March 7, 2019

I WON’T LISTEN TO MICHAEL JACKSON’S MUSIC ANYMORE. BUT I’LL STILL WATCH WOODY ALLEN’S MOVIES. HERE’S WHY.” A presumably left-leaning media critic at The Week named Jeva Lange justifies her entertainment choices:

To summarily dismiss “Woody Allen films” because Allen himself is accused of despicable behavior is to also inadvertently write off the symphonic city shots of Gordon Willis in Manhattan, the zany costumes designed by Ruth Morley for Annie Hall, or the underrated Ingrid Bergman-esque performance by Geraldine Page in Interiors. Perhaps you believe that one bad apple spoils the barrel; I would strongly caution that this dismissal often brushes off the contributions particularly of women, whose incredible work is all too frequently in non-directorial positions. To never watch Polanski’s Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby is to erase, likewise, some of the best work of costume designer Anthea Sylbert, or performances by Faye Dunaway and Mia Farrow.

Music, though, is neater than the messy collaborative efforts of filmmaking. Although creating an album is indisputably also a group effort — think of Quincy Jones’ work producing Thriller — music is generally a much more individual effort than filmmaking, and especially so in the case of a solo artist like Jackson. While I regret not being able to appreciate Jones’ work on Thriller by cutting it out of my life, I am lying to myself if I claim it is not Jackson’s voice that I am actually enjoying when I listen to the album. Filmmaking, by its very nature, is much more ambiguous.

Separate and apart from continuing to listening to his music, I’m not at all sure that this is an appropriate analogy, at least for Jackson. A band like Led Zeppelin (whose surviving members must be absolutely thanking their lucky stars in today’s #metoo era that they achieved superstardom before social media) was remarkably self-contained, with in-house songwriters, an in-house producer (Jimmy Page) and arranger (John Paul Jones), and used outside session musicians very infrequently, mostly to add strings to sweeten a handful of their more epic songs.

But Jackson’s records — particularly Thriller — were the audio equivalents of the same sort of film productions that Lange mentions above. That album took nearly six months to record, about the same length of time it takes Allen to write, shoot and supervise the editing of a film. Jackson is credited with writing the music and lyrics on only four of the album’s 13 songs, and “writing the music” simply means he supplied at least the top line melody and chord changes. The album’s credits boast not just Quincy Jones as producer (and veteran engineer Bruce Swedien as engineer, mixer, and Jones’ second set of ears), plus a roster of first-call L.A. session musicians and arrangers. Wikipedia lists nearly 50 of them appearing on Thriller. Lange’s comments dismissing their contributions is reminiscent of a scene early on in the 2002 documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a film that explored the vital contributions of the Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band, whose members played (in various combinations) on virtually every song Motown recorded in the 1960s. But prior to that movie’s release, the public at large had no idea the Funk Brothers even existed:

As for Woody Allen, I can’t fault anyone for enjoying what Allen himself, in his grousing 1980 film Stardust Memories dubbed his “earlier, funnier movies.” Regarding the incident that permanently transformed his audience’s perception of Allen (well, what was left of that audience, after Allen blew up his own domestic career with Stardust Memories), as Rod Dreher quipped yesterday, in a post titled, “The Bonfire Of Michael Jackson,” “Allen made it easy to quit watching his movies after his creepy Soon-Yi affair became public. Why? He stopped making good movies. Still, even when I go back and watch his old good ones, I can’t get out of my head what he did. It took all the joy out of Manhattan for me. This wasn’t so much a moral decision as it was one of involuntary disgust.”

Exit question from Dreher: “About Jackson, what are the rest of you going to do? Keep listening to him? Swear off of him? Not sure? Whatever your choice, please explain your reasoning.”

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