Bob Giraldi on directing "Beat It"
In 1983, Michael Jackson scored two simultaneous Top 5 hits with the songs "Billie Jean" and "Beat It", both taken from his hugely successful Thriller album. The music videos for both songs are now legendary and helped break down musical and racial barriers on then-nascent MTV.
At the time, executives at Jackson's label, CBS Records, famously accused the channel's programmers of excluding black artists and R&B music - an accusation MTV continues to deny. Regardless, "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" received heavy airplay and set a standard for production values and choreography in music videos that lasted until the music industry meltdown 20 years later.
In "Beat It", the 25-year-old pop star was cast as a peacemaker who uses dance to quell a knife fight between a two warring gangs. The video, which featured a cast of real-life gang members and choreography by Michael Peters, was directed by Bob Giraldi, who would go on to direct Jackson in two Pepsi commercials for BBDO, New York.
Giraldi recently spoke to Boards about working with Crips, Bloods and choreographers to make "Beat It."
How did you end up directing the video for "Beat It"?
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. 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 - it was an emotional commercial, it was based on truth and he liked it a lot. So he wanted to meet and we met.
I wanted "Billie Jean" and he had just finished shooting "Billie Jean", but he said he had this track called "Beat It" and maybe I'd like to come up with an idea for that. In those days, you didn't compete [for videos]. There were no three bids - there wasn't a whole lot of politics. Record labels didn't have commissioners, it was a different business. It wasn't a business yet.
What did you base the concept on?
One of the things that is totally mistaken that I've read many times is that most people think "Beat It" was inspired by West Side Story and that's absolutely not true at all.
I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey - always an edgy town but full of people really trying to be so much tougher than they really are. It seemed to me this song of peace, this song of reconciliation that Michael had written was perfect for a quasi kind of rumble. I've read where, the two lead dancers - Michael Peters and Vince Paterson - when they had their wrists tied and held the switchblades, that came from West Side Story. That's not true at all. That came from a story I heard when I worked in a factory one summer. A real tough kid from Jersey told me that he'd witnessed two guys who had their wrists tied and they held switchblades, and only one came out - and not too well. It was based on that little fable.
Michael liked my idea and decided he was going to include the Crips and Bloods, which I thought was insane. If you see the video, you'll see guys that look like the real deal because they are the real deal.
How did you cast the real gang members?
It was Michael. He went out and he got 'em through, I guess, the LAPD's gang squad and he convinced them that, with enough police presence, this would be a smart and charitable thing to do; get them there to like each other and hang with each other for two days doing the video. I didn't like the idea because it was hard enough to direct actors and dancers, let alone hoods.
So he tried to use the video to foster peace between them?
Michael was always about peace. He was always about some sort of peace offering. That was his idea and the cops did go along with it and as history has it, we were almost shut down the first night because, as you know, film sets get to be very boring after the first hour.
I guess the Crips and Bloods started to get on each other's nerves - they are mortal enemies - and we had a few incidents and two cops came to me and said they wanted to close it down. I somehow convinced the cop squad guy to just let me [shoot the] dance. I was gonna hold the dance for the second night of shooting. I said, 'The only thing I can think that'll save this is to let me just blast the music. I have a feeling it'll calm everything down. Can't get any worse, just give me a chance.' And the cop was cool, he looked at me and said, 'OK, not much more.' I couldn't go much more because it was volatile - no question about it - and scary. So we were in that warehouse, change of plans we're going to do the dance, get Michael out of the camper, here we go.
What happened next?
The gang members couldn't dance so they formed the ring and watched. And the [dancers] all started to dance with Michael Peters and Vince Paterson. When Michael Jackson comes down and does what he does, I remember looking at the faces of all the Crips and Bloods lined up and their expressions as they listened to that music and watched those kids dance. Those kids were basically, most of them were gay... and when they started to dance, the Crips and the Bloods had that look like, 'You know what? With all our wars and vendettas and stuff, that's cool right there. That's something we'll never be able to do.' And that's what made that evening work.
Did Michael Jackson choreograph the video himself?
That is the one time that I can honestly say Michael Jackson did not choreograph. 'Beat It' was choreographed by Michael Peters - God rest his soul - a great, great choreographer who is no longer alive. He was an incredible street dancer, he choreographed that and Michael Jackson danced it and danced it beautifully. I think from that point on Michael Jackson probably was involved in the choreography in every single thing he did. 'Beat It' was a little bit more belonging to Michael Peters than people want to give credit for.
In those days MTV had an unspoken policy of not playing videos by black artists. What impact did "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" have when they came out?
It was taking video to another level with dance and choreography and the fact that Epic, CBS could put down on the desk that these two were the largest selling records in the world. It was hard for Les Garland and [Bob] Pittman to hold on to that original idea, which was [playing] new wave bands for white teens in the suburbs. Michael was given credit, and rightly so, for being the first really, truly crossover artist of our generation and the man who forced MTV by his genius to rethink it's platform.
What impact has "Beat It" and working with Michael Jackson had on your career?
I met a man who I have total respect for. One of the most interesting things he ever said to me, I'll never forget, we were arguing, he said to me in that very high-pitched voice of his, 'You use the F-word to much'. That always stuck with me. I thought that was smart to say at a time like that.
I watched a man dance better than anyone I'd ever seen in my life and I watched a man talk softly and carry a tremendously big stick, get what he wanted and get his way. And as we know now 25 years later, perhaps he got his way too much. But nonetheless, I watched him get his way but always using the softest, quietest approach you could possibly have used. I was influenced not only by his talent, but by his personality.