Remember the time when Michael Jackson was the most successful and popular entertainer in the world? Michael Jackson clearly recalls that period, for in almost everything he’s done over the last decade-plus, he’s tried to recreate that era and remind us of his former glories.
It hasn’t worked. From his ridiculous self-titling as the “King of Pop” in 1991 to the absurd statue of himself on the cover of the 1995 mix of hits and new material called HIStory to the pathetic decision to call his new album Invincible, Michael spends much more time telling us how great he is than he does proving it.
Feh on 21st century Michael Jackson, I say. Any chance he had to overcome his many missteps over the years and redeem himself as a performer to me died on October 21, 2001, when I went to the utterly miserable “What More Can I Give?” benefit concert here in Washington DC. After an exceedingly long day of screw-ups and silliness, headliner Michael finally hit the stage at around midnight; this in a show that was supposed to end at 9 PM! Anyway, he ran through a lip-synched version of “Man In the Mirror” during which he actually was insensitive enough to use the American flag as a prop and then fling it to the stage when he tired of it! While I’m not an ultra-patriotic sort, that action shocked even me; it demonstrated just how out of touch Michael has become.
While Michael effectively blocked any interest I have in his current or future endeavors, I can’t deny that he’s made some good music over the years. Frankly, I stopped caring much about him more than a decade ago, but his classic material remains that: classic, and that’s where my involvement in Michael’s work will remain.
As such, I was very pleased to check out this new video compilation, the awkwardly titled Greatest Video Hits HIStory. Yes, it still shows that lame Michael statue also seen on the cover of the HIStory album, but the DVD itself spotlights 10 of Michael’s biggest successes.
The videos span Michael’s solo career from 1979’s breakthrough release Off the Wall through 1991’s “King of Pop” era Dangerous. Here’s how the tunes match up with his albums:
-Off the Wall: “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You”;
-Thriller (1982): “Billie Jean”, “Beat It”, and “Thriller”;
-Bad (1987): “Bad”, and “The Way You Make Me Feel”;
-Dangerous: “Black or White”, “Remember the Time”, and “Heal the World”.
Going back to the earliest clips from Off the Wall, we see the simplest production values of the whole package. Both “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With Me” do no more than superimpose Michael in front of some silly backgrounds; “Rock” features a foggy laser show, while “Enough” puts him before odd items like giant marbles. It’s all largely irrelevant, though, for the focus remains on Michael. As such, these are two of the more pleasing clips. They showcase some of Michael’s performance charisma, and frankly, it’s nice to see him when he looked like a fairly normal person. Dated though they may appear, both videos remain compelling. Hey, where else can you see three Michaels dance together?
As we move ahead to the landmark Thriller, “Billie Jean” doesn’t exactly go nuts with added flash and flair. However, it does try to create some sort of weird plot in which Michael’s stalked by a detective and he displays some magical powers. It’s all very confusing and nonsensical, but it highlights the excellent song and is odd enough to keep me interested. “Billie Jean” looks dated by today’s standards, but it’s still a classic video that holds up well.
With “Beat It”, we finally find an example of the big dance number for which Michael became famous. In another first, “Beat It” tries to tell a stronger story, unlike the more vague performance-oriented clips that precede it here. (Granted, one could argue there’s a plot to “Billie Jean”, but it’s so muddled that it becomes irrelevant.)
Admittedly, the story of “Beat It” isn’t exactly deep; essentially, a couple of gangs get together and fight, and Michael steps in to stop this through the power of dance! Nonetheless, it’s a step in the right direction, and while the group choreography seems influenced by West Side Story, it was hugely important in the world of music videos. The song’s still pretty hot, and the video remains involving and compelling.
One of the most famous music videos ever, “Thriller” offers an early example of a “longform” video. The clip lasts almost 14 minutes and really tries to tell a story. Michael goes out to a scary movie with a sexy date, played by former Playboy Playmate Ola Ray. I always found it odd that neither seemed to notice that the two actors in the film looked just like Michael and Ola, but whatever! Anyway, after she decides to leave because it’s too creepy, Michael teases her as he sings “Thriller” on the walk home. Eventually, he turns into a zombie and a dance number with other decaying corpses ensues.
