Calling The Beatles pop’s all-time greatest band, Jimi Hendrix its all-time greatest guitarist, or “Thriller” its all-time greatest video isn’t terribly original. There’s still a reason such opinions are so persistent and pervasive: they’re true. “Thriller” may not be the greatest song—it’s not even the greatest song on Thriller—but a great video is equal parts striking music, visuals, and performance. “Thriller” married a singer/performer at his peak powers with visual artists John Landis and Rick Baker who’d just made the best horror film of the eighties, An American Werewolf in London. “Thriller” was a sheer “lightning in a bottle” moment.
We can’t get a super accurate representation of Michael Jackson’s gifts in Douglas Kirland’s new book Michael Jackson: The Making of “Thriller”: 4 Days/1983 since a book can’t move (though the moving-MJ hologram on the front cover is as close as it gets). The incredible visuals of Landis, and particularly, Baker are on full display though. The centerpiece of the book pores over the painstaking processes of Baker’s application of the iconic cat-man and zombie makeups. Yet it’s the small moments that really thrill: the nostalgia-defining shot of the eighties’ biggest star playing a Donkey Kong arcade game, Landis drinking a Tab and showing his star how to be a scary monster, and some shots of Jackson in cat makeup without his contact lenses that provide a peek at the man behind the monster. Most arresting of all is a sequence devoted to the removal of the zombie makeup. It looks really, really painful. Then in the final shot of the sequence, Jackson looks like he has simply shaken off the pain. His is the face of a true pro.
The introduction by journalist Nancy Griffin, who wrote a far more extensive and revealing piece on the video-shoot for Vanity Fair in 2010, and her interview with on-set photographer Kirkland are nice, but a video with such a complex production and far-reaching history could have used more text. However, Griffin and Kirkland are determined to keep the focus on the photos and can’t be blamed for allowing such unforgettable images to howl for themselves.
Get Michael Jackson: The Making of “Thriller”: 4 Days/1983 on Amazon.com here: