Correction to This Article
The article described Elmer Bernstein as a legendary Hollywood composer known for his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Bernstein was a Hollywood legend, but he was not a Hitchcock collaborator. Bernard Herrmann was the composer known for his collaboration with Hitchcock. The article also incorrectly said that the video's director, John Landis, provided the voice for the Grover character in "The Muppet Movie." Landis was the puppeteer who manipulated Grover; Frank Oz provided the voice.

'Thriller' leads list of 25 joining National Film Registry

A sampling of the 25 films being added to the National Film Registry, as announced by the Library of Congress.

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009

The music video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" made history again Wednesday when it was named as one of 25 motion pictures to be included in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.

"Thriller," a 14-minute video promoting the song of the same name, represented a revolutionary moment in film and popular culture when it was first released on Dec. 2, 1983. Directed by the established Hollywood filmmaker John Landis ("The Blues Brothers," "Animal House"), the video merged such formal cinematic elements as a script, elaborate sets and cinematography with the nascent medium of short-form music videos.

"Thriller" joins such esteemed films as "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Jezebel" in this year's National Film Registry roster. The Library of Congress established the registry in 1989 as part of the National Film Preservation Act, to spotlight films that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant and deserve to be preserved for all time, according to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. As of this year, 525 films have been selected for the registry.

Billington notes that the 1982 album "Thriller" has already been named to the National Recording Registry. That, along with the fact that the video was initially released on 35mm film in theaters, helped make the case for including it this year.

Noting the "lavish" production values of the "Thriller" video, Billington sees it as a watershed: "Music videos up to that time had been basically people singing a song to a camera," he says. As for its enduring cultural impact, he adds, "Anybody who saw this film at the time had it become part of their DNA."

The "Thriller" video, a movie-within-a-movie featuring Jackson as a werewolf and a chorus of fanged, cadaverous zombies, was the first music video to be released not just on MTV but in movie theaters. Legendary Hollywood composer Elmer Bernstein, best known for his collaboration with horror master Alfred Hitchcock, wrote incidental music, actor Vincent Price voiced a spooky narration and special-effects expert Rick Baker created the prosthetics.

The result was an ambitious, sophisticated leap forward for a form heretofore known mostly as an extension of TV advertising. It presaged a crossover between music videos and film that would define the careers of such directors as Spike Jonze ("Where the Wild Things Are"), David Fincher ("Zodiac") and Michael Bay ("Transformers"), all of whom got their start in music videos. What's more, the precise, athletic dance moves of Jackson and his backup dancers were immediately imitated by fans and continue to reverberate through global culture, receiving homage in mainstream films ("13 Going on 30") and in countless versions of the dance on YouTube, including a Bollywood-style production number and performances by thousands of people in Mexico City and orange-suited prisoners in the Philippines.

"I'm thrilled," Landis said appropriately from his home in Los Angeles. "And it's nice for Michael, because he was always striving to be bigger and better."

Landis recalls that when Jackson originally approached him to direct a video for "Thriller," he turned the singer down. "I said, 'I don't think so. It's a commercial.' " But he reconsidered. "Michael was such an extraordinary performer and such a phenomenon. I said, 'I don't want to make a video, but could I made a theatrical short?'

At the time, Landis says, no one knew that the video would become so influential. "It was nobody's brilliant idea," he says. "Nobody thought, Gee, why don't we do this? It's a genius business plan. Mike just wanted to turn into monster."

But when the video was released, first in a theater in Los Angeles, then on then-tiny Showtime and later on MTV, the "Thriller" album went back to No. 1 on the charts and exponentially increased its sales. The video "established MTV, the validity of the rock video as a marketing tool, and created the home video business" says Landis, adding that his 46-minute documentary "Making Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' " also helped create the "making-of" genre. "But the reason it was a pleasure for everyone involved was that it was made for fun."

Landis joins such legends as Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Hitchcock and William Wyler in having more than one film in the National Registry (his 1978 comedy, "Animal House," was inducted in 2001). What's more, he has a connection with three other films that were named this year: He was a stunt player on Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West," he worked with animator Sally Cruikshank ("Quasi at the Quackadero") on "Twilight Zone: The Movie" and in "The Muppet Movie" he was the voice of Grover.

"My wife just said, 'See John, it's your year!' " he said when told of the coincidence. "Sometimes when people talk about movies I realize, Wait a minute, I worked on that movie!" he says, laughing. "I feel like Zelig!"


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity