Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Michael Jackson: This Is It (Columbia Pictures, Michael Jackson Entertainment, AEG, 2009)

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

The film Charles and I watched last night was one I’d had sitting in the backlog for a while but which I dug out because it seemed like a logical choice after we’d seen the recent Lifetime TV-movie Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland. It was Michael Jackson: This Is It, the release basically thrown together after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 and consisting of rehearsal footage for the 50 comeback concerts he was scheduled to do at London’s O2 arena — and blessedly, Kenny Ortega, who was the credited director for both the concerts and the film, decided to go with a cinema verité presentation: no voice-over narration, a minimum of interview footage, mostly just straight documentary of Jackson’s rehearsals for the concerts he tragically didn’t live long enough actually to give. As I’ve commented about Michael Jackson in previous posts about him and his products, the poor man seems to have been a bundle of contradictions: “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.” It seemed odd that Quincy Jones, the veteran jazz, pop and rock producer who worked with Jackson on his three greatest albums — Off the Wall (1979), Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987) — would describe him as a “workaholic” when he didn’t make a releasable album after Invincible (2001), eight years before his death. (About the only music he had out after Invincible was a duet single called “Hold My Hand” with someone named Akon, which was the lead-off track on the first posthumous release of “new” Michael Jackson material, Michael from 2010.) Instead Jackson spent the last eight years of his life being prosecuted for child sexual abuse and, though he was acquitted, deciding never to go back to his fabled Neverland Ranch in Santa Barbara because — at least according to the script of Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland, based on a book written by two of his bodyguards — he felt it had become “contaminated by evil.” Instead he lived a peripatetic existence, staying in Bahrain for a while and then returning to the U.S. in rented “digs” and spending so much money he ultimately had to sell half of his 50 percent stake in Sony-ATV Music (the current holder of the Beatles’ copyrights) to Sony just to pay off his debts. 

Apparently the message got through to him from someone in his often-shifting entourage that he couldn’t keep spending like there was no tomorrow without bringing in some income, and rather than follow a course a more normal pop star plotting a comeback would have — recording a new CD and then doing live shows in support of it — Jackson finally (reluctantly, if the portrayal of it in Searching for Neverland is correct) accepted the offer of the giant AEG Entertainment company to do a series of live shows at the newly constructed O2 Arena in London. According to the Searching for Neverland script, Jackson originally just wanted to sign for 10 shows but got talked into doing a 50-show stand, and called the concerts “This Is It” — which he announced at a press conference that made it seem like these were going to be the last live shows he would ever give. This Is It (the movie) begins with dancers from all over the world flying to Los Angeles, where Jackson was going to live and rehearse until the concerts were ready and he would fly to London for the performances, for an open audition to be part of Michael Jackson’s chorus line, and as someone who was never particularly a fan of Michael Jackson (when Thriller was at its peak I was probably one of the few regular record buyers in the U.S. who didn’t purchase it — my taste in current music in the early 1980’s ran more towards my late-1970’s British punk heroes like Elvis Costello, The Clash, Graham Parker and Nick Lowe, along with the great Australian rock bands Big Country and Men at Work that put out their first albums around then), I was astonished that these people would describe hearing his music and (especially) seeing his videos as literally life-changing experiences, so much so they were willing to fly halfway around the world for a chance to work with The Man Himself. Much of This Is It hovers in this netherworld between Michael Jackson the almost godlike apparition and Michael Jackson the lifelong (well, what else can you say about a man who made his showbiz debut at age 5 and had his first record — and first hit — at 10?) working entertainer who was making a comeback under uncertain circumstances and working with professionals who knew going in that it would be a challenge to get a great performance out of him. Indeed, on the imdb.com page for This Is It there’s a “Trivia” item that speculates that after Jackson’s death Sony had his footage digitally manipulated to cover for him — to make it look like he was in better physical shape than he actually was. 

