For some reason, I was a bit lethargic and grump this past Saturday. No excuses, I just was. Much to my dismay, my partner reminded me that I had committed to seeing This Is It, which did not seem appealing in my Debby Downer state. Nevertheless, I dragged myself away from a fascinating episode of America’s Test Kitchen, to dress myself in something more suitable for public display than that which I was wearing–some golden Addidas basketball shorts with a giant inappropriately/inconveniently located hole, and an oversized black tee-shirt my mother gave me which reads:
Top 10 Reasons to Procrastinate:
Once I was in acceptable attire, I dragged myself to the car, and we were off to our local movie theater. In retrospect, I feel bad for my partner. Taking me to see this movie must have been like shlepping her own personal rain cloud around on a leash. I was trying to make all sorts of excuses not to see this movie: “We’re going to be late… Let’s just wait to see it on video… It looks like rain is coming, let’s see it another time…” Yes, I was being a turd.
It isn’t that I’m not a Michael Jackson fan; I was just in a bad mood, and I pegged this movie as a scam. Figuring the powers that be were praying upon the emotions and sentiments of MJ fans by releasing second-rate footage in an effort to cash in on his death, I wanted to resist supporting this movie.
Despite my misgivings, we arrived at our destination with enough time to purchase an overpriced bag of sour watermelon chews, peanut M&Ms, and Mike & Ikes, and moseyed on into the designated theater as the last two previews aired.
With all of the negativity that I was bringing into this experience, I was quite surprise to discover that This Is It, turned out to be two of the most engaging hours of documentary footage I have ever witnessed. I caught myself a quarter way through the movie, literally on the edge of my seat, grinning from ear to ear, with my jaw slightly slack. Michael just left me in awe.
Just to give you a brief synopsis: This movie documents the work that went into the Michael Jackson concert that was to take place in London. Viewers are given the opportunity to see about two to three days of the preparation that went into the choreography, music arrangement, and stage effects in order to create a cohesive, yet larger than life concert experience. Watching the footage, I felt like I was in the front row of one of Michael Jackson’s concerts. Yet to me, the more interesting moments were in between takes, when he was expressing to the dancers, musicians, and producers the things he wanted or needed from all of them. Seriously, this movie was fascinating.
There were a few things that really struck me about Michael Jackson as I watched This Is It (SPOILER ALERT. SOME OF THE INFORMATION BELOW MAY SPOIL PORTIONS OF THE MOVIE FOR YOU IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN IT):
1. Viewers have the opportunity to witness how Michael actually converses.
This is no small detail. The dialogue was not scripted, his words were not adjusted for print, he was not being interviewed. Michael actually had back and fourth exchange during which he expressed his needs in the moment, received feedback, worked through mild conflict, shared his discomfort, and used his own words. I don’t think I have ever witnessed this before. Rarely are public figures unguarded, or not “on,” and Michael seemed to have always exemplified this. I feel like this movie showed Michael with a bit of that protective layer stripped away.
2. Hearing Michael talk made me reflect on who he really was.
Michael Jackson, maybe more than any other public figure, molded and bent the projection of his public self at will. He lightened his skin, and altered many of the distinguishing characteristics of his face. Moreover, he forcefully confined his voice to a range that most closely emulated the golden voice of his childhood, ultimately making him sound like a drag performer, or a male-to-female transgendered person, even a little bit like his sister, Janet. Michael seemed to me, without a clearly defined race or an unambiguous gender.
Listening to the words Michael Jackson chose to communicate with others also reminded me that he really never went to school. Yes, he was enrolled in schools, and, yes, he was tutored on the road. However, at times during the movie, it seemed like Michael really was just a grown up fourth-grader. His language was so simple, and at times he struggled to articulate what he was feeling. His struggles ended up yielding vivid expressions, like when his earpiece was turned up to high, and he described the problem by saying, “It’s like someone’s shoving a fist in my ear.”
Some of his language choice also made me question one of my previous assumptions, which was that Michael had attempted to sterilize his vernacular so as to rid it of any hints of “Country” or “Black” influence so as to appear a middle-class white person. There are not many hints to the contrary, but there are a few moments that reminded me that, at the very least, Michael was raised around some soulful musicians with speech steeped in slang. This is most notable when Michael tries to articulate the importance of dramatic pause on a couple of occasions. Frustrated and grasping for the right words to explain what he is looking for, all one can hear is some stuttering and barely audible mumbling before Michael instructs the band to, “let it simmer.” He wants them to “let (the silence) simmer” for a few seconds, wait for his cue, and then continue with the song. Whether this was common musician slang, or a reference to the country vernacular command to, simmer down, it definitely hinted at language unlike the sanitized speech he always seems to strive for in public.
3. Michael Jackson’s musical genius becomes more obvious in the making of music; the product unto it’s self only tells part of the story.
There were numerous points within the rehearsal for this production, where Michael stops and explains exactly what he wants from the musicians. Michael exhibits the uncanny ability to dissect his music with the precision of a surgeon. At one point during the rehearsal of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”, Michael isn’t feeling like the bass player’s interpretation of the music is “funky” enough. So during a pause in the action, Michael beat-boxes the the drum and bass-line sound he is looking for. It sounds spot on. He does this for guitar solos, back-up singers, and the music director/keyboardist. His ability to fabricate the sounds of instruments with his voice and body made me wish he would have done a Bobby McFerrrinesque unplugged album of all of his hits. I think I read somewhere that Michael would actually beat-box and sound out the instrumental elements of his songs with his voice before having musicians interpret them for the album. I would love to hear those recordings.