The “Thriller” video was a huge event when it first appeared in December 1983, but it didn’t receive the rapturous reception one might think. To be sure, people largely enjoyed it, but it didn’t live up to the enormous hype for many. Even back then, Michael made sure that everything he did was promoted as the biggest and the best, and nothing could match up to those expectations. In any case, it remains a very entertaining piece, and it’s clearly a landmark achievement. I don’t know if it was the first “longform” music video, but it’s definitely the most famous and influential of that genre. It also made it acceptable for Hollywood directors to guide music videos, as John Landis helmed the clip.
Interestingly, Michael actually had the “Thriller” video withdrawn from circulation a few years after its release. He apparently realized that the clip’s emphasis on the occult didn’t agree with his belief in the ways of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he briefly dropped it. However, it soon returned, albeit with a disclaimer that indicated he didn’t endorse monsters and whatnot. That notice remains at the start of the version found on the DVD.
The expectations for the Thriller album were very high since Off the Wall did nicely on the charts. In fact, in one of the worst predictions ever made, I asserted that there was absolutely no way Thriller would sell as well as Off the Wall. Tens of millions of copies later, I may soon have to admit my mistake.
(As an aside, around this same time, I saw Lionel Richie in concert. Tina Turner opened for him and introduced a particular song as her new single. I thought to myself that she was a has-been and needed to hang up her pumps; no way that old lady was going to have a hit! The song in question? “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, a tune that would go on to be the biggest hit of 1984. Oops! Guess it’s a good thing Tina didn’t take my advice!)
When Bad hit the streets in August 1987, I again predicted it wouldn’t sell better than its predecessor, and this time I was correct. Since Thriller had become the biggest hit album of all-time, I didn’t exactly go out on a limb. Anyway, Bad did quite well, even if it didn’t live up to the levels of Thriller, and the video for the title track led the way. Actually, “Bad” wasn’t the first single from the album. Soppy ballad “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” preceded it, but that one didn’t have a music video.
As such, “Bad” was our first look at Michael circa 1987, and he’d gotten much scarier looking by that time. We already saw some facial changes on Michael between Off the Wall and Thriller. In the former era, he looked like a scrawny but handsome and fairly normal young man, whereas he’d become more artificial and sculpted by 1982. However, he still was good-looking and recognizable as a human being.
That really started to change around the time of Bad. For one, Michael’s skin was noticeably lighter, and his nose had gotten smaller. He now had a dimple in his chin as well! To be sure, Michael became much creepier as time passed, but Bad marked the first time when he really began to spook some people.
In any case, “Bad” is a decent clip, even though it falls short of expectations. Originally the song was supposed to be a duet between Michael and Prince, but the latter dropped out when it was clear how much he’d have to defer to his rival. I don’t think there’s a recording studio big enough to hold both those egos, anyway.
So “Bad” went on as a solo tune, and the video presented a piece that seemed quite reminiscent of “Beat It”. Although he then neared his 29th birthday, Michael plays a student at a ritzy prep school who comes home to his New York hood for the holidays. He hooks up with his semi-thuglike childhood pals - who include not-yet-famous Wesley Snipes - but refuses to go along with their attempts to commit crimes. When Wesley accuses Michael of not being bad, he defends himself through song in a fantasy performance with lots of foofy-looking alleged tough guys. I guess they looked nasty in 1987, but they seem rather soft today.
Anyway, “Bad” isn’t classic Michael in any sense. The song’s too spare and silly; Michael’d begun to enter his boastful phase, and the incongruous thought of the world’s wimpiest man declaring his machismo remains absurd. The video - directed by Martin Scorsese, no less - didn’t do much to change this image. Still, it’s a decent tune and clip, and it seems fairly enjoyable.