One of the big pressure points on Michael Jackson — and part, I suspect, of what ultimately did him in — was that between them, he and Madonna had so totally changed the audience expectation of what a big pop concert would be he couldn’t just show up and sing his songs the way an older singer like Frank Sinatra could. Sinatra could go on performing until nearly his 80th birthday because all his audiences expected was to hear him sing: as long as he could stand up, remember (or be telepromptered on) his songs’ lyrics and croak out a decent approximation of their melodies, they’d be satisfied and go home glowing that they’d been in the presence of a living legend. Michael Jackson’s audience would not have been happy if he’d just shown up, put a great band together and run through his old songs; they wanted to see him dance, and to see him in his late 40’s execute perfectly in one go steps he’d first done in his 20’s in music videos with the benefit of being able to retake if he screwed up. (No wonder Fred Astaire never again performed “live” as a dancer after he started making movies, though in his later years he did do a few concerts just as a singer.) And they wanted to see him dance as part of elaborate production numbers that at least reproduced the original videos and hopefully went beyond them. One of the reasons there were professional-quality cameras filming Michael Jackson’s rehearsals for This Is It, aside from documenting them for Michael’s production company and giving Ortega and his production staff a way to see what was working and what wasn’t, was that the concert was going to be studded with filmed inserts — including a bizarre pastiche of 1940’s film noir clips that was supposed to introduce Jackson’s song “Smooth Criminal” from Bad and give us the experience of watching a live Michael Jackson have an on-stage shootout with a filmed Humphrey Bogart. (I joked, “Michael Jackson in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid — who knew?” Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was Carl Reiner’s 1982 tribute/spoof to film noir in which Steve Martin and other then-modern actors were filmed in scenes to resemble film noir and their images were combined with clips from the actual 1940’s noirs.) Part of the reason the film crew was there was to make the inserts, including an elaborate graveyard montage sequence for the attempt to reproduce John Landis’s famous 14-minute video for the song “Thriller” with various performers costumed as monsters — though it’s impossible to tell from what we see, which looks about as convincing as the monsters that popped out of the wall in the old “Haunted Mansion” attraction at Disneyland, whether the final stage effect would have worked. 

Indeed, the biggest single frustration about This Is It is it offers surprisingly little evidence to answer the question we have watching it, which is, “If Michael Jackson had lived long enough to give these concerts, would they have been any good?” Part of that is we’re obviously seeing just bits and pieces of what were planned as quite elaborate on-stage productions, and not only is it hard to tell just what the final numbers would have looked like, it’s also unclear how they would have related to each other in the context of a complete performance. Would these elaborate productions, many of which used digital and film technology to reproduce music videos “live,” have been genuinely entertaining, or would they — especially coming one after the other with few if any less “produced” segments to give the audience a break — have become as oppressive, overloaded and pretentious as Beyoncé’s ridiculous performances at the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards? (Beyoncé is one performer who’s really been trapped in the changed expectations of pop performers since Michael Jackson and Madonna: a singer who should be presented as a straightforward soul diva in the manner of Aretha Franklin has instead been shoehorned into these gargantuan productions both Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl would probably have thought were overdone.) Another reason we can’t tell from This Is It the movie what “This Is It” the concerts would have been like is that Michael Jackson was singing at half-voice throughout most of the rehearsals. Singers call this “marking” — using half-voice during rehearsals to save their full vocal volume and power for the actual performances — and at two points in the film Michael is very adamant that this is what he’s doing: “I’m conserving my voice,” he tells his technicians, who are getting frustrated with him because they can’t get a good idea of vocal balance and blend with him singing so deliberately softly and putting almost no emotion into the songs. (At the end of “The Way You Make Me Feel” — possibly inspired by the power and majesty of the voice of the Black woman he’s duetting with — we hear Michael Jackson sing with his full vocal and emotional power — and then he chews out his staff for having let him do that!) 

