Review: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller 40” Documentary Leaves a Lot to be Desired

Forty years after the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller – the best-selling album of all time worldwide – Director Nelson George took fans back in time to experience the making of the record-breaking album and the release of the accompanying short films that forever redefined the music video format. Featuring never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews, “Thriller 40” chronicles the creation of a pre-internet global phenomenon unlike anything before it or since. Thriller launched Michael Jackson into mega-stardom and to this day continues to influence all aspects of culture and entertainment, including the worlds of music, dance and fashion. Music and entertainment luminaries including UsherMary J. Blige, Will.I.AmMark Ronson, Misty CopelandMaxwell and John Landis are featured in the documentary.

Key Art for THRILLER 40. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount+ with SHOWTIME.

I’ve previously delved into my disagreements with Michael Jackson’s estate, but the entire “Thriller 40” issue has taken them to an unprecedented level. I refused to buy the new record released last year, citing that absolutely terrible artwork. A documentary was initially announced last year to coincide with the record but faced delays following unfavorable press screenings.

After months of silence, Paramount+ recently revealed that the film would be available on their platform starting December 2nd.

In recent years, music documentaries have excelled, with notable examples like Disney+’s “Get Back” and Netflix’s “Wham!” demonstrating the trend. However, official documentaries on the King of Pop have prioritized quality over quantity. Filmmaker Spike Lee’s creations, such as “Bad 25” and “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off The Wall,” stand out as masterfully crafted films. Despite their excellence, they are unfortunately out of print and cannot be streamed, a situation often attributed to the Estate.

Michael Jackson in THRILLER 40. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount+ with SHOWTIME.

I was surprised to discover that Nelson George, the director of “Thriller 40,” had any experience in making documentaries. The film is chaotic in every aspect. Music cues overpower the dialogue, unreleased footage of Michael has been remastered with an odd liquid-like AI, overshadowing any visual appeal, and even the interviewees are frequently uninteresting.

We open on various people, some that have never even met Michael Jackson, talking about what Thriller meant to them. This tactic was used in Spike Lee’s documentaries as well, but The Weeknd, Questlove, David Byrne, and Kobe Bryant had a lot more to offer than Estate-executor himself John Branca, Mark Ronson (who lost all credibility with Jackson fans after his “Diamonds are Invincible” remix in 2018), and Brooke Shields, who’s 2023 documentary made sure to discuss Jackson and his intricacies.

Quickly, and I mean in 5 or so minutes, the film rushes through Michael Jackson’s story to put us in the Thriller era. Rushing over The Jackson 5 and neglecting to mention The Jacksons or Michael’s childhood solo albums, the discussion briefly touches on Off The Wall before abruptly transitioning to Thriller‘s opening track, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”—except it’s not the original but a poorly received remix produced by the Estate for a 2011 remix project. Despicable; and especially so for the new generations of fans that might not know this is the case.

(L-R): Choreographers Tone Talauega and Rich Talauega in THRILLER 40. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount+ with SHOWTIME.

We deviate entirely from the tracklist, neglecting to ever discuss track 2, “Baby Be Mine,” the popular “P.Y.T,” currently Jackson’s 6th most streamed song on Apple Music, or even the crisp album closer, “The Lady In My Life.” However there are plenty of scenes discussing TikTok, K-Pop, and projects by the Michael Jackson estate!

We even delved into an embarrassingly unrelated section on rapper Polo G, who just happened to sample Michael’s “Smooth Criminal” a few years ago. What does that actually have to do with Thriller, Nelson George? The major closing song of “Thriller 40” is “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” from Off The Wall. I sincerely believe that anyone who approved this edit had never heard Michael Jackson’s music before.

Our 1 hour and 40-minute runtime is notably uneven and unattractive, and that’s not even considering the less-than-ideal appearance of some of the “unreleased” Jackson footage. Online fans have even identified a Jackson fan’s YouTube channel watermark at the top of a clip, indicating that it was directly ripped from YouTube. Not exactly a display of professionalism.

Michael Jackson in THRILLER 40. Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount+ with SHOWTIME.

There are highlights, such as clips directly sourced from film and remastered in 4K. These include The Jacksons’ Victory tour, the making of the “Thriller” video, and outtakes from “Beat It.” Whenever these moments are featured, they are thematically compelling. When these are shown, they are thematically gripping, but it doesn’t take much when Michael Jackson is on the screen and not some AI-remastered double.

My favorite section revolved around the iconic recording sessions of “The Girl is Mine” with Paul McCartney. When interviewees ceased discussing TikTok or other mundane topics, we witnessed two of the biggest music legends of all time performing together. If someone has clipped that and uploaded it to YouTube…you’re better off.

Not every interview is tragically uninteresting; those who were present at the time (except for Brooke Shields, who doesn’t say much of anything) stand out as highlights. Vocal performers, producers, and even director John Landis were very engaging and enjoyable to listen to. It’s a wonder what actual insight can provide in a documentary.

“Thriller 40” is absolutely embarrassing. It’s a terrible product worth only it’s 5 or so minutes of 4K footage. Can we please have Spike Lee back for HIStory?

Final Review: ★★/5