Michael Jackson's Thriller (music video)
|Michael Jackson's Thriller|
|Directed by||John Landis|
|Narrated by||Vincent Price|
|Cinematography||Robert Paynter, B.S.C.|
|Distributed by||Epic Records|
Sony Music Entertainment
IMAX (2018 re-release)
9 million units
Michael Jackson's Thriller is a 1983 music video for the Michael Jackson song "Thriller", directed by John Landis and written by Landis and Jackson. Jackson contacted Landis after seeing his film An American Werewolf in London. The pair conceived a short film with a budget much larger than previous music videos. A making-of documentary, Making Michael Jackson's Thriller, was also produced to receive financing from television networks.
The video references numerous horror films, and stars Jackson performing a dance routine with a horde of the undead. The opening sequence homages 1950s B-movie films, with Jackson and Ola Ray dressed as 1950s teenagers before Jackson transforms into a werewolf. In the second sequence, Jackson becomes a zombie and dances with the undead. The video was filmed at the Palace Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, the junction of Union Pacific Avenue and South Calzona Street in East Los Angeles, and the Angeleno Heights neighborhood at 1345 Carroll Avenue.
Michael Jackson's Thriller was launched to great anticipation and played regularly on MTV. It doubled the sales of the Thriller album, helping it become the best-selling album in history, and sold over a million copies on VHS, becoming the best-selling videotape at the time. It is credited for transforming music videos into a serious art form and short films, breaking down racial barriers in popular entertainment, and popularizing the making-of documentary format. The success transformed Jackson into a dominant force in global pop culture.
Many elements of Michael Jackson's Thriller have had a lasting impact on popular culture, such as the zombie dance and Jackson's red jacket, designed by Landis's wife Deborah Nadoolman. Fans worldwide re-enact its zombie dance and it remains popular on YouTube. The Library of Congress described Michael Jackson's Thriller as "the most famous music video of all time", and it has been named the greatest video of all time by various publications and readers' polls. In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the National Film Registry as "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant.
In the 1950s, Michael Jackson and a young woman (Ola Ray) run out of gas while driving in a wooded area. They walk into the forest and Michael asks her to be his girlfriend. She accepts. He warns her that he is "not like other guys", transforms into a werewolf, and attacks her.
In the present, Michael and his girlfriend are watching the werewolf film in a movie theater. She leaves, disturbed by the violence. In the street, Michael teases her by performing the verses of "Thriller". In a graveyard, undead rise from their graves. The couple are surrounded and Michael becomes a zombie. He and the zombies dance to "Thriller".
Michael and the zombies chase his girlfriend into an abandoned house. She screams and wakes up, realizing it was a nightmare. Michael embraces her, but turns to the camera and grins, revealing his werewolf eyes.
Michael Jackson's album Thriller was released in 1982 and spent more than a year at the top of the Billboard 200. By mid-1983, sales began to decline. Jackson, who was "obsessive" about his sales figures, urged record executives Walter Yetnikoff and Larry Stessel to help conceive a plan to return the album to the top of the charts. Jackson's manager Frank DiLeo suggested making a third music video, for the title track, "Thriller". He recalled telling Jackson: "It’s simple—all you’ve got to do is dance, sing, and make it scary."
In early August, after seeing his horror film An American Werewolf in London, Jackson contacted director John Landis. At the time, commercial directors did not direct music videos, but Landis was intrigued. He and Jackson conceived a short shot on 35mm film with the production values of a feature film, with a budget of $900,000, much larger than any previous music video. According to Landis, when he called Yetnikoff to propose the film, Yetnikoff swore so loudly he had to remove the phone from his ear. Jackson's record company, Epic, had little interest in making another video for Thriller, believing that the album had peaked. Yetnikoff eventually agreed that the company would contribute only $100,000.
To help finance the production, Landis's producer George Folsey Jr suggesting a making-of documentary that, combined with the "Thriller" video, would produce an hour-long film that could be sold to television. Initially, the television networks refused to finance the project, sharing the view that Thriller was "last year's news". MTV, which had found success with Jackson's videos for "Billie Jean" and "Beat It", had a policy of not financing music videos itself, instead expecting record companies to pay for them. However, after Showtime, then a new channel, agreed to pay half the budget, MTV agreed to pay the rest, justifying the expenditure as financing for a motion picture and not a music video.
MTV paid $250,000 for the exclusive rights to show the documentary; Showtime paid $300,000 for pay-cable rights. Jackson covered additional costs, for which he would be reimbursed. Vestron Music Video offered to distribute Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller on VHS and Betamax; this was a pioneering concept, as most videos at the time were sold to rental stores rather than directly to viewers. Vestron paid an additional $500,000 to market the video cassette.
Jackson wanted to make a video in which he transformed into a four-legged beast, similarly to the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London. This idea was replaced with a two-legged monster, as this made it easier for him to dance. Landis felt Jackson should become "scary" and "creepy", but not "ugly". Landis suggested that Jackson should become a werewolf in a 1950s setting, inspired by the 1957 film I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
Jackson created the zombie dance with choreographer Michael Peters, who had choreographed the "Beat It" video. Jackson said his first concern was to create a zombie dance that did not seem comical. He and Peters imagined how the zombies would move by making faces in the mirror, incorporating "jazzy" moves, "not too much ballet or whatever".
Landis's wife Deborah Nadoolman, who had designed costumes for films including Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), designed the costumes, including Jackson's red jacket. She chose red to contrast with the night setting and dark palette, dressing him in "hip", casual clothes that would be comfortable to dance in, and used the same color for his jacket and jeans to make Jackson appear taller.
Michael Jackson's Thriller was the first time Jackson had interacted with a woman in a video, which Landis described as a "breakthrough". Jennifer Beals turned down an offer to play the girlfriend. According to Landis, Ola Ray, a former Playboy Playmate, was cast as she was "crazy for Michael" and had a "great smile". Landis encouraged Jackson and Ray to improvise during their scenes, and urged Jackson to satisfy his female fans by acting "sexy" and showing "virility". According to Ray, the chemistry between them was real and they shared "intimate moments" during the shoot.
Jackson's transformation makeup was designed by artist Rick Baker, who had worked on American Werewolf. The director of photography was Robert Paynter, who had worked with Landis on Trading Places.
Thriller was filmed at the Palace Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, the zombie dance sequence at the junction of Union Pacific Avenue and South Calzona Street in East Los Angeles, and the final house scene in the Angeleno Heights neighborhood at 1345 Carroll Avenue. All principal photography was done in mid-October 1983.
Entertainment figures including Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson and Jackie Kennedy Onassis visited the set. Jackson's parents Joseph and Katherine Jackson also visited. According to Landis, Joseph refused to leave when Michael asked him to have him removed, and had to be escorted off the set by police, which Joseph denied.
The Thriller video makes many allusions to horror films. The opening scene parodies 1950s B-movie films, with Jackson and Ray dressed as 1950s teenagers. The metamorphosis of the polite "boy next door" into a werewolf has been interpreted as a depiction of male sexuality, depicted as naturally bestial, predatory, and aggressive. Critic Kobena Mercer found similarities with the werewolf in The Company of Wolves (1984).
The second metamorphosis has Michael becoming a zombie, introducing a dance sequence of dancing zombies, corresponding to a song lyric mentioning a masquerade ball of the dead. Jackson's make-up casts "a ghostly pallor" over his skin and emphasizes the outline of his skull, an allusion to the mask from The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
According to Peter Dendle, the zombie invasion sequence was inspired by Night of the Living Dead (1968). Dendle wrote that the video captures the feelings of claustrophobia and helplessness essential to zombie films.
Making Michael Jackson's Thriller
The Thriller video was aired alongside a documentary of the making of the video, Making Michael Jackson's Thriller, directed by Jerry Kramer. It includes home video footage of a young Jackson dancing and footage of his performances from The Ed Sullivan Show and Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.
On November 14, 1983, Thriller was shown to a private audience at the Crest Theater in Los Angeles. In attendance celebrities including Diana Ross, Warren Beatty, Prince, and Eddie Murphy. Jackson stayed in the projection booth, declining Ray's invitation to join the audience. The audience gave the film a standing ovation. At Murphy's insistence, the film was played again.
The video debuted on MTV on December 2, 1983. After each broadcast, MTV advertised when they would next play it, and recorded audience figures ten times the norm. Showtime aired the video six times in February. Within months, the cassette tape sold a million copies, making it the bestselling video release at that point. To make the film eligible for an Academy Award, which required theatrical screenings, Landis arranged for the film to play before screenings of Fantasia (1940) at a Los Angeles cinema, though it was not nominated.
The video dramatically boosted sales of the Thriller album, which sold a million copies a week following its debut. It doubled album sales, helping make Thriller the bestselling album of all time. According to Landis, the response was "a surprise to everyone but Michael". The success transformed Jackson into a dominating force in global pop culture, and cemented his status as the "king of pop".
At the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, Thriller won the awards for Viewers Choice, Best Overall Performance and Best Choreography, and was nominated for Best Concept Video, Best Male Video and Video of the Year.
In 1982, the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV) reviewed 200 MTV videos and classified more than half as too violent, including Thriller. NCTV chairman Thomas Radecki said: "It's not hard to imagine young viewers after seeing Thriller saying, 'Gee, if Michael Jackson can terrorize his girlfriend, why can't I do it too?'
Response from Jehovah's Witnesses
Two weeks before the premiere, Jackson called his assistant John Branca and ordered him to destroy the Thriller negatives. Jackson, who was a Jehovah's Witness, had been told by church leaders that the video promoted demonology and that he would be excommunicated. The production team agreed to protect the negatives and locked them in Branca's office. Branca mollified Jackson by suggesting they include a disclaimer at the start of the film stating that it did not reflect Jackson's personal convictions.
In a statement published in Awake!, a magazine published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, Jackson said: "I just intended to do a good, fun short film, not to purposely bring to the screen something to scare people or to do anything bad. I want to do what's right. I would never do anything like that again." He said he had blocked further distribution and promotion of the film where he had been able.
Michael Jackson's Thriller video sealed MTV's position as a major cultural force, helped disassemble racial barriers for black artists, revolutionized music video production, popularized the making-of documentaries, and drove rentals and sales of VHS tapes. Music video director Brian Grant credited Thriller as the turning point when music videos became a "proper industry". Former MTV executive Nina Blackwood said, "[After Thriller] we saw videos get more sophisticated—more story lines, way more intricate choreography. You look at those early videos and they were shockingly bad."
Vinny Marino of ABC News commented that the video being selected as the "Greatest Video of All Time" was a "no-brainer", saying that it "continues to be considered the greatest video ever by just about everyone." Gil Kaufman of MTV described the video as "iconic" and felt that it was one of Jackson's "most enduring legacies". Kaufman also noted that the music video was the "mini-movie that revolutionized music videos" and "cemented Jackson's status as one of the most ambitious, innovative pop stars of all time".
Michael Jackson's Thriller was named the "greatest video" by MTV in 1999, and by VH1 and Time in 2001. In a poll of over one thousand users conducted by Myspace in 2010, it was voted the most influential music video.
In 2009, Michael Jackson's Thriller was the first music video to be selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. The Library described it as "the most famous music video of all time". National Film Preservation Board coordinator Steve Legett, said the video had been considered for induction for years, but was chosen mainly due to Jackson's death that year.
A Hollywood production company attempted to turn Jackson's song "Billie Jean", which is also featured on Jackson's Thriller album, into a feature film, but no plans were completed. In 2009, Jackson sold the "Thriller" rights to the Nederlander Organization to stage a Broadway musical based on the video.
Thriller continues to be popular on YouTube, which also hosts user-submitted videos of reenactments of the dance. The dance is performed in major cities around the world; the largest zombie dance included 12,937 dancers, in Mexico City. A YouTube video of more than 1,500 prisoners performing the dance had attracted 14 million views as of 2010.
In 2017, the music video made its world debut in a newly restored 3D version at the 74th annual Venice Film Festival, accompanied by the Making of Michael Jackson's Thriller documentary, also newly remastered. It was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, followed by a U.S. premiere at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre, before being further remastered in IMAX 3D for a limited engagement in 2018, preceding screenings of The House With a Clock in Its Walls in North America for its first week. The restoration process from the original negatives was overseen by John Landis. The new version also includes newly-remixed audio as well as a jump scare ending.
Ola Ray has also complained about difficulties collecting royalties. At first, Ray blamed Jackson, but then she apologized to him in 1997. However, Ray did sue Jackson on May 6, 2009 less than two months before Jackson's death on June 25, 2009. Eventually the Jackson Family Trust settled.
|1985||Best Video, Long Form||Won||Thriller|
|1984||Best Video Album||Won||Making Michael Jackson's Thriller|
|1999||100 Greatest Music Videos of all Time ||Won|
|1984||Best Overall Performance in a Video||Won|
|1984||Best Choreography (Michael Peters)||Won|
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