Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland (Lifetime/Silver Screen Entertainment, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the TV-movie Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland on Lifetime. In fact, this time around Lifetime listed itself as a producing company on this one (in partnership with Silver Screen Entertainment) as well as the network outlet. The central characters are not so much Michael Jackson (played by someone or something called “Navi”) as the two bodyguards who signed on and worked for him steadily during the last two years of his life, Bill Whitfield (Chad L. Coleman) and Javon Beard (Sam Adegoke). The story is framed by court depositions Whitfield and Beard are giving in the case against Jackson’s physician, Dr. Conrad Murray (who appears only briefly and is played by Ken Colquitt), who was accused of negligent homicide in Jackson’s death over the repeated doses of the anesthetic propofol he gave the singer in his last days as Jackson prepared for a series of comeback shows at the O2 Arena in London. When we meet Michael Jackson it’s already Christmas 2006 and he hasn’t released a new album in five years, he’s been acquitted of charges of child molestation, but the experience has poisoned him against ever living at his Neverland ranch in Santa Barbara (when his kids complain that they want to go back there, he says they can’t because “it’s been contaminated with evil”) and he’s just returned from a stint in Bahrain. 

Michael’s big concern is that his kids not be photographed — at one point, on his orders, Whitfield and Beard rough up a (white) papparazo who’s sneaked a photo of the children, and then Michael has to pay $75,000 to avoid prosecution — though he’s also portrayed as a child-man completely unaware of his dire financial condition. He has the humiliating experience of having an F. A. O. Schwartz store opened especially for him, he buys nearly $40,000 of merchandise as Christmas presents for his kids, and then his credit card is declined and the rather unctuous white woman at the register says she can’t let him take the stuff on a mere promise to pay or she’ll lose her job. (Eventually Michael has to call his attorney at 4:30 a.m. and get him to cover the charges.) The other issue surrounding the film is Michael’s desire just to kick back and be a normal father, versus the frustration of being an instantly recognizable celebrity who draws a crowd whenever he appears in public. (In one grimly amusing scene, Whitfield and Beard have Michael wear a motorcycle helmet and take his kids through the streets of Las Vegas so clad — it works in the sense that no one recognizes him, much less mobs him, though one would think someone would have guessed who it was when he addresses his younger son as “Blanket” — who else ever named a kid “Blanket”?) Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland is an engaging movie in some ways — Chad L. Coleman and Sam Adegoke enact the lead roles with power and authority, Navi looks credible as the later Michael Jackson even though he hardly dances with the élan of the real one (but then, who could?) and the only time we hear him sing is when, after having shown his kids a bunch of Charlie Chaplin’s movies, we hear him croon “Smile,” Chaplin’s theme song for his film Modern Times and a bittersweet song about smiling one’s way through adversity that works here almost as well as it did in Chaplin’s masterpiece. 

The film does a good job of showing how precarious working for a celebrity can be, especially with the power shifts around Michael Jackson that rivaled anything that went on in a medieval court — at the start he’s being managed by a Black woman named Raymone Bain (Holly Robinson Peete) and his personal assistant is a white guy, John Feldman (Brian Ibsen), but first Feldman and then Bain fall from power and at the end Jackson’s manager is a young Black wanna-be filmmaker named Michael Amir Williams (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) whom Michael Jackson bonded with during a photo shoot in New York City (which if nothing else proves that he still has his celebrity chops together; it’s just a still-photo shoot so he doesn’t have to move, but he strikes all the right poses) over a script they were working on for an animated movie about King Tutankhamun. Naturally the film also charts Jackson’s fraught relationships with his biological family; at one point Michael’s brother Randy (Kristofer Gordon) crashes his car through the gates of the Jackson manse and demands money apparently owed him from the Jackson Five’s days as a working group, and this ruins Michael’s mood so much that he abandons plans to attend a birthday party for his friend Elizabeth Taylor (another child star who had a troubled adult career and spent the last years not working but still garnering publicity and tabloid coverage) and spends the night hiding in his bedroom instead. Eventually Michael finds his desire to buy a $55 million estate in Nevada, which he has christened “Wonderland,” thwarted because he has huge assets but is cash-poor (the real Michael Jackson had to sell half of his 50 percent interest in Sony-ATV Music, holder of the Beatles’ song copyrights, just to pay off his mounting debts), and that is what finally forces him to agree to the ill-fated comeback concerts in London. I remember thinking when the announcement was made that those concerts would never happen — though what I reasoned was that Michael would find some B.S. excuse to back out of them the way he had out of previous tours, not that the reason he’d never take the stage at O2 was he’d croak first. 