4. Michael Jackson becomes a character worthy of one’s sympathy.
Or, at the very least, this movie made me feel sorry for him. While I am definitely no psychologist, the cumulative impact of witnessing Michael interact with other adults for two hours left me with the impression that he was a deeply scarred human being. Shy, meek, and very child-like, Michael seemed to be wrestling with the tension between knowing what he must demand in order to be the greatest human performer of all time, and wanting everyone involved in the process to love him. It seemed to pain Michael to ask for something that might inconvenience someone.
It is also eerie to see how everyone around him coddles him like a child. The energy Michael projects when he is not performing almost demands that others interact in the gentlest possible way. The producer speaks to him like a mother might speak to her toddler, in a series of simply phrased clarifying questions: “Michael, if we lowered the volume on your earpiece, would that be better? Michael, if the earpiece is still, bothering you, would you please let me know?” The dancers approach him, almost gingerly, to figure out why Michael doesn’t seem to be in tune with the musical cue, “He’s okay, he’s okay. He’s just letting it simmer.” The musicians seem to adjust to Michael’s directions like they are interacting with a child who might burst into tears at any moment, and it isn’t until Michael smiles and laughs at the musical directors use of the word “booty,” that the musical director actually speaks to Michael like he is older than twelve years of age.
I don’t know exactly what happened to Michael to make him so child-like. Yes, we have heard that his father, Joseph, abused all of the Jacksons. Yes, he never had a real childhood. Yes he was probably thrust into fame before he was emotionally prepared to take it on. But honestly, I can only come up with theories and suppositions as to what makes Michael, Michael.
Recently, Rabi Shmuley, who claims to have been a close friend of Michael Jackson, released some tapes of conversations the two of them had. The releasing of the tapes feels a bit slimy to me, and the rabi seems to be a bit of a self-promoter, but I guess that is beside the point. During one of these conversations, Michael admitted that he has always performed because he wanted others to love him.
That is all Michael probably ever wanted.
Reconsidering Michael’s life through this lens, I feel like it all makes a bit more sense. Imagine:
Michael sees the attention his dad gave to his brothers as performers, so Michael strives to become a performer at an early age. He wants his dad’s attention; he wants his dad’s love. As it becomes more apparent to Michael, just how dysfunctional his family is, he continues to push himself as an artist for the affirmation, maybe love, of Berry Gordy, head of Motown Records. All along, of course, Michael is only receiving adoration and praise for one thing, his work as an artist. This praise from the industry, “love” from the fans–according to their signs and screams–becomes the closest thing Michael can experience to love; this is the closest approximation he can experience to connection.
Eventually Michael Jackson begins to recognize the emptiness that comes with being “loved” by droves of nameless screaming faces. The child-like and socially inept Michael decides to surround himself with children, most of them afflicted with illness, because he doesn’t feel awkward around them. He thinks to himself, Maybe they will love me if I do nice things for them.
Being so child-like he relates, connects, and feels comfortable with the children. He has slumber parties and interacts with them as children do. Alas, Michael is not a child, and he is too socially inept and tragically in need of connection to recognize that a forty-something year-old man having slumber with little children that are not his own is inappropriate and creepy.
Considering all this, I could see how Michael, due to his naiveté, and efforts to connect with other human beings, may have left himself open to being taken advantage of, blackmailed, or sued. Another possibility could be that Michael, in his child-like state, tried to do things kids might normally do at a slumber party–sleeping in the same bed, crossing lines that are considered “naughty” by adults, etc. I am not saying that any of these things are okay, and as a grown man, all of this is super inappropriate and creepy (unless Tom Hanks or Richard Pryor are doing it, in which case, it is cute or funny). Yet when I view the situation through the lens of Michael, as a child stuck in a grown man’s body in search of love… I just feel sorry for him.
Michael’s lost childhood, full of abuse and exploitation, is tragic, and this is just one piece of this extremely complex figure. I consider the internalized racism he must have experienced, and it makes me angry. Thinking of Michael as a gay man, as it has been rumored, unable to be out, or even be, is so sad. And, to me, explains so much.
Maybe I have watched the made for TV movie, The Jacksons: An American Dream, one too many times. Maybe my admiration of Michael, the artist, clouds my judgement of Michael, the man. Maybe my imaginations has taken suppositions too far into the realm of hypothetical. Maybe I should just sit back and appreciate the performance in This Is It for what it is–Michael’s last time dancing, and singing on stage–entertainment.
Through this very basic lens, I am taken back to the days when I would slide out of my socks in my attempts to do the moonwalk. I am reminded of watching The Simpsons all the way to the end so I could see the premiers of “Remember the Time” (starring Eddie Murphy, Iman, and Magic Johnson!), “Black or White” (with guest appearances by Norm from Cheers, and Macaulay Culkin), or “Jam” (featuring Michael Jordan, and Michael, who clearly doesn’t know how to play basketball). I can recall thinking that a tight-fitting red leather jacket with tons of zippers would be so cool to wear to school. Through the the lens of a viewer looking to be entertained, I watch Michael almost casually rehearsing dances and songs from years past, which leads me to experience joy steeped in nostalgia…
… and I will miss Michael Jackson.