(1988 Warner Bros/Watched on DVD)
This, surprisingly is about the best way of conveying who Michael Jackson was to the world in the late 80s. Before Dangerous, before the river of legal shit he would wade through, before his less popular Blood on the Dance Floor and the die hard fans-only Invincible, before his death hit the world out of the blue and his posthumously released concert preparation footage film from the director of High School Musical. But it was also after his miraculous childhood rise to megastardom, his solo split and recording a bunch of the highest selling albums of all time. This is, in short a scrapbook of memories and footage presented without commentary, it’s several music videos ranging from farcical to very effective and for the second half it’s a creepy-as-fuck sci-fi.
If you take this first half as how the world sees Mike and the second half as a glimpse inside his mind to see how Mike sees Mike, it all makes perfect sense. Somewhere underneath it all is the truth of a troubled man and his relationship with fantasy.
I’ll divide this into sections to help focus what is otherwise a dizzying Vegas weekend that picks you up and propels you through one crazed situation after another.
Man in the Mirror: A brilliant song to get everyone emotional and introspective. It intersects live performance footage with his hysterical crowds as well as key historical figures of the twentieth century who each made a significant change to the world. It is a presentation that suggests everyone has that potential.
Montage: A journey through Michael’s years from being a kid with the Jackson Five, through their disco period, and several of his earlier solo hits. It’s a nice bit of historical perspective and I would have loved a feature-length documentary along these lines, which we may one day see anyway.
Badder: This is Bad, but swapping out the ludicrously dressed Sharks and Jets street thugs for their tween alternatives. Since this was his target audience around this time, and since I was in the exact bracket, it’s hard to call it inappropriate until the young lad playing Michael (Brandon Quintin Adams) enthusiastically slams himself in the testicles and buckles. Zeke (played by the same actor) later on does a little Mike freestyling complete with multiple pelvic thrusts. While adult Michael’s raw dance energy originates in his knob chakra (I believe that’s the scientific term), it’s not a prudent manoeuvre to replicate in the young when you’re puppeteering them. It’s hard to tell whether he’s making a satirical observation about his own manipulation at that age or obliviously replicating the pattern.
Speed Demon: When I had to describe how and why Princess Diana died to my child I cited this video as an example of how comically horrendous the press can be. While half of the claymation freaks that pursue Jackson in his disguise as a motorcycling rabbit are simply fans, it’s that same level of obsession, and while it’s playful this whole sequence represents a childlike desperation to escape in a way that flips the bird to the inconsiderate.
Leