Michael Jackson was, unquestionably, one of the most influential artists in modern pop music. His world-wide hits and record-breaking albums gave him the power to push the medium of the music video farther than any musical artist before or after him. During his genre-pushing career on film and television, Jackson worked with 11 high-profile directors to create unique and groundbreaking content.
1. Bob Giraldi
When CBS refused to finance Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, the singer ended up putting $150,000 of his own money down on the project. He asked Bob Giraldi to write and direct the video after Jackson saw a commercial Giraldi had directed. "As I was told, there was a certain spot that I directed in my early years as a commercial director for WLS-TV in Chicago, about two elderly blind people—a married couple—that didn't run from a neighborhood that all the other white folks fled from," Giraldi said. "It had become a very inner city, tough neighborhood and they chose to stay and throw a block party for all the young kids in the neighborhood. It was a commercial that Michael was really taken with." Giraldi based “Beat It,” his first music video, on his upbringing in New Jersey.
2. John Landis
An American Werewolf in London director John Landis also directed Jackson's nearly 14-minute-long ghoul-fest, “Thriller.” Jackson decided to call Landis after seeing An American Werewolf in London; the singer enjoyed the film’s mix of gruesome transformation horror and comedy. Ever the self-documentarian, Jackson’s camp had the entire production filmed for a making-of video that was paired with its VHS release.
3. and 4. George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola
In 1986, George Lucas took a break from working on his original Star Wars trilogy to work with The Godfather and Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Jackson on a long-form music video—a sci-fi 3D epic called Captain EO—for Disneyland. Coppola and Lucas tailored the story of a space captain spreading love and music through the universe to fit a list of possible shots developed by Walt Disney Imagineering. Anjelica Huston was brought on to play the evil Supreme Leader in almost unrecognizable make-up. Because of its use of both 3D and in-theater effects (like smoke, lasers, and compressed air), Captain EO is considered the first theme-park “4D” film. It played from 1986 to 1994 and was brought back to Disneyland after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. You can watch a documentary about the making of Captain EO here.
5. Martin Scorsese
Most people know Michael Jackson’s “BAD” video as Jackson dancing around an abandoned parking lot with his West Side Story-type gang—because that was the version of the video that was played most on MTV. The full “BAD” video was directed in its entirety by Martin Scorsese and features a young Wesley Snipes. Jackson plays Darryl, a kid who just got back from an expensive private school and is hanging with his friends who are still partaking in urban petty crime. After a failed mugging on the subway, Darryl and his friend Mini Max (Snipes) argue about how Darryl isn’t “bad” anymore—cut to music video. The full video debuted on a CBS special on August 31, 1987.
6. David Fincher
The 1992 video for “Who Is It?” off Michael Jackson’s Dangerous is Fincher-esque in ways that wouldn’t be recognized as David Fincher hallmarks until over a decade later. The opening time-lapse of cityscapes echoes Panic Room, The Social Network, and House of Cards. The full version of the music video finds Jackson mistaking his girlfriend’s secret life as an escort for her cheating on him and hints at suicide at the end. It was a shocking enough video from Jackson that the original had to be released on VHS; the video that aired on TV in the U.S. was censored by editing in clips of past performances.
7. Spike Lee
Jackson and director Spike Lee connected on the social issues of the song “They Don’t Care About Us” off HIStory: Book 1. They planned a shoot in a Rio de Janeiro favela, but Brazilian state authorities attempted to block the video’s production. The Secretary of Industry, Commerce, and Tourism wanted final cut of the video, fearing media attention to the poverty of the favelas would hurt tourism. A judge blocked all filming, but his ruling was overturned by injunction, and Lee and Jackson were able to complete production. After the controversy, Jackson made an alternate video for the U.S. that featured him in a jail and alluded to human rights violations.
8. Stan Winston
Stan Winston, late special effects master and Pumpkinhead director, was at the helm of Jackson’s short film/music video "Ghosts" in 1996. Co-written by Stephen King, the film included dance sequences, ghost effects, and Jackson in a fat suit, and featured the songs “Ghosts,” “2 Bad,” and “Is It Scary” off the HIStory and Blood On The Dance Floor albums. The film runs 39 minutes and was screened out of competition at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
9. Mark Romanek
After bad press from child abuse accusations in 1993, Jackson wrote the song “Scream” to address the media. Jackson usually conceptualized his own music videos, but he left the concept of “Scream” to director Mark Romanek, who was hot off the music videos for Nine Inch Nails' “Closer” and Madonna’s “Rain.” Romanek put Jackson and his sister Janet on a large spaceship with futuristic recreation rooms, and they perform as their vessel flees the pettiness of Earth.
10. Kenny Ortega
The director of Hocus Pocus and the High School Musical trilogy also helmed Jackson’s final on-screen effort, This Is It. A planned series of 50 concerts at London’s O2 Arena were never performed because of Jackson’s death, but Ortega had been documenting the making of the live show and managed to edit the footage together into a heartwarming film that served as a fitting farewell retrospective.
11. Barry Sonnenfeld
Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, and director Barry Sonnenfeld had a legitimate hit on their hands in 1997’s Men In Black. According to Smith, Jackson called him after seeing the movie and said it was one of the most creative things he’d ever seen. Jackson told Smith that if there was a part two, he wanted to be involved—it didn’t matter what character he played. Sonnenfeld wrote Jackson into the sequel as an alien agent.