By the way, the DVD’s case claims that this is the “never-before-seen 18-minute version” of “Bad”. Granted, my memory can be fuzzy, but I’d swear I’d viewed this whole clip in the past. Perhaps not, but I don’t trust packaging to be totally accurate. For example, with the release of David Bowie’s Video Collection, we were informed that the piece for “Never Let Me Down” had never been issued. That was totally wrong; it aired many times back in 1987, and I still had it on videotape to prove that. In any case, I can’t establish so clearly that this version of “Bad” appeared earlier; it might be slightly different to prior editions.
While I’m not wild about “Bad” as a song or a video, better on both accounts is “The Way You Make Me Feel”. Actually, the video suffers from some of the same fake machismo seen in “Bad”. In this clip, some neighborhood thugs harass women, and Michael wishes he could do the same. Eventually, he does so triumphantly, in his own song-and-dance manner.
Despite the distinct lack of political correctness, “Feel” is still an entertaining video, largely because it concentrates on Michael’s dancing. In many ways, it resembles the “walking home” portions of “Thriller”, as Michael struts around a babe who tries to ignore him. I could live without the nasty pelvic thrusts, but otherwise, “Feel” offers a fairly entertaining clip.
The DVD’s package refers to this one as the “rarely seen 9:30 long version” of “The Way You Make Me Feel”. Although this means it has appeared before, ironically, I don’t recall much of it. The opening seems unfamiliar, and while it makes the video somewhat crude, it means that the clip is more comprehendible. The opening sets up Michael’s actions, and the whole thing now seems more logical.
Thus ends our involvement with Bad. Now we move to the final album represented on this DVD, 1991’s Dangerous. I’m not sure which title is more ridiculous: is Michael less bad or less dangerous? He definitely used to be a thriller, and no one disagrees that he’s off the wall. One thing’s for certain: he long ago ceased to be invincible.
Anyway, Dangerous offers three videos, starting with the semi-controversial “Black or White”. This clip’s a very odd mixed bag. Most of it concentrates on themes that echo the song. We see many different peoples and cultures as Michael espouses the notions of tolerance and acceptance. However, the video starts oddly. Macaulay Culkin plays a brat (is that acting?) whose father (George Wendt of Cheers) demands that he turn down his stereo. Not an unreasonable request, since Mac was shaking the walls. However, due to Michael’s perpetually juvenile mindset, we then see Mac replicate a scene from Back to the Future; he trots out an electric guitar, cranks the amp, and literally blasts his dad into the stratosphere with the sound waves.
Although Wendt lands in Africa - which is what starts the multicultural journey - that plot line quickly dies as “Black” becomes a glitzy travelogue. It also includes some early and famous use of “morphing”, as different folks blend into each. Surprisingly, those elements hold up pretty well after a decade; the effects seem fairly clean and convincing.
After the song ends, however, the video becomes truly bizarre. We see a panther slither away, and this morphs into Michael. He then does a solo dance number in which he often grabs his crotch and also smashes a car and other objects in the street environment.
Many criticized the violence in this preachy “can’t we all get along” video, and this version was briefly withdrawn. However, in Michael’s defense, the objects he destroys are festooned with racial epithets; it’s clear he’s wrecking them as a reaction to those notions. It’s still a weird video, and the crotch grabbing became badly excessive, but the song’s still catchy - despite one of the clumsiest raps on record - and the John Landis directed clip’s entertaining in a weird way.
More straightforward is “Remember the Time”. This one involves another big-name director: John Singleton, fresh off his initial success with 1991’s Boyz N the Hood. The clip also includes some big-name costars, as we find guest appearances by Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson.
The story follows an Egyptian king (Murphy) and his queen (Iman) as they try to find entertainment. A number of performers fail before Michael appears and wows them with his magic act. (SEE! the amazing disappearing nose! WITNESS! the incredible lightening skin!) Iman quickly takes a fancy to the dude, and much of the video follows their illicit relationship and Murphy’s attempts to halt this.