The prospect of returning to the stage after eight years in which he’d done virtually nothing professionally must have been frightening as all get-out for Michael Jackson, especially since he couldn’t just stand up and sing his old songs the way Frank Sinatra could in his later years (as long as Sinatra could get up there, remember — or be cued on with teleprompters — the words and croak out a reasonable approximation of his songs’ original melodies, his audiences would be pleased). No, Michael Jackson’s audiences would have expected him to dance — and to dance in his late 40’s as well as he had in the music videos he’d shot in his early 20’s, and to do the old routines perfectly in real time without the protection of being able to retake. No wonder it took him so long to agree to do the shows at all, and when he finally started rehearsing for them (his rehearsals were filmed and released post-mortem as part of a documentary called Michael Jackson: This Is It) he was so anxious he literally couldn’t sleep and Dr. Murray started giving him propofol injections that narcotized him so well that at the end of this movie, he calls Whitfield and is so stoned Whitfield at first doesn’t recognize his voice and thinks it’s a prank caller. Michael Jackson’s career — and his life — seem yet more evidence of my conviction that the only way a child star can have a normal and happy adulthood is if she or he gives up show business altogether the way Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin did. It’s also an illustration of what, when Charles and I watched the DVD Michael Jackson: HIStory, Part II, I called the Michael Jackson perplex: “[T]he 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.” (I also had a “perplex” about Elvis Presley, another troubled star who lived in a bubble cut off from normal human contact and who died in his 40’s from prescription drugs: the Elvis Perplex was how much potential talent Elvis had, how little of it he actually used, and how hugely successful he became just on that little.)  

Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland is in some ways a typically clichéd tale of a superstar whose own fame turned him into a recluse and cut him off from human values — though he wasn’t forgotten by his public the way Gloria Swanson’s character was in Sunset Boulevard, there’s a lot of the same feeling here, especially given Michael’s intense loneliness and the fact that, aside from his kids, virtually everyone in his presence was being paid (or at least being promised to be paid — according to Elizabeth Hunter’s script for this film, Jackson was so cash-poor that for the final five months of their tenure Whitfield and Beard were not being paid, and his last manager was clearly trying to drive them out of the entourage) to be there. It’s a sad story that isn’t rendered any less sad simply because we’ve heard it before — though it does make one wonder why he didn’t pull his act together long enough to make another record: Quincy Jones, who produced the three Michael Jackson albums on which his historical reputation will rest — Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad, in chronological order — called him “a workaholic,” a surprising thing to say about an artist who created virtually nothing in the last eight years of his life, and one can’t help but think the distraction of actually having something professional to do would have kept him alive and uplifted his spirits. Just after Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland Lifetime aired one of those tacky pseudo-documentary clip fests called Michael Jackson: Icon, of which I watched only the first segment — saying that Michael Jackson revolutionized the art of dance and indulging in such a blatant bit of “first-itis” (a term I coined for the tendency among biographers to assert that the person they’re biographing was the first in history to do a particular thing) as saying that when Michael Jackson first appeared with the Jackson Five at age 10 no one had ever before heard a child sing with the full passion of an adult. Naturally this had me screaming at the TV, “Does the name ‘Judy Garland’ mean anything to you?”