Michael Jackson Number Ones

Dir: Various, 2003. Starring: Michael Jackson. Music.
Michael Jackson Number Ones

After Michael Jackson's tragic death, it was interesting to hear about young kids who were exposed to him for the first time (no pun intended). The magic of his personality and performances, as well as the simplicity of his music was easy enough for another generation to grasp and embrace. Like The Beatles, Jackson potentially is an artist who will be able to find a new audience starting with the very young for decades to come. Though I would argue that while The Beatles may have two dozen or more songs that are still considered standards, MJ only has five or six tops.

The DVD Number Ones, which has 15 Michael Jackson music videos, may not be enough for the hardcore Michael Jackson fan. I'm sure they could complain about what's missing (mercifully we are spared those songs he did with Paul McCartney, but it's also missing "Scream" with Janet Jackson and "Remember The Time" with Magic Johnson at his most magical). The DVD has no extras, no frills, just an easy menu that says, "play all."

The videos are in chronological order from the late '70s to 2001. It's interesting to be able to see the changes in Michael Jackson's appearance over the years, but maybe less obvious is the change in music videos. As they get costlier and slicker they lose some heart. My Jackson fandom peaked with his Thriller album, so needless to say the first five videos are my favorite. But that's not to say the rest are not of interest. Regardless of Jackson's personal downfall as a performer he continued to be a charismatic dancer and mover.

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" and "Rock With You" From his Off The Wall album. These two videos were made in '79 and '80, years before music videos became standard practice for promoting and selling records. Both videos are nothing special stylistically, but they are two great dance songs, with a still fresh faced MJ, looking right out of his final Jackson 5 days, dancing around, employing the rubbery moves and rhythm we will come to expect from him. This is MJ just after shooting Sidney Lumet's lame film version of The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz. "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" has MJ sporting the Off The Wall LP cover tux. While in "Rock With You," MJ wears a "futuristic" glittery space get-up (similar to his "Scream" video outfit years later) while dancing in what appears to be a laser light show.

"Billie Jean" A classic old-school music video for a great song. While MJ's moon-walking performance of this song on a Motown TV special is what helped ignite the Michael Jackson Thriller mania, unfortunately that's not included on this DVD.

"Beat It" This West Side Story dance/fight short seems to be the music video that MJ and his peers would copy for years…Some plot as window dressing leading to MJ with a group of synchronized dancers.

But "Beat It" is more than just dance. It’s actually MJ's best acting and most interesting showcase for what would be his chosen persona. As badass gang members prepare to do battle with knives (it does require some suspension-of-disbelief to buy these ridiculous looking early 1980s male-dancers as street toughs), Michael, at first wearing his piano key pajamas before changing into his famous red leather, heads out to stop the fight. This is MJ at his most charmingly Peter Pan (before the creepy set in). He is very charismatic and, though he is successfully able to stop the gangs from fighting by teaching them to dance, there is something sad in MJ's character (like the "Billie Jean" video) - the loneliness of being a boy in a grown up world.

"Thriller" The final video of the three from the landmark Thriller album (this is the full version including the full end credits). MJ brought in John Landis, director of An American Werewolf In London (as well as the great Animal House and otherwise mostly mediocre movies). But, more importantly, they also recruited the great make-up genius Rick Baker (An American Werewolf In London and just about every other Werewolf movie in the last 30 years) for his wonderfully gruesome designs.

"Thriller" begins as a spoof of the 1950s I Was A Teenage Werewolf as Michael (in a letterman’s jacket) and the adorable (Playboy model) Ola Ray, sporting matching shiny jheri curls, run out of gas in the woods. She assumes it’s a sexual ploy, but alas it’s Michael Jackson. Instead, he turns into a wolf and chases her around. Then we flash to the present - it’s a movie MJ and Ola are watching in a theater, they leave and are surrounded by zombies on the street. MJ becomes one and they all dance.

And what an amazing dance it is. From MJ flirting with Ola on the street to his leading the zombies in a long dance routine, this shows MJ at his dancin’ best. In its day it was maybe the most epic music video ever made and it still stands the test of time as entertainment and as a pop culture landmark.

"Bad" The title song from MJ’s Bad album. The totally boring Martin Scorsese directed mini-movie clocking in at over 16 minutes and featuring Wesley Snipes has thankfully been edited down for the DVD to a four-minute video of just the dance and music sequence. And it’s a great sequence as a long Jheri curled MJ leads a bunch of would-be toughs in a NY subway station dance-off. One of the best-looking MJ videos, the dolly shots moving through the station are impeccable. "Bad" also seems to mark the beginning of MJ’s extreme plastic surgery (this coming from a layman).

