Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Michael Jackson: HIStory on Film, Volume II (Flattery Yukich Inc., MJJ Productions, Sony, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up running the Michael Jackson video collection HIStory on Film: Volume II, the follow-up to the two-CD package HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I from 1996 and the simultaneously released (first on VHS and then on DVD) video collection. The project began as a Michael Jackson greatest-hits CD to which his record company, Epic, asked him to add two new songs so they’d have a selling point to people who already had the previous albums from which its other songs had been extracted — only Jackson, who as Quincy Jones said tended to over-record (supposedly he brought in 32 songs for Thriller, of which only nine ended up on the finished disc — lending credibility to the reports that there are over 100 unreleased Michael Jackson songs in Sony Records’ vaults and we can expect “new” Jackson releases for a decade or so to come), ended up creating so much new material that the final package was a two-CD set, half old material and half new. The new material included some of his ballsiest songs as a solo artist, including “Scream” (a surprisingly angry duet with his sister Janet, who’d participated on some of his demos but had never before recorded with him for commercial release); “Childhood” (the song Jackson himself said would explain him to anyone who cared; not surprisingly, it’s a lament that he never had a real childhood); and “They Don’t Care About Us,” a Black-nationalist rant that was widely considered anti-Semitic when it was first released.

The present DVD was originally released in 1997 (no doubt on VHS since DVD’s weren’t introduced until the following year) and offered an intriguing compilation of Jackson videos framed with some of the most bizarre footage this bizarre artist ever had created of himself: the opening, “Program Start/Teaser,” shows the unveiling of a huge several-times life-size statue of Jackson in a stadium in Prague (the statue actually existed — camera trickery made it look even more enormous than it was, but Jackson did have a several-times bigger than life statue created for the sequence and it was used in its actual silver color on the original HIStory cover and in a gold-tinted image on this one), and both it and the “Brace Yourself” segment at the very end featured huge numbers of goose-stepping extras and a general air of such fascistic power and determination one gets the impression that Michael Jackson’s ghost director this time was Leni Riefenstahl. (She was still alive, so it could have happened.)

Like the original HIStory album, this disc is divided into two sides (for some reason it was mastered as a two-sided DVD even though the whole program is less than two hours long and would have fit easily on a one-sided disc), one featuring old material and one with new stuff. The old material starts out brilliantly with one of Jackson’s most legendary clips: the performance on the 1983 Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Forever TV special (one can readily see where Jackson got his penchant for absurdly over-dramatic titles!) — on the complete show he did a medley of old Jackson 5 hits with his brothers and then made a little speech to the effect that that was something old, and now he wanted to do something new. The version here cuts in right after Jackson’s speech, with his performance of “Billie Jean” from Thriller — I’m convinced he was merely lip-synching to the record even though during the previous medley he’d been performing “live” — and one of the most spectacular dance routines he ever did, introducing the famous “moonwalk.”

This is the Michael Jackson America fell in love with — it was this show that, more than anything else, transformed Thriller from another hit record to a phenomenon, still the best-selling album of original material ever released (it was at least briefly surpassed at the top of the all-time charts by — of all things — The Eagles’ Greatest Hits) — and he’s young, hot-looking (like his friend Macaulay Culkin, Jackson aged into a reasonably attractive adult but with an oddly chiseled face rather than the baby face of his years as a child star, and that’s what seems to have inspired Jackson to do that horrible succession of plastic surgeries that left him literally without a nose at the end), utterly in command of his body and presenting himself without the distractions endemic to his videos — oops, excuse me, “short films,” to use the term Jackson preferred. (He even spent extra money to shoot them on 35 mm film instead of videotape to ensure crisp image quality.)

