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02nd Dec 2018

Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” is 35 and still the best music video ever made

Will Lavin

“Thriller” is the greatest music video of all-time

There’s absolutely no debating this.

I know art is subjective but if you’ve seen the video with your own two eyes then you know it’s the truth. And if you don’t trust your eyes then perhaps you’ll trust the Library of Congress. 

“Thriller” is the only music video ever to inducted on the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

I was just 10 months old when Michael Jackson’s visual masterpiece made its debut on MTV as the station’s first ever world premiere. And while I was just an infant I’m pretty sure that when it was released I felt the earth shift from inside my cot.

Going out to the world on December 2nd 1983, it was first screened to a room full of A-listers at a private showing a month earlier at the historic Crest Theatre in California. In attendance: Diana Ross, Warren Beatty, Prince, Eddie Murphy and many more.

Once the 14-minute short film ended, Murphy stood up and shouted: “Show the Goddamn thing again!” And, of course, they did.

When I first saw it I didn’t need to scream for it to be shown again, I just pushed rewind and hit play myself… on VHS!

I’m not sure how a copy of it ended up in my possession – I’m not even sure how old I was when I first watched it – but what I do remember is being both scared and obsessed when I first saw “Thriller” (don’t give me those eyes, you know you were scared too when you first saw it, admit it).

Even with today’s technology and the extraordinary things we can do in film “Thriller” has aged incredibly well for something that’s now 35-years-old.

Directed by John Landis and written by him and Michael together, “Thriller” revolutionised music video production at the time. Never before had a music video been shot on 35mm film, which aside from legitimising it as an entirely new art form it also cemented Michael’s place in cultural history as a pioneer.

Having already broken down barriers for black artists at MTV with videos like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” – before this black artists weren’t getting any play on the channel – “Thriller” kicked the door off the hinges.

Often regarded the “Citizen Kane of short films” – labelled as such by music historian Joe Vogel and the song’s producer Quincy Jones – I didn’t even know what Citizen Kane was when I first started watching “Thriller”. All I knew was that this incredible music video had captivated my innocent little soul and before I knew it I was hot stepping across my living room floor, imitating each and every one of Michael’s dance steps.

His moves were majestic, eerie and choreographed to perfection. Who else in pop music history has inspired so many people to mimic their moves like this? And I’m not just talking once, I mean repeatedly. 

Sure, Beyoncé had fans all over the world learning her Coachella dance steps, but every Michael Jackson music video was a dance lesson, even right up to his last big release before his death – “You Rock My World”. The need to learn the steps to a Michael Jackson video was like an addiction.

You know when people joke: “It’s not official unless you put it on Facebook”? In Michael’s case it would be more like a question: “Did you really watch the video if you don’t know all of Michael’s dance moves?”

That breakdown in the middle of the film where you can hear the steps hitting the concrete is iconic. I can’t remember a time where I’ve danced to “Thriller” without imagining that sound in my head and using it to count in time to the beat. 

Put it this way, I know a lot of VHS tapes snapped and had to be bought again after constantly being rewound in order to learn the “Thriller” dance.

Then there’s the costumes and makeup. Whether it’s Michael as a werewolf, a zombie, or when he stars as himself, there’s no escaping how vast of a production it was.

While Rick Baker’s (An American Werewolf in London, Harry and the Hendersons, The Nutty Professor, Men in Black) makeup and visual effects were – and still are – something else, one of the most iconic things to come out of the shoot was ‘that’ jacket.

The “Thriller” jacket has gone on to be name checked by more people than any other piece of memorabilia in the history of music. In reality it’s just a red and black leather jacket but it will forever be known as the “Thriller” jacket thanks to this video. Any visual tribute to the King of Pop without at least one person wearing the jacket isn’t a real tribute.

Being critical for a moment, is the acting in “Thriller” questionable? Absolutely. Are Ola Ray’s (Michael’s love interest) constant shrieks and screams over the top? Hell yes. Is Vincent Price’s now legendary horror monologue a little cringey? Of course.

But do we care? No. “Thriller” is the greatest music video ever made.

So what’s the second best? “Smooth Criminal”.

Third best? “ Remember the Time”.

You see where this is going, right? “Thriller” started an onslaught of the most creatively diverse, trendsetting and transcending music videos of all-time… all by Michael Jackson.

Something else to note is how the film starts. It begins with the following message appearing on screen:

“Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.”

Even in 1983, before the real Michael Jackson scrutiny began, he was thinking about how people would view him and his art. He was so aware of just how big he was, so much so that he had to assure his die-hard fans that he wasn’t a supporter of satanic rituals and other such things. Think about that for a second. This video wasn’t just a turning point for Michael creatively but also personally.

As a short film, “Thriller” went on to win three MTV awards, two AMA’s and a Grammy. There’s absolutely no question it’s the benchmark upon which music videos should forever be measured. 

Thriller as an album went on to be the biggest selling album of all-time.

Oh, and let’s not forget it inspired one of the greatest memes of all-time too.