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Under The Moonlight – The Phenomenon of Thriller

By: - November 2, 2015
Category : 80's, People

In the spirit of Halloween, I’d like to discuss a music video that not only impacted audiences around the globe, but would forever change how music and modern songs are packaged. That video is Thriller. If you’re out for any length of time in a crowd full of people in Halloween costumes, it’s almost obligatory that someone dresses up as Michael Jackson from that video. You’ll hear it play nonstop on the radio (not limited to just Halloween), you’ll inevitably see someone imitate the dance, and/or you’ll see it referenced in pop culture more times that you think.

With the exception of Monster Mash and Ghostbusters, there’s no other song that captures the magic of Halloween and gets you thinking about Halloween, even when you hear it in the “off season.” Let’s take a look back at the video that revolutionized pop culture and the how the historical 14 minutes came to be…

An American Warewolf in London

An American Warewolf in London 1981

In 1981, a film by the name of An American Warewolf In London hits theaters across the United Stated to stellar reviews. The director, John Landis, receives an out of the blue phone call from Michael Jackson. Jackson explains in his childlike voice how fascinated he is with the movie and Rick Baker’s (the film’s make up artist) transformation of turning the humans into werewolves. Jackson wants to attempt to try the same thing on his next project. “He wants to turn into a monster,” Landis later stated.

Now to be clear, the Thriller album had already been out over a year. Landis began to salivate at the possibilities. With Landis’ prior work on The Blues Brother, Aykroyd and Belushi were not professional dancers, and thus Landis hired background dancers who were also not trained dancers, as to not take away from the story. But with that, he realized he would love to do a musical number given the right circumstances. With Jackson’s sure-fire showmanship, Thriller was that opportunity.

Jackson and Ola Ray

Jackson and Ola Ray on set of Thriller.

Landis decided he would not only exploit Jackson’s celebrity, but also wanting to bring theatrical shorts back to the masses, giving the audience more time with Jackson. Often called a “two reeler” it was famous during shorts like the Three Stooges; each video would be 7 minutes in length. Since the studio balked at making a video that would be twice the price of a standard music video of around $30,000 at the time, Landis and Jackson decided to find a way to make it themselves.

Rick Baker

Rick Baker, left, applies incredible makeup to Griffin Dunne, 1981, ©Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

The specifications were that it would be a union shoot, giving the dancers time for a 10 -day complete rehearsal, so by the time they were ready to shoot, everyone would be polished and on the same page. Union crews, union dancers, union make up people, and budget for scale – they were essentially making a feature production, on a music video scale. With the budget being $480,000, everything could be as detailed as possible. Now it was just a question of where they would come up with the money.

Since both of them were financially independent, Jackson offered to pay for it completely out of pocket. Landis disagreed, insisting they would find an investor willing to help out. George Folsey Jr, a producer, suggested they shoot a 45 minute behind the scenes video on “the making of Thriller” with the video cut in, making the whole thing an hour in length.

Baker, Jackson, and Landis 1982

Baker, Jackson, and Landis.

After pitching the idea to the brand new medium of cable television, several channels weren’t completely convinced. After HBO passed, Showtime stepped up and offered fork over $250,000 for the right to air the hour long piece for 5 days. At which point Robert Pittman, the executive from MTV, lambasted the concept citing the non-premium channels should get a fair shake at the opportunity as well. Lucky for everyone, MTV paid the other $250,000 to get the project in motion.

Jackson and Landis on set in 1982.

Jackson and director John Landis on set in 1982.

To say the project was a smash is an understatement. The video revolutionized MTV as the go-to channel for music. People were jamming the phone lines after requesting the video. So much, that at one point the station was playing it 9 times a day. Home video also blossomed – after someone optioned the rights for the Thriller video, creating millions in the process.

The dance became iconic. The outfit. Same. The most interesting part of the whole thing, is that it all started with Michael Jackson just wanting to turn himself into a monster. Somehow, some way he was going to do it. It’s odd for someone so over-the-top with his persona, and the company he kept – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Lillian Disney visited the Thriller set – he understood the simplicity in an idea.

With Halloween swept away as quickly as it arrived, there’s only a few fleeting pieces that last throughout the year. This song being one of them. Take a moment to re-watch the video and see how well it holds up. If nothing else, you can use it as an inspiration for next year’s costume. Happy Halloween!