Bad 25: Spike Lee’s Thrilling Tribute to the Michael Jackson Album

A quarter-century to the day after its release, Lee lays out the soul and the science behind the King of Pop's followup to 'Thriller'

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Michael Jackson stands in a graffiti-filled subway car during the filming of the long-form music video for his song 'Bad,' directed by Martin Scorsese, New York, New York, November 1986.

“He’s got the perfect balance and soul and science,” producer Quincy Jones said of Michael Jackson, at the conclusion of their work on the album Bad (read TIME’s oral history: The Making of Bad). Spike Lee’s Bad 25, which has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival tonight, exactly a quarter-century after its Aug. 31, 1987, release, shows the blend of inspiration and acuity that drove these two perfectionists in creating a worthy successor to their epochal 1982 album Thriller. Jackson said he meant bad “in all good will,” and in that sense the movie isn’t bad, it’s baaad — and great.

On mirrors wherever he went after Thriller, Jackson scrawled “100,000,000” — the estimated worldwide sales of Thriller; still the best-selling album of all time and the winner of a record eight Grammy awards. Bad topped out at about 40 million, but it was the first album to birth five No. 1 singles (a record broken, we’re embarrassed to note, by the six No. 1 songs from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dreams CD). The Bad videos — or, as MJ insisted on calling them, “hort films” — cemented Jackson’s stature as a movie star who never appeared in a hit movie; thematically adventurous and expertly choreographed, they provided the crucial link between golden-age Hollywood musicals and YouTube. To extend the album’s multimedia reach, Jackson toured for 16 months in 15 countries, 123 shows that displayed his preternatural showmanship and supernatural footwork.

(Venice Film Festival: Follow TIME’s Complete 2012 Coverage)

Covering it all in a galloping 2hr.10min, Bad 25 is also a love letter from the often acerbic director, who at today’s press conference underlined the influence Jackson had on the aspirations of a black kid in Brooklyn. “I was born in 1957, he was born in ’58,”Lee said. “And when I saw the Jackson Five on The Ed Sullivan Show, I wanted to be Michael Jackson. I had the Afro, the whole Jackson look. But the singing and dancing — that’s where it stopped.”

No matter: Lee, who directed Jackson in the 1996 video for “They Don’t Care About Us,” is a master of slick, sleek propulsion, as both interviewer and assembler of the all-time great making-of documentary. Like This Is It, the 2009 film of Jackson’s preparation for the concert tour aborted by his death at the age of 50, this is a demonstration of the backstage agony and artistry. The performer’s fans — and all sentient movie lovers — who can’t get to Venice or to the Toronto Film Festival, where Bad 25 is the closing-night attraction on Sep. 15, can catch this essential pop-culture artifact Thanksgiving Day on ABC.

(LIST: See TIME’s Top 10 Michael Jackson Everything)

For Bad, Jackson wrote or cowrote most of the songs. Jones’s maxim as a producer — “You can’t polish doodoo” — meant an epic wrangle over which songs to include among the final 10 cuts. Engineer Bruce Swedien, the avuncular Wilford Brimley of microphone magic, would arrange the placement of musicians and backup singers, while Jones chose the supporting cast. The ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was intended as a duet with Whitney Houston or Barbra Streisand; instead it went to the little-known Siedah Garrett, a Jones protégé, with the young Sheryl Crow duetting with MJ on the tour.

At the end of the six-month recording process, Garrett got another call: to write a ballad for the album’s last track. She and Glen Ballard created the soaring “Man in the Mirror,” with choral work by The Winans and Andrae Crouch. After the session wrapped, Crouch suggested one last hymnal “Change!” The departing singers were called back from the parking lot to provide the song’s spiritual capper.

Jackson’s videos for Thriller had employed John Landis (for the title tune), Bob Giraldi (“Beat It”) and Steve Barron (“Billie Jean”), setting the standard for the MTV minimovie. The “Bad” track would be helmed by Martin Scorsese, who had just directed The Color of Money from a Richard Price script. Price offered Jackson an inner-city faceoff scenario; as he says in Bad 25, “Here’s this asthmatic Italian and an asthmatic Jew” helping the sheltered, showbiz black kid “to show the brothers that he’s down with them.” The video, which costars a young Wesley Snipes (soon to be the star of Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues and Jungle Fever), was shot on the streets of Harlem. As Scorsese recalls, Michael “looked around and said, ‘Do people really live here?'”

(READ: Corliss on The Death of Peter Pan)

Bad 25 documents the conception and shooting of most of the album’s videos, with testimony from their directors: Joe Pytka (“The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Dirty Diana”), Colin Chilvers (“Smooth Criminal”) and California Raisins stop-motion auteur Will Vinton (“Speed Demon”). Tatiana Thombtzen, the slim model who could have been Michael Jackson as a female, recalls that Pytka advised her not to kiss Michael at the climax of “The Way You Make Me Feel.” A kiss would have been redundant: the two were such visual twins that romance approached narcissism.

“A lot of people misunderstand me,” the singer said. “That’s ’cause they don’t know me at all.” The Jackson revealed here is the obsessed professional who worked for months in Jones’s recording studio and at home with a “B team” of top musicians laying down demo tracks. He practiced his gliding, lurching dance steps with Soul Train graduate Jeffrey Daniel and A Chorus Line cast member Gregg Burge. He pored over the dance films of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse, writing in a note to himself, “Study the greats and become greater.” A record- and rule-breaker, Jackson also built on and improved on a century of American song and dance.

“I feel rejuvenated,” Michael Jackson said of his Bad album, “a jubilation.” Bad 25 is an intimate view of a performer at his peak in the intense splendor of creativity. The movie ends with a magnificent rendition of “The Man in the Mirror” at Wembley Stadium in June 1988. Exhausted and exhausting, he gives his fans his unique all as singer, dancer, charismatic showman.