I hate to admit it, but Thriller is a classic

Ten-year-old Jaylen Washington played Michael Jackson in the kids-only Thriller dance on the main stage during the annual downtown Thriller event. © Herald-Leader staff photo by Charles Bertram.

My friends and family are used to me chaffing at icons of my youth being declared “classic.” Even at 44, it still doesn’t feel like movies I saw in theaters when they opened or albums I bought on vinyl with my paper route money should be in the same category as black-and-white Jimmy Stewart movies or Beatles records I thought of as classic when I was a teen.

But a couple decades have passed since the 1980s, and I have to start acknowledging and maybe even appreciating that some of the things I enjoyed as new in my youth are now taking their rightful places among the icons.

Like Thriller.

I worked an editing shift Sunday night, so I was not able to take in the spectacle that is our annual Halloween-season Thriller parade in Downtown Lexington. But I did buzz by CentrePointe on a dinner run to hear the moments from the video when Michael Jackson transforms from an unlikely movie date into a monster and see a young dancer acting it out on stage.

It took me back to the night in 1983 when I went over to my best friend’s house to watch the premier of the video on MTV — we did not have cable, but Lee’s parents did. We had heard about this bizarre new video Michael Jackson was releasing — a 15-minute mini-movie for a five minute song. What? How do you do that? Play the song really slow?

Jackson did it by pulling together the kind of forces only a reigning King of Pop can including writer and director John Landis, whose 1981 hit movie An American Wearwolf in London heavily influenced the Thriller video. Jackson gave it more cinematic heft with incidental music by movie maestro Elmer Bernstein, makeup by horror master Rick Baker and, of course, that voiceover by Vincent Price. And Jackson surrounded his infectious hit with a fun little story about a girl, played by Ola Ray, dreaming she went to a horror movie with what turned out to be a monster.

Or was it a dream?

It was an instant classic, a video that redefined the then-very young genre of videos.

So yes, call this icon of my youth a classic. It isn’t one because I’m old. It earned the designation.

More: See Charles Bertram’s photos from Sunday night’s Thriller events.

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