Still, for all his occasional bouts with “attitude,” Michael Jackson in rehearsal for “This Is It” emerges as a consummate professional: his comments to his musicians (and he did assemble a great band, especially guitarist Orianthi Paraganis, whom he hired because she could perfectly duplicate Eddie Van Halen’s solo on the original record of “Beat It” and she was a drop-dead gorgeous woman who could play the solo while strolling across the stage in rhythm — whatever happened to her? She deserved a shot at stardom!) about the groove he wants for his song, and to the dancers and technicians about what he wants from them, are logical, sensible and workmanlike. There’s none of the out-of-it weirdness we hear from Elvis Presley on the outtakes from his last recording sessions recently issued as part of a two-CD set called Way Down in the Jungle Room; the Michael Jackson we watch and hear in This Is It is a consummate professional, clear and open about what he needs from the people he’s working with and at the same time fully recognizing their importance to him in creating a show that will make him look good. It’s hard to square this Michael Jackson with the one the media — the mainstream outlets as well as the tabloids — told us about when he died in the final stages of the This Is It rehearsals, knocked off by Propofol, the powerful anesthetic his controversial doctor, Conrad Murray, gave him so he could get some sleep during the ordeal of preparing for the concerts. That Michael Jackson — the drugged-out wreck, barely aware of his surroundings or in control of his perceptions — doesn’t seem to be anywhere in evidence in This Is It; instead we see a committed entertainer, determined to give the audience what it wants from him and still surprisingly in command of himself, his voice and his body. About his only professional slip-up is when he forgets the words to his first hit, “I Want You Back,” during a run-through of a segment paying tribute to his origins as part of the Jackson 5. At the same time we see the other side of “This Is It,” the Michael Jackson who was disgusted by the whole idea of performing again, and clearly hoping these would be his final concerts — that he’d make a ton of money doing this a few more times so his debts would be paid and he’d never have even to think about doing it again after that. 

Michael Jackson remains one of the most enigmatic of major celebrities, a charismatic performer who had done it so long he’d never had a chance at a “normal” life (as I’ve written about him before, one can read the last eight years of his life as the Curious Case of Benjamin Button-style attempt of a middle-aged man at last to have the childhood he’d been denied when he actually was a child biologically, and even Jackson’s song “Childhood” — the one he said would explain him to anyone who wanted to understand him — was, not surprisingly, a lament that he’d never really had a childhood) and who’d achieved fabulous success with a series of the sorts of fantasies one would come up with if one’s whole idea of how other people lived came from movies and TV shows. As I wrote when Charles and I re-watched the original “Thriller” video on the HIStory collection just after Jackson’s death, “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 … 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.” A lot of Michael Jackson’s songs portray him as a normal man carrying on (or attempting to carry on) normal romantic and/or sexual relations with women, yet when we see him enact these scenarios as part of the “This Is It” rehearsals, he comes off like an outer-space alien from a planet where reproduction is asexual and he really doesn’t know how these strange human beings do it. (The debates among Michael Jackson’s biographers about whether he even had a sex life — Lisa Marie Presley says during their marriage he was perfectly normal in that department, but at least one biographer has argued Jackson never actually had sex in his life, and I remember joking during his Thriller heyday that he might in fact be a modern-day castrato, which would have explained why he didn’t seem to have a sex life and he could still sing the Jackson 5 songs in the original keys — just add to the enigma.) 

Had he lived to perform them, the “This Is It” concerts would likely have been a tribute to Michael Jackson’s professionalism and determination to give his audiences his all, though it’s also possible they would have “typed” him as yet another nostalgia act, trading on past glories and not pushing himself the way he had in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, when he managed to mesh soul, R&B, rock and other pop-music styles like disco and funk into a sound that still dominates much of what we hear at the top of the charts today. As I’ve been writing the above I’ve broken open the back end of the Michael Jackson Collection boxed set of five of his six adult solo albums for Epic Records and listened to the last two in the box, Dangerous (1992) and Invincible (2001) — and it’s clear that the reason these aren’t as good as Off the Wall, Thriller or Bad isn’t a deficiency in the production (Michael Jackson had learned his lessons from Quincy Jones on how he should be produced and the basics of his musical style hadn’t changed — though Invincible, his final full album, had a lot more slower songs and featured his voice a lot more than some of his previous productions had, and I like it because he wasn’t ramping up the tempo and cranking out the disco beats on every song) as much as a falling-off of quality in the songs themselves. Invincible supposedly ran way over budget (the final cost was $30 million) and sold poorly (though not that poorly; Wikipedia lists its worldwide sales at 10 million and that just seemed like a major comedown because Thriller sold 65 million and Bad sold 32 million!) because by that time Michael Jackson the tabloid joke had taken over almost totally from Michael Jackson the committed artist. Michael Jackson remains, in the words Winston Churchill famously used to describe Russia, “a riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” and This Is It is just another part of the riddle-mystery-enigma, though it shows that at the end Jackson, unlike quite a few other prematurely dead entertainers, was able to approach his career dispassionately, professionally and with awareness of what his job was and what he needed to do to do it.