Overall, it’s a moderately entertaining piece, and the song’s decent, though not one of Michael’s best. As was also the case with “Black or White”, the video seems vaguely desperate. It’s as though Michael no longer trusted his own abilities, so he had to shuffle out guest stars and other gimmicks to keep our attention. He may have been right, but this means that “Remember” is somewhat interesting but nothing great.
Nonetheless, it tops the final video on this DVD, “Heal the World”. Easily the worst song and clip we find here, musically “Heal” is little more than a remake of “We Are the World”. It’s a sappy tune supported with bland visuals. The video shows a montage of mildly threatening images such as soldiers combined with shots of children. It’s cheesy and totally flat. I can’t stand the song, and the video does nothing to provoke additional interest.
In the text above, I listed the videos in their original chronological order of release. However, HIStory doesn’t show them in that way. The DVD starts with “Brace Yourself”, an absurdly over-the-top clip that touts Michael’s popularity. Accompanied by the strains of Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, we see images of Michael on stage - mostly from the 1988 tour - along with shots of swooning fans, many of whom pass out and have to be removed from the crowd! It’s typical Michael, and it’s unpleasant to watch.
After that, we get the videos in this order:
- “Billie Jean”
- “The Way You Make Me Feel”
- “Black or White”
- “Rock With You”
- “Beat It”
- “Remember the Time”
- “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”
- “Heal the World”
Personally, I wish the package ran the videos chronologically. I’d much prefer to watch them that way, for then we’d be able to see Michael’s changes more clearly. This progression makes little sense.
Nonetheless, HIStory offers a very solid collection of music videos. It’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when Michael Jackson created some terrific music and performance clips, and this package reminds us of that era. Of course, some of the pieces are better than others, but this set includes enough classic material to warrant a look.
Michael Jackson Greatest Video Hits HIStory mainly appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. All of the clips are fullscreen except for “Remember the Time”, which seems to be 1.66:1. While the quality of the picture varied radically from clip to clip, as a whole I thought the package was disappointing.
Oddly, the first two videos were easily the ugliest. “Billie Jean” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” simply looked terrible. Granted, “Jean” was always somewhat problematic; it used a filtering technique that rendered it somewhat gauzy, and that tone came through strongly here. Nonetheless, its colors seemed blotchy and murky, and the video included far too many flaws. It appeared very grainy much of the time - apparently due to digital artifacts - and I also witnessed a large scratch at one point. Sharpness seemed muddy and fuzzy, and the whole thing looked drab at best. On its own, I gave “Billie Jean” a “D-“.
“The Way You Make Me Feel” earned the same “D-“ grade, largely due to its flaws. The high level of grain/artifacting continued, and additional defects like marks, spots, hairs, and nicks cropped up at times. Colors remained very spotty, and black levels were flat and bland. In addition, some edge enhancement seemed visible. It was an unattractive clip that bordered on being unwatchable.
Matters improved considerably with “Black or White”. Some artifacts still appeared, but they dropped hugely from the levels seen on the first two videos. At times it looked a bit soft, and the blacks found in the “panther” coda seemed somewhat murky, but colors appeared pretty solid, and the clip came across as reasonably clear and distinct much of the time. I gave this one a “C+”.
“Rock With You” dropped slightly from that level, but not much, especially considering the advanced age of the 1979 video. At times it looked rather fuzzy and murky, but those qualities likely resulted from the prominent smoke effects, and much of the clip seemed decent. The greenish palette came across reasonably well, and the piece showed only a few of the artifacts or other flaws that marred the first two videos. “Rock With You” merited a “C”.
I have the same “C” grade to “Bad”. It reintroduced some moderate artifacts to the equation as well as a few nicks, but it usually appeared fairly clean and crisp. During the color scenes, the tones looked a bit murky and bland, and the image occasionally appeared a bit soft and indistinct. Shadows came across as a bit heavy and thick as well. Some jagged edges and moiré effects also appeared. Overall, however, the video seemed watchable and decent.