The next item is the video for “Beat It,” a rather silly tale of warring gangs of many colors brought together by Michael Jackson (who’s introduced in bed, wearing what looks like a pullover flannel T-shirt with a childish, pajama-like design), who descends from his apartment to teach them a dance routine; its roots in West Side Story (his choreographer was quite obviously channeling Jerome Robbins here) and the teen-gang movies The Outsiders and Rumble Fish by future Jackson collaborator Francis Ford Coppola are quite obvious, but the clip is still relatively engaging. The next clips are “Liberian Girl” and “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad album; “Liberian Girl” is simply a waste — just an excuse to show off how many celebrity friends (some of them virtually forgotten today!) Jackson had; he doesn’t even appear until the very end, riding a camera crane, and the clip is dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor, seemingly the only star in Jackson’s circle who didn’t appear in it — but “Smooth Criminal” is an entertaining dance, even though like “Beat It” it has clear roots in a classic film.

This time Jackson’s source was the marvelous “Girl Hunt” ballet Vincente Minnelli did in The Band Wagon with yet another Jackson celebrity friend, Fred Astaire (so there was another celebrity Jackson knew who wasn’t in “Liberian Girl,” though it’s possible Astaire had already died by the time the clip was made). The Band Wagon was filmed five years before Michael Jackson was born, but he’d obviously done his homework on classic Hollywood, because the “Smooth Criminal” video reproduces not only the basic situation of “The Girl Hunt” and the similar smoky atmospherics, but some of the steps and even some of Alan Jay Lerner’s dialogue for the sequence.

The next clip is an overlong and very messy performance from the 1995 MTV Music Awards, which reveals that his skills as a dancer had already started to deteriorate — the comparison between his performance of a bit of “Billie Jean” (the soundtrack is an arbitrarily spliced-together medley of some of his hits) here and his incandescent reading of the same song from the Motown show 12 years earlier is heartbreaking — though he does pull off a convincing evocation of some of the “Smooth Criminal” steps we’d just seen in their original form. Also, as the album covers document, it was sometime between Thriller and Bad that Michael Jackson metamorphosed from a well-conditioned and reasonably handsome African-American to the wraithlike apparition, with skin unnaturally white even for a Caucasian, let alone someone of African descent, he would be for the rest of his life. He blamed this on vitiligo, a (genuine) disease characterized by the loss of skin pigment — anyone of any race can get this but it’s most noticeable among African-descended people simply because they generally have more pigment to lose — but I’ve never believed that; I’ve seen Black people with vitiligo and they become piebald — they get white blotches on otherwise dark skin; they certainly don’t become consistently white all over from it!

The final clip on side one brings us back to the days when Michael Jackson still looked like an African-American (I remember often joking that “nostalgia means being able to remember when Michael Jackson was still Black”): the 14-minute “Thriller” video, which begins with an odd apologia that the video is not supposed to imply that its creator himself believes in the occult — and it’s a fascinating clip, particularly its opening transformation of Jackson into a werewolf, though as I joked during it, frankly it looks like what Ed Wood would have done if he’d had money. Like a lot of Jackson’s other attempts at long-form videos, it’s irritating to hear the song stop and then start again (though at least when he did that in “Smooth Criminal” it was for a music-less dance break — a trick Jackson’s artistic model for that clip, Fred Astaire, often pulled — and therefore it wasn’t as jarring as usual), though it’s nice to hear Vincent Price deliver a longer version of his rap on the original record.

It also is yet more evidence that Michael Jackson lived his whole life separated from the reality of the rest of humanity — that virtually his entire understanding of human emotions of any kind came from movies, TV shows and songs — and how he never really outgrew his adolescence (indeed, his later years seem to be a Benjamin Button-style regression to the childhood he never had when he actually was a child chronologically) — the “Thriller” segment is a mad mélange of images from cheesy horror films, and whereas a more sensitive, grounded artist might have created something like this as a tongue-in-cheek camp homage, for Jackson these images seem to have been a serious metaphor for terror.

In some ways the later clips on side two are more interesting, even though they’re not as much fun. Joan Acocella’s interesting critique of Jackson the dancer in the July 27 New Yorker argues that the later clips were inferior to the earlier ones because he did less dancing — sometimes none at all: “In place of dancing and stories, he ramped up the pyrotechnics. Smoke banks enclose him. Great flames shoot up behind him. … Then come the computer-generated effects: he vanishes, he materializes, he walks on walls. [Ironically, Fred Astaire had become the first dancer to walk on walls — courtesy of a revolving set and a stationary camera bolted to it — in the 1951 film Royal Wedding, though Buster Keaton had used the same gimmick for a gag scene at the end of The Navigator 27 years earlier.] With this abracadabra, good causes, mawkishly treated, make their entry.”

