter a mil­lion more vi­ral videos have gone the way of Gang­nam

Style, we’ll still be talk­ing about Thriller.

Night of the liv­ing dead: michael Jack­son’s Thriller reigns as one of the scari­est videos of all time.

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