“Thriller” dropped the quality down a notch. It offered many more flaws, as I saw a mix of nicks and speckles. It also showed some edge enhancement and erratic colors. At times, those tones looked pretty clear and bright, but they also came across as muddy and murky on occasion. Blacks looked bland, and shadows were a bit too heavy. Ultimately, “Thriller” was a bit messy and received a “C-“.
“Beat It” maintained similar levels. While superior to “Billie Jean”, it seemed pretty fuzzy and soft at times. It also displayed drab, murky colors and additional edge enhancement. Some specks and artifacts also marred the presentation, and I gave the picture a “C-“.
“Remember the Time” marked a huge improvement; it stands as the second most attractive clip on the DVD. A few examples of jagged edges and moiré effects appeared, and I still saw some edge enhancement, but overall it looked crisp and stable. Colors seemed clear and vibrant - despite a fairly brownish palette - and blacks were fairly deep and rich, though shadows came across as slightly heavy. A little artifacting still occurred, but not nearly as heavily as during some of the earlier clips. Overall, “Remember” was pretty good, and it earned a “B-“.
Despite its advanced age, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” still seemed decent, even after the visuals of “Remember”. It remained a little soft at times, and it continued to display mild edge enhancement and some artifacts. Red backgrounds looked a bit heavy, but otherwise the colors appeared decent. Black levels were solid, as viewed in Michael’s tux, and as a whole, “Enough” was a fairly clear clip. It got a “C+”.
Unfortunately, the most attractive video was also the crummiest one. “Heal the World” was definitely the best-looking piece on the DVD. Although colors looked a bit flat at times, the video generally seemed clear and accurate. It still showed a little edge enhancement, but otherwise it lacked most of the flaws that marred the other clips. Overall, it seemed positive and received a “B”.
To say the least, I was surprised by the fairly weak quality of these clips. Granted, they span a wide range of years, and videos are notoriously inconsistent in regard to their visuals. Still, Michael’s prominence means that he merits better treatment. Sometime videos look bad because of the technology of the period, but I don’t think that’s the case here. Sure, some of the Off the Wall and Thriller clips are limited due to techniques, but the quality concerns occur during much of the DVD, and they seem unrelated to the original materials. I have the feeling someone just took the old master for earlier video releases and plopped it onto this DVD without any additional work. The final few pieces improved on the overall presentation and kept HIStory from “D” territory, but I still gave it an unenthused “C-“.
The quality of the DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack seemed more consistent, but it still provided some concerns. The soundfield expanded the songs somewhat, but it remained strongly oriented toward the front for the most part. Stereo separation seemed adequate but unimpressive; generally it felt as though mainly ambient sounds came from the sides, and a lot of the music seemed somewhat forced into the middle. Still, I had no extreme concerns about the imaging, and the surrounds reinforced the presentation decently. Actually, the rears seemed to become more active as the program progressed. Even an older video like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” included some nice handclaps from the surrounds, and “Remember the Time” provided some distinct split-surround effects at times. Overall, the soundfield was reasonably solid for this sort of program.
Where HIStory encountered some issues related to the quality of the audio. Overall, the music sounded somewhat thin and tinny. The highs seemed a bit too bright and metallic. They generally remained clear, but at times, I detected some crackling and brittleness. The track provided good depth at times, and again, this area improved as the piece progressed; “Don’t Stop” and “Remember the Time” offered decidedly superior bass compared to what we heard earlier. Some source flaws popped up at times; for example, “Beat It” displayed a little hiss. Overall, HIStory remained listenable at all times, but this 5.1 track didn’t show the songs to their best advantage.
HIStory includes virtually no extras. All we find is a discography. This simply shows the covers to Michael’s albums and videos through 1997’s Blood on the Dance Floor remix release. No additional information such appears.
Michael Jackson Greatest Video Hits HIStory is a true mixed bag. On the positive side, it includes some genuinely fine videos and songs. Sure, some of the tracks are less compelling than others, but the set features only one true clunker; the quality level seems generally high. However, the DVD offers generally weak video quality, lackluster sound and no extras. I liked the material but the presentation left a lot to be desired.