Michael Jackson’s mastery of the video form is well documented, but one of his lesser known videos in America is for the song “Liberian Girl” from the Bad album. Veteran video helmer Jim Yukich, whose resume boasts artists from Iron Maiden to Debbie Gibson and the award winning video for Genesis’ “Land of Confusion”, was brought in to help craft a memorable clip.
“[CBS Epic Video] called and Michael Jackson wants to do a video for this song ‘Liberian Girl’ and I hadn’t heard this song yet,” said Yukich. “I’m thinking like ‘Off the Wall’ or ‘Rock with You’ or just I figure it will be one of those classic Michael Jackson killer songs, right? And ‘Liberian Girl’ is not a killer song. It’s funny — what do you do? So again, we’re throwing the kitchen sink at it, and so I pitched the idea to Michael that we would have him shoot the video while all these are people waiting to begin the video, and they don’t realize it until the end is that he’s directing.”
Jackson didn’t need much convincing on the premise, so they were off and running.
“He loved the idea. We started calling people, and we just called in favors from friends. I had just done a television special with Richard Dreyfuss, and Richard said he’d love to be in it. He said, ‘Can I call up Steven?’ and I said, ‘Steven who?’ and he said ‘Steve Spielberg and Amy [Irving],’ and I said, “Yeah!” So he called Spielberg and Amy, and then you start calling people saying you have these people, and I’d start naming names and it was easy. It was very easy to get people because as soon as you get a couple of big names, everybody wants to be in it.”
The shooting day basically consisted of Yukich and his crew filming all the celebrities on a soundstage as they wait for Michael to show up. The final list of guest stars served as, in retrospect, a truly strange snapshot of that year in show business: Beverly Johnson, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Sherman Hemsley, Brigitte Nielsen, Paula Abdul, Carl Weathers, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Jackie Collins, Amy Irving, Jasmine Guy, Rosanna Arquette, Billy Dee Williams, Lou Diamond Phillips, Olivia Newton-John, John Travolta, Corey Feldman, Steven Spielberg, Debbie Gibson, Rick Schroeder, Blair Underwood, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Bubbles the chimp, Suzanne Somers, Lou Ferrigno, Don King, Mayim Bialik, Virginia Madsen, David Copperfield, Richard Dreyfuss (with daughter Emily), Danny Glover, Olivia Hussey, Dan Aykroyd, and Steve Guttenberg. Comedy writers were given the task of writing some interesting things for the cast to say on camera while they waited.
“So we just had two days, and we had the live audio with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John doing the scene when they sang together, and they hadn’t sang together onscreen since ‘Grease’, so it was something to do that, and we just shot this grand stuff of people talking, and the outtakes are incredible because it’s just people talking. The song is not even playing! It’s just great getting all these stars in a room and you’re just filming and they’re saying, ‘What are you supposed to do?’ and we’d say, ‘We’ll get back to you,’ and you’d just mike everybody and shoot stuff.”
Yukich said that in a room filled with stars, Steven Spielberg’s uneasiness on the other side of the camera was the biggest surprise. Yukich used a push-pull camera shot on Spielberg, who ironically was the director who made that camera shot popular, hence its industry nickname – The Jaws Shot (check it out below at 1:43).
“He was nervous. We did that push-pull move for that shot, and he was more nervous than I was, you know, being on camera. He wanted to try to do this favor for Michael because he wanted Michael for a movie.”
Yukich also said that working with the Gloved One was an amazing experience, but required some on-set preparation.
“Incredible,” he said. “I mean, at first, it was funny because he sent his handlers in first, and they check, and they said he is coming in 10 minutes. They go in all the different rooms to make sure that no bombs were there and there were no fans hanging out, and they kicked people out, and it was almost like going through airport security or something. They basically kicked people out there who weren’t supposed to be there, and they bring in a microwave oven with bananas for Bubbles the monkey and Max which was the baby monkey. It was like a real rigmarole, and then when he showed up, you know, he was unbelievably nice. Such a pleasant person and a nice guy.”
Jackson also had only one request involving the removal of a person from the final cut.
“He called me a couple of times after he saw the edit. He would make us do some things, like he took out David Spade. David Spade was in the original cut. He called me up and he said, ‘Jim, this is Michael,’ and you think somebody was fooling with you, basically. You would never know if it was really him until he started talking about specifics and you could say, okay, that is Michael. So he called us up and he on a walkie-talkie phone or something, or he’s up in Santa Barbara, and says, ‘You know, in 3 minutes and 20 seconds, there’s a guy blonde here. Who is that guy?’ I said his name is David Spade. ‘I don’t know who he is, take him out.’ So Spade was out, and I’m sure Spade was, like, pissed!” [Editor’s note: The song was released in 1989, and Spade did not join the Saturday Night Live cast until 1990.]
David Spade wasn’t the only future comedy start working on the video, either.
“Interestingly enough, we were writing certain lines for people on the spot, and the writer with us on that was Rob Schneider. I was managed for years by the Brillstein Company, where my friend Marc Gurvitz is now the president [of Brillstein Entertainment Group]. He and I started in the mailroom at Capitol Records together, so I would call Marc and say, ‘I need a writer.’ He would send over David Spade or Rob Schneider. He sent all these people who were nobodies and they ended up being a big deal. Schneider was writing lines for us — someone funny, someone not. It was kind of interesting that he ended up huge afterwards.
Yukich is still aggravated that the song, and hence the video, was never released in America.
“He released it in Europe. I was really pissed because I thought that after we shot it after we – I mean, Michael loved it. Those are pretty big stars in that day, and we thought we all did a pretty good job and it was great, it was funny, it was the kind of style and stuff that I’ve done for years, and for them to not release it was devastating, because the only people who saw were people who saw our demo reel, and they’d say ‘What happen to this?’ You know, you almost feel embarrassed, like it wasn’t a hit or something, but it was never released here.”
When Jackson died suddenly, Yukich immediately though back to the video and a conversation the two had.
“To this day, I’ve been – I guess not so much anymore, because years have gone by — but I was convinced when he died that he didn’t die. We made that video, and he said to me, ‘I would love to be hiding and see what people say about me, you know?’ I mean, having shot all that footage and then he died? It was just kind of weird.”
People can view the video here, but it is also available on the Michael Jackson VISION DVD, a retrospective of his groundbreaking work in music video.