MJ Studies Today LXXXIV

Abstract: This month, MJ Studies Today columnist Kerry Hennigan celebrates the 40th anniversary of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album by revisiting a 2010 publication on the making of the Thriller short film. The book documents in photographs and supporting text, four days in 1983 that were to revolutionise the music video industry and would eventually result in Thriller’s induction into the National Film Registry in the US as voted by the Library of Congress.


Column by Kerry Hennigan, editor of the free monthly newsletter, A Candle for Michael, administrator of the widely subscribed Facebook group “Michael Jackson’s Short Film ‘Ghosts’” and an MJ blogger on WordPress. Kerry is a student of Ancient and Medieval History, Archaeology, Anthropology and Religious Studies and has a Certificate in Archaeology of the Ancient World from Cambridge University.


REFERENCE AS:

Hennigan, Kerry. “MJ Studies Today LXXXIV: ‘One of the most triumphant, game-changing moments in show business history.’ Revisiting the book ‘Michael Jackson: the Making of Thriller’ by Douglas Kirkland and Nancy Griffin in celebration of 40 years of the Thriller album.” (14-12-2022). The Journal of Michael Jackson Academic Studies Vol 9, No. 2 (2022). https://michaeljacksonstudies.org/mj-studies-today-lxxxiv/


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“One of the most triumphant, game-changing moments in show business history.” Revisiting the book “Michael Jackson: The Making of Thriller” by Douglas Kirkland and Nancy Griffin in celebration of 40 years of the Thriller album.  By Kerry Hennigan

Montage and original photograph © Kerry Hennigan

If there is any single album celebrated for its longevity in the hearts and minds of pop music lovers and Michael Jackson fans everywhere, it would be his 1982 world-wide best seller Thriller. Produced by Quincy Jones, engineered by Bruce Swedien and accompanied by some of the most iconic short films in the history of music videos, Thriller ensured that Jackson’s name would become enshrined in pop culture history, and history generally.

One doesn’t even have to favour this portion of Jackson’s career over the rest of it to appreciate everything that Thriller spawned – one of those things being the title song’s short film which came a year after the album’s release, and which would change forever the music video industry. In recognition of this very considerable legacy, following Jackson’s death in 2009 the Thriller short film was elevated to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in the United States. [1]

In 2010, a large-format photographic book called Michael Jackson: the Making of ‘Thriller’ was published containing images taken by Douglas Kirkland (1934-2022), a high-profile celebrity photographer who had photographed everyone from Hollywood’s biggest stars to US presidents – and Michael Jackson. [2] The book documents the four days of filming Thriller in 1983 as experienced by Kirkland, the only still photographer allowed on the set, and journalist Nancy Griffin who provides the introduction to the book and conducts a Q&A with the photographer. [3]

Griffin was also on set and was co-opted as an extra in the film, playing the woman in the ticket box of the Palace Theatre where Michael’s character is depicted watching a scary movie with his girlfriend, played by Ola Ray. The filming of Thriller was what Griffin calls “one of the most triumphant, game-changing moments in show business history.” [4] Indeed it was, and the song for which the short film was made, and the album from which it came, continue to change the game forty years after the album’s initial release.

Back in 1983, Douglas Kirkland was on assignment for Life magazine and had unparalleled access to the Thriller film set to get all the candid photographs of its young superstar that he wanted. These, as well as the book’s Q&A between Griffin and Kirkland, provide a voyeuristic perspective of Jackson at work and at rest. Kirkland’s photographs show him with director John Landis, being introduced to Rock Hudson who visited the set, and clowning with his head of security, Bill Bray, as well as rehearsing and performing in front of the cine cameras – and getting made up as a monster.

Rick Baker (recently described by Fangoria as “our greatest living makeup artist”) is depicted applying prosthetics to the singer’s face. [5] Before working on Thriller, Baker had created the monster makeup for Landis’ “Werewolf in London” movie which provided the inspiration for the Thriller film project. Landis recalls getting a phone call from Jackson who wanted the director to turn him into a monster. To achieve this, Jackson had to endure hours in the makeup chair having prosthetics stuck to his face and wear yellow contact lenses in his eyes. They were painful for him, Kirkland remembers, but Jackson, a seasoned showbusiness professional of twenty years’ experience by1983, endured whatever was necessary to get the results he wanted.

