Saturday, December 02, 2023

Thriller 40, on Showtime

In addition to being a leading man and a master of horror, Vincent Price had an impressive track record taking rock stars to the next level. Just ask Alice Cooper—he is always happy discuss his old friend. Yet, quite frustratingly, Price’s contributions to Thriller are never discussed in this documentary on Michael Jackson’s career defining record. It conspicuously never mentions his subsequent scandals either. Still, it is undeniable the record-setting album established Jackson as the biggest recording star of the 1980’s. Marking its 40th anniversary, Nelson George chronicles the history and legacy of the bestselling record in Thriller 40, which premieres today on Showtime.

Jackson’s disco-ish
Off the Wall had already been a really big record—so big, it already has its own documentary, directed by Spike Lee. Frankly, Jackson thought it should have been even bigger, so he really wasn’t taking any chance with his next release, which turned out to be Thriller. He had Quincy Jones producing and great rock and funk session musicians like Greg Phillinganes and Steve Lukather (both of whom appear repeatedly throughout Thriller 40) to broaden the appeal of the album’s sound. Plus, there was Paul McCartney for a duet.

As the musicians explain, there was a lot of serendipitous experimentation in the studio. In fact, George does a great job covering the recording sessions, track by track. The legacy part is a bit spottier. Viewers who are newly arrived from Mars and solely relying on
Thriller 40 for information on Jackson would think he had unprecedented success with Thriller, continued success with later albums, and then he died. A certain HBO doc has a lot to add to that story—it might be contested, but it is in the public record.

Again, many fans might be annoyed Miles Davis’s cover of “Human Nature” is also overlooked. Seriously, talk about a legacy.
Thriller 40 also ignores the Weird Al parodies, like “Eat It,” which Jackson reportedly flipped out over, in a bad way. Yet, again, they are part of the Thriller legacy.

At least George interviews John Landis (the director of the
Thriller short film music video) at great length. He surely would have mentioned Price, but it didn’t make George’s cut. However, it is nice to see some screen time for Ola Ray, the romantic interest for Jackson’s character.

For horror fans,
Thriller really was a cool video. That is why it is strange George did not lean into that fandom more. Let’s be honest, Vincent Price’s legacy has held up a lot better than Jackson’s. If you doubt it, check out this clip of Price cooking trout in a dishwasher on The Tonight Show. It is good for the session breakdowns, but Thriller 40 is not recommended for casual fans when it premieres today (12/2) on Showtime.