"The Way You Make Me Feel" This video has thankfully been edited down from its longer version as well. Michael, wearing a tucked in/folder over shirt (a la All That Jazz) and now a greasy ponytail, harasses a woman on the street while his boys cheer him on. Directed by Joe Pytka (Space Jam and hundreds of commercials) this is middle-tier Jackson.

"Man In The Mirror" This is Jackson saving the world, though he does not appear in it. The video is just clips of starving children in Africa and American civil rights icons, all set to a self-satisfied song. If the subject matter is of interest to you, you would do better for yourself watching the amazing mega documentary Eyes On The Prize - it’s much more educational and entertaining than this video.

"Smooth Criminal" This is apparently sped-up from its original epic version and the blurred  images make it completely unwatchable. Which is too bad, cause it’s a pretty good song.

"Dirty Diana" Made up of apparently actual live concert footage of an extremely gaunt MJ in front of a Twister-like wind machine. Not a bad song, but dull watching Michael’s greasy hair blow in the breeze, with a strangely dramatic ending.

"Black or White" From MJ’s Dangerous album, another video edited from its slightly longer original form. It originally had shots of Jackson smashing a car which proved to be controversial for some uptight people with too much time on their hands to care about such things. This version of the video begins with an over-acting Macaulay Culkin who sends his father, an even more hammy George Wendt, on his chair to Africa where MJ dances around with people in tribal costumes. That plot is dropped and we get MJ dancing around with different ethnicities in their ethnic costumes. After a black and white baby float around on a planet, Michael angrily storms through fire. Then Culkin, in full hip-hop gear, lip synchs to some weak rap music. Then white, black, and Asian faces morph into each other (technology used in the Terminator 2 movie).

As directed again by John Landis (he has a cameo at the end as the director). This is a pretty catchy, if not trite song, with an all too busy video. It has a lot of ideas, but none are fully developed. Trivia: Culkin’s mother is briefly played by Tess Harper (Tender Mercies and a Oscar nomination for Crimes Of The Heart).

"You Are Not Alone" This dorky ballad sounds like something out of a Disney cartoon. The video is even ickier. It features an emaciated nude MJ, now apparently completely Caucasian, making out with his then wife Lisa Marie Presley, and then singing alone in an empty theater. Kinda horrible, but yet car wreck fascinating!

"Earth Song" I don’t recall hearing this song until I got this DVD and for a cheesy ballad it’s pretty good (it almost sounds like a Tears For Fears song if they sung about dying children or trees). This is a very dramatic video about the end of the world or nature or something heavy duty. Another one with Africans and maybe Incas and Russians and MJ, this time all experiencing the apocalypse. Directed by famed photographer Nick Brandt, this one ends with info about Tanzania and the rain forests and Croatia and New York, but it scrolled by too fast for me to make the connection.

"Blood On The Dance Floor" A completely dull dance song, which seems to have been created by producers with MJ’s vocals added later. The plot-less video does give Michael, shot in super bright Warren Beatty lighting, a chance to do some cool dancing, adding a salsa-flair to his repertoire.

"You Rock My World" This is almost a short film at over ten minutes long, including opening credits listing the cast - and what a cast (for a music video). MJ, Chris Tucker, Michael Madsen, and the greatest actor of all time, Marlon Brando. Oh, and also Billy Drago. Who? He’s the creepy looking dude who played Frank Nitti in The Untouchables. MJ and Tucker play Havana style hustlers. MJ causes trouble when he makes a play for the sleepy eyed Madson’s girl. The super snarly Drago says, “What’s you got," causing MJ to "serve" him and even beat some people up before burning the club down.

Brando in giant frozen corpse mode plays the big boss and manages to mumble a few lines. This is the final performance of the extraordinary actor’s career. What a way to go out! Again some great dancing, a kinda "best of" of Michael’s greatest moves, but again going for epic, trying to recreate the "Thriller" magic. The problem being you can have the talents of MJ, Tucker, and Brando but it’s a completely forgettable song and bland direction, so who cares?

Some of the videos are masterpieces of the genre and others don’t work as well, but either way Michael Jackson Number Ones is a total blast and perfect for the casual fan and as an overview to MJ’s huge impact on music videos. You can see how early he helped to grow them as an art form and later destroy them with overly blotted concepts and budgets. All in all it’s up there with The Beastie Boys Criterion compilation disc, as something easy to watch over and over. But unlike the fancy Criterion packaging, at least MJ has a simple "play all" option.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Dec 9, 2010 6:15pm
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