Ola Ray, Jackson’s co-star, is quoted in the book as saying that Jackson was cute but childlike. Kirkland and Griffin recall Ray having a crush on Michael. “And had he just dropped a penny in her direction,” Kirkland says, “it was a fait accompli, it would have been a done deal. But he wasn’t wired that way.” [6] Ray has nevertheless lived off the fame of her performance with Jackson in Thriller ever since, something that wasn’t as evident when this book was published in 2010 as it is today, twelve years later.

Unfortunately, like many books on Michael Jackson, this one has a couple of problematic moments in its narrative, despite it generally being a celebration of him as an exceptional artist. The authors slip in brief references to what they perceive as Jackson’s later inability to deal with the level of fame he achieved, and Griffin even suggests that we may never know if, in his later years, Jackson was “victim or perpetrator.” [7]

Invariably both Griffin and Kirkland employ that familiar trope of lamenting Jackson’s change in appearance in the years after Thriller. [8] This ignores the obvious: that fresh-faced 25-year-olds undergo change as much as do child prodigies, even those who, unlike Jackson, don’t suffer horrific burns or inherit the skin disorder vitiligo. As noted by Susan Fast in her book on Jackson’s 1992 album “Dangerous,” there is a “very different discourse” coming from the thousands of fans who love Jackson’s more mature persona, i.e. from the Bad era through to This Is It. [9]

However, when all is said and done, Michael Jackson: The Making of Thriller and all the other books and articles that have been written on the subject, are peripheral to the real thing, which Jackson fans, both new and of long-standing, continue to celebrate. The fortieth anniversary edition of the Thriller album, remastering of its short film in 4K, an official documentary (directed by Nelson George) plus Marcos Cabota’s independent, award-winning film “Sonic Fantasy,” have all fuelled renewed interest in Jackson’s album and helped propel it into the top ten of the Billboard 200 albums chart (at #7) for the first time since 1984. That same week Billboard had it charting at #1 on Catalog Albums, #2 Vinyl Albums, #2 Top R&B Albums and #4 Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. [10]

Thriller, the album, single and short film, represents the realisation of an artistic genius’ desire to conquer the world with his music, and to inspire others to be the best they could possibly be, just as he did.


Note: All references and quotes from the book Michael Jackson: The Making of Thriller. 4 Days/1983 refer to the content of the original hardback edition published in 2010.
https://www.amazon.com.au/Michael-Jackson-Douglas-Kirkland/dp/0983270228

Sources:

[1] Associated Press. (2009) Billboard. https://www.billboard.com/music/music-news/michael-jacksons-thriller-added-to-national-film-registry-266296/

[2] Taylor, Belle. “Douglas Kirkland: The man who shoots idols.” Perth Now. 12 Oct 2016. https://www.perthnow.com.au/lifestyle/stm/douglas-kirkland-the-man-who-shoots-idols-ng-7afc7db2d898f1db9582e67b10102d19

[3] Kirkland, Douglas with an Introduction by Nancy Griffin. Michael Jackson: The Making of Thriller. 4 Days/1983. Glitterati Incorporated, 2010, page 16

[4] Kirkland and Griffin. 2010, page 9

[5] Nobile Jr. Phil. “Watch Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 4K.” Fangoria. Published digitally Nov 16, 2022. https://www.fangoria.com/original/watch-michael-jacksons-thriller-in-4k/

[6] Kirkland and Griffin, page 18

[7] Kirkland and Griffin, page 8

[8] Ibid, pages 8 and 25

[9] Fast, Susan. Dangerous. 33-1/3rd Series. Bloomsbury, 2014. https://www.amazon.com/Michael-Jacksons-Dangerous-Susan-Fast/dp/1623566312/

[10] Folk, Antwane. “Michael Jackson’s Album ‘Thriller’ Rockets to Top 10 on Billboard 200.” Rated R&B. Published digitally Nov 28, 2022. https://ratedrnb.com/2022/11/michael-jackson-thriller-album-rockets-to-top-10-on-billboard-200/

Illustration: “it’s a thriller” photo montage by Kerry Hennigan using her original photograph taken at the Hollywood Wax Museum, Hollywood.