The first clip on this side is “Scream,” shot in black-and-white and with Michael and Janet Jackson’s images continually moving from live-action to Rotoscoped figures in the style of Japanese animé — it’s a clever video but it doesn’t add much to the song, which is one of the bitterest entries in the Jackson canon (right up there with “Billie Jean,” “Dirty Diana” and “They Don’t Care About Us”). After that is “Childhood,” in which the camera mostly looms down on Jackson seated in a sylvan glade — given that he wrote the song as the theme for the film Free Willy 2, one might have expected at least a few stock clips of whales — and then “You Are Not Alone,” which seems to anticipate the movie Northfork in its bizarre opening presentation of Jackson as an angel, with a huge pair of feathered wings that dwarf his actual body. (Not that we actually get to see him fly — even for Michael Jackson, that was still beyond the budget — and throughout the song, written for him by fellow alleged child molester R. Kelly, the wings disappear and then reappear for no particular reason.)

Then comes “Earth Song,” which was filmed on four continents — North America (New York City), South America (Brazil), Europe (Croatia) and Africa — to dramatize the loss of species and habitats to human degradation; it’s actually a pretty good song — with Jackson ramping up the emotional content at the end and using some of the old soul-singer’s tricks to express his outrage at environmental destruction — it’s certainly much less mawkish than any of Jackson’s other socially conscious songs, but the weight of the presentation somewhat takes away from it. After that is a so-called “Brazilian version” of “They Don’t Care About Us,” under Spike Lee’s direction (as much as Michael Jackson may have pioneered the music video as an art form, only two of the clips here have first-tier film directors: Lee on this one and John Landis on “Thriller”), which turns the song into a samba and, despite some rather confused editing (in which Jackson’s costume arbitrarily changes several times), seeing Jackson at the head of a marching Brazilian drum ensemble is actually a treat even though one wishes he could have done more dancing with those exciting rhythms.

Then comes one of the most intriguing clips in the Jackson canon: “Stranger in Moscow,” a black-and-white video in which Jackson is in a cold urban environment that isn’t particularly identifiable as Russian (and the song only uses its title phrase as a metaphor for the character’s feelings), in which Jackson’s wanderings take on an almost Chaplin-like air of pathos (and the song itself is one of Jackson’s most intriguing and even moving ballads). The last video on the disc — before that final, fascistic “Brace Yourself” — is “Blood on the Dance Floor,” the only segment of the disc directed by Michael Jackson himself, in which he subsumes himself in the midst of a lot of couples doing ballroom dancing (even though the song itself is based on disco beats and one doesn’t expect to see people actually touching each other while they dance to it); it doesn’t really showcase him that much, and it doesn’t dramatize the song’s title either, but it’s still an appealing clip if only because for once Michael Jackson put his ego aside and let a few other people share the spotlight with him.

Overall, HIStory just adds further layers of enigma to the Michael Jackson perplex — especially since the CD on which its second side is based has become, for some reason, the hardest item from Jackson’s adult solo career to find (leaving out the second disc of HIStory from the boxed set The Michael Jackson Collection, which contains all his other solo albums for Epic, was a major mistake) — and the portrait we get from it is of Michael Jackson the child-man who had a great gift for communication and, because of his eccentric background, surprisingly little to communicate: an egomaniac with at least some awareness of his own limitations, a prima-donna star with a willingness to learn from others, and a sad and pathetic figure who professionally projected an aura of excitement and joy.

Incidentally, it’s a sign of the time when it was released — 1997 — that in it are titles promoting the official Michael Jackson fan club and at least one environmental organization, but the contact information is limited to addresses and phone numbers, and it’s jolting to be reminded that just 12 years ago the Internet was such a small preserve that the contacts did not include URL’s.