Spike Lee On Working With Michael Jackson

Spike Lee directed Michael Jackson on one of the late star's more controversial music videos, "They Don't Care About Us." Scott Simon talks to Lee about his work with Jackson, and about the singer's impact on American culture.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of song, "Ease on Down the Road")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Musician): (Singing) Come on now ease on down, ease on down the road. Come on, ease on down, ease on down the road. Don't you carry nothing that might be a load. Come on, ease on down, ease on down, down the road.

SIMON: I heard a lot these past two days about Michael Jackson as a musician and a man. But he wasn't just a remarkable singer and dancer. His screen work was also notable. His performance as the Scarecrow in "The Wiz" gained critical acclaim. Of course there were the world-famous videos he did for "Thriller," "Billy Jean" and other hits.

Spike Lee is among the famous directors who worked with Michael Jackson. Mr. Lee directed the video accompanying the song, "They Don't Care About Us" for Mr. Jackson's "HIStory: Past, Present, and Future." We reached Spike Lee in France. He was on the phone traveling in a car.

What was he like? What was Michael Jackson like?

Mr. SPIKE LEE (Film Director): He was great guy. He was funny. I didn't really get to meet him till we worked together, but he had a great sense of humor and his work ethic was legendary.

SIMON: Yeah. He was really part of the creative process, too, wasn't he?

Mr. LEE: Oh, yes. I mean Michael's not, he wasn't a person to sit back and let somebody else determine, you know. He liked input, but he would have the final say and he had a great instinct and he knew what was best for him. He knew what worked for him.

SIMON: What did his, you and Michael Jackson are at least generational contemporaries. And of course you grew up in Brooklyn famously, right outside of Manhattan. He grew up in Gary, right outside of Chicago. What did his work and life to mean to you?

Mr. LEE: Oh, it meant everything because I grew up with Michael. I grew up with Michael Jackson. I grew a big - I had a big afro just like Michael. And, you know, I wanted the girls to like me like they liked Michael...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE: ...I loved the Jackson 5 (unintelligible) Michael.

SIMON: Yeah. And I've got to ask you about the video "They Don't Care About Us," really more like a short film...

Mr. LEE: Yes. Well, Michael was one who - he made many movies. He's the one that revolutionized music video.

(Soundbite of song, "They Don't Care About Us")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Skinhead, dead head, everybody gone bad. Situation, aggravation, everybody allegation. Beat me, bash me. You can never trash me. Hit me, kick me. You can never get me. All I wanna say is that they don't really care about us.

Mr. LEE: You know, that's another one of his legacies. He revolutionized videos. Before Michael Jackson, MTV refused to play African-American artists. And we must give credit to Walter Yetnikoff, who went to MTV and said, if you don't play - I think it was "Billy Jean" - we are taking every artist on our label, snatch them from MTV. And people forget about that because - and back then MTV was lily white.

SIMON: What do we learn from the career of Michael Jackson?

Mr. LEE: Well, number one: I think we learned once again that life is very fleeting and that you can't take it for granted. Michael was a world artist. He was beloved by the world. And I'm just happy to speak to you, because I'm here in France and I've been watching, you know, CNN International and Sky Channel, BBC, and I'm real dismayed by the negative slant where people are, the media, they're, you know, they're, I think there's a more gracious way to tell about his life without talking about the other. I'm not saying that we should dismiss it, but let's emphasize the great artist he was, the great humanitarian he was, the great joy and love he brought to the world, his musicianship, his artistry, his work ethic, all of that. Let's celebrate that. Let's celebrate the music of Michael and the man.

I was really, really happy though watching my brothers and sisters in Harlem outside of the Apollo Theater marquee, dancing and singing the words and music of Michael.

SIMON: Is there a song that's your favorite, that means something special to you?

Mr. LEE: Oh, I love all the music, but in particular, you know, I love it all, but I really feel special for the stuff he did with the Jackson 5. "I'll Be There," you know, all those great classics, the Jackson 5.

(Soundbite of song "I'll Be There")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Let me fill your heart with joy and laughter. Togetherness, well, that's all I'm after. Whenever you need me, I'll be there…

SIMON: "ABC"?

Mr. LEE: "ABC," we go down the list.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Yeah. And the best version of "I'm Going Back to Indiana" I ever heard.

Mr. LEE: Yes, I mean - it's a giant, giant loss. I did not go to sleep last night, just kept - my eyes were glued to the TV and, you know, seen images. What really got me, people talking about, you know, like the experts talk - they don't know Michael. I mean, they would talk all type of stuff. They might've met the guy one time, you know. I think they should really had - for me - maybe they couldn't get him, but had the people who worked with Michael, who were there when he was in the studio creating, who was there when they were rehearsing, doing the choreography. Let's talk about the work.

SIMON: Do you mind telling us, what did you learn from Michael Jackson, close up, that the other people are missing?

Mr. LEE: Oh, work ethic. You know, I've been around a lot of great athletes, Michael Jordan. Recently there is a documentary on Kobe Bryant. And these guys are known for their work ethic. And as great as Michael was, and as great as Kobe is, Michael could give those guys a run for their money when it comes to work ethic.

SIMON: And Mr. Lee, what do you think Michael Jackson's going to be remembered for 10 and…

Mr. LEE: Well, hopefully it's going to be his music is his legacy. That's what I hope for, that's what I'm going to teach my children, that's what my children - you know, my daughter is 14 and my son is 12. They know about the other stuff. But I want them to remember his music, to love and appreciate the music of Michael Jackson - that's his legacy, the music. And his three children, that's his legacy, I think.

SIMON: Mr. Lee, I'm going to thank you so much for taking the time for us. I know a lot of people have been trying to get hold of you.

Mr. LEE: All right, thank you.

SIMON: Speaking with us from France, Spike Lee.

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