“There are only two eras in pop: before Thriller and after Thriller,” says US music journalist Steve Ivory in the new documentary Thriller 40. BDLife was granted exclusive access to the film on the story behind the making of the best-selling album of all time, ahead of its worldwide premiere on Saturday. Forty years after the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the film takes a trip back in time to reveal the experience of making the album that revolutionised pop music. The story also retraces the production of the accompanying short films that forever redefined the music video format.
Thanks to never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews, Thriller 40 chronicles the creation of a global phenomenon that crowned the King of Pop.
Besides the rare studio footage, the film features demo recordings from Michael’s home studio in California of classics like Billie Jean where you hear his voice stripped of all the instrumentation. The filmmakers also had access to notes and tapes from Michael’s archives with his personal reflections: “I never give up until I get what I want,” he scribbled in a note to himself. During the recording of Thriller, he is heard muttering, “biggest selling album of all time.”
Thriller launched Michael into super-stardom and continues to influence many aspects of culture and entertainment, spanning the worlds of music, dance and fashion. Usher, Mary J. Blige, Will I Am, Mark Ronson, Maxwell and record producers Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam all offer thoughts on the phenomenal impact of Thriller. “If Thriller came out today, it would still be the greatest album ever made,” says Will I Am. “It is the ultimate blueprint to modern pop music.”
Songwriting, to Michael, was a spiritual experience. “Leave it in the hands of God, it is the work of God” he says during the recording of Billie Jean
His strategy was to break barriers and not just be viewed from the prism of a Black artist, so he tapped the talents of some of the biggest names in pop and rock. He invited Paul McCartney to watch cartoons as they completed writing The Girl Is Mine while the signature guitar solo on Beat It was played by rock legend Eddie Van Halen. After his record company, CBS, turned down the budget for Beat It, Michael paid for the production of the iconic video himself, where two feuding gangs make peace through a choreographed dance routine.
MTV refused to play the Billie Jean video because they said the music would not resonate with the music channel’s target audience of rock-loving white teenagers. Michael reacted to that rebuff by saying he would to create something so powerful that everyone would want to watch. “I wanted videos that stand out with quality, excellence, perfection,” he says in a recording from his personal archive.
The budget for the Thriller video was $1.2 million at a time when the average amount spent on creating one video $50,000. Michael’s objective was to make a film that would be a stimulant for people to make short films. John Landis director of Hollywood films like American Werewolf in London, Trading Places and Coming to America was recruited to direct the short film.
Elements such as the zombie dance and Michael’s red jacket, designed by Landis’ wife, have left a lasting impression on global pop culture.
After the video was released, the sales of the album tripled, at one point registering one million copies a week. Jackson swept the Grammy Awards in 1984 winning a record 12 Grammys with producer Quincy Jones, including Album of the Year and Record of the Year.
Michael’s influence is now spreading to a demographic that born 20 years after the release of Thriller with his videos on the TikTok platform since August 2020. “There is a real rebirth of the music and video from the songs on the album as a new generation is exposed and engages with the music,” says Global Head of Music, Tik Tok, Ole Oberman.
The numbers he reels out in the film reveal the impact of Thriller in a digital age: 10 million video creations on Tik Tok, which include music from Thriller, 17 billion views, two billion Likes of those videos. “Rather than just watch the videos, the new generation are making something to engage with that music,” says Oberman.
There was never a tour dedicated solely to the biggest-selling album of all time, instead, Michael went on the Victory tour with his brothers, through a commercial deal struck between dad Joe and promoter Don King, where they performed a mix of their classic Jackson 5 songs and songs from Thriller. It is no surprise that audiences were ecstatic about the latter.
Forty years since the release of Thriller, Michael’s groundbreaking music and style has influenced different generations of artists from Usher and Justin Timberlake to Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars to K-Pop sensations, BTS.
The film Thriller 40 premieres on Paramount Plus and MTV streaming channels on December 2.