Spike Lee doesn’t make music videos. He makes short films.
Last night at the SVA Theater in New York City, legendary director Spike Lee broke down the music he has used in his 30 year directorial career as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival. He made sure the music videos he directed were referred to as short films. While showing scenes from his extensive canon, Lee’s stories of making short films with the late Prince and Michael Jackson revealed a vastly different working relationship with the two than previously known.
Lee directed Prince’s Money Don’t Matter 2 Night, from the late singer’s 1991 album Diamonds and Pearls, after receiving a surprise phone call from the Purple Rain singer. According to Lee, he never showed Prince a treatment or script for the music video, for a reason that would define their working relationship: Prince didn’t intend to be in the video. “We really didn’t work together,” Lee began with a business-like tone to his voice. “We worked together, but it wasn’t like we were in the same room.”
Prince became a bit more hands-on in later years, most notably in his contribution to the soundtrack of Lee’s 1996 film Girl 6. After presenting Prince with the script, the artist was fully committed to contributing, but not necessarily collaborating. “He wrote the title track for Girl 6. Then he said ‘go through my catalog and use any song you want.'”
Whereas Lee spoke very respectfully about Prince, his eyes lit up and his voice became noticeably more animated recounting the extensive story of working on the short film for Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us single, from his 1995 album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I. “I told him I live in Fort Greene. This is before gentrification. He said ‘I’ll come to Fort Greene.” The next day, the King of Pop was in Lee’s home at 180 Washington Park, playing songs from his new album and blessing Lee’s then one year old daughter, Satchel Lee.
The true extent of Jackson’s willingness to collaborate was evident when the pair began filming the short film in Brazil. The song, They Don’t Really Care About Us features synthesized drums, but Lee told Jackson “there’s no use going to Brazil and not record the drums.” So, Lee told him they would lay the drums from famed Brazilian drum group Oludom over the synth drums in the final video mix. “You’ll see there comes a point when the song is over and Oludom is still going.” He yelled cut, but Mike gave him a look that Lee knew meant “keep that shit going.”
Jackson also had no complaints about filming in “the most notorious favela” in Brazil, according to Lee. “It took a week before the Brazilian government would give Mike a Visa. They didn’t want him in Brazil,” Lee said, referring to Rio officials opposed to the filming.
Lee’s assistant producer Kátia Lund helped ensure Jackson’s safety by speaking with an unnamed leader in the favela, who was a huge Michael Jackson fan. “He said ‘You could put a million dollars in the middle of the square and I bet you my life no one is going to touch it.’ That’s how we were able to shoot at this place.” According to Lee, Lund made a deeper connection with the locals, which inspired her to film the the critically acclaimed City of God.
As the night winded down, Lee called They Don’t Really Care About Us “one of my most important things I did” in his illustrious career with a warm tone of voice usually reserved for describing their children. He later answered questions from the audience and stated he needs to find a place for more Prince music in his films.
Spike Lee worked with Prince. He created with Michael Jackson.