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‘Thriller 40’ shifts the focus back to Michael Jackson’s art, not the artist

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Michael Jackson has an extremely complicated legacy, and if you want something that addresses the darker side of it, look elsewhere than “Thriller 40.” In the new documentary, director Nelson George has delivered an unabashed celebration of Jackson’s musical genius, and the landmark album that propelled him into a pop stratosphere where few could lay a glove on him.

By sidestepping the philosophical questions about separating the art from the artist, “Thriller 40” can focus steadfastly on the music, and all the other ways Jackson influenced the industry, and less on the man himself. That includes interviews with talent like Usher, Mary J. Blige and Will.I.Am, with the last of those heralding “Thriller” as “the ultimate blueprint to modern pop music.”

Perhaps most impressively, George (the author of the book “Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson”) manages to simultaneously convey the tremendous impact of “Thriller” at the time – among other things, helping integrate MTV, which until then had heavily tilted toward White artists – and its lingering influence. It’s striking, for example, to see clips of BTS videos that clearly copy Jackson’s dance moves, then hear ballerina Misty Copeland dissecting his choreography and movement.

The documentary incorporates a bit of context about The Jackson 5, primarily to make the point that Jackson’s success as a solo artist was by no means a preordained conclusion. His success with 1979’s album “Off the Wall” offered a mere teaser of what was to come – the explosion of hits on his subsequent record “Thriller”in 1982, including the title track, “Bille Jean” and “Beat It.”

The most electric sequence in the film involves Jackson’s performance at the Motown anniversary show in 1983, which made the room “berserk,” as one attendee recalls, and prompted then-Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn to go ask if some special effect or trick stage had been used to let Jackson “moon walk,” a flourish that, according to a snippet of an interview with Jackson, prompted a congratulatory call from dance legend Fred Astaire.

“Thriller 40” is filled with those kinds of anecdotes, rare interviews and behind-the-scenes footage regarding both the songs and the music videos, such as Jackson fighting to shoot “Thriller” for a then-unheard-of $1.2-million budget, enlisting director John Landis (who is among those interviewed) because he had liked “An American Werewolf in London.”

The real shame watching “Thriller 40” is everything else that happened to cloud Jackson’s memory, in a way that prevents many from thinking of his jaw-dropping talent when hearing his name.

Jackson is far from the only artist enveloped by scandal, and the passion of his ardent defenders hasn’t cooled since his death in 2009, as evidenced by their response to the 2019 documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which the Jackson family dismissed as a “public lynching.” The family is also cooperating with a planned movie biography announced earlier this year, in which Jackson will be portrayed by his nephew, Jafaar Jackson.

In life, Jackson’s eccentricities and later more serious allegations of abuse often obscured his work. “Thriller 40” consciously and effectively brings the focus back to the music and the thrills he delivered as a performer. As for the ability to keep the rest of his story at bay while watching it, that will likely depend on one’s level of Jackson fandom.

“Thriller 40” premieres December 2 on Paramount+ and at 8 p.m. ET that day on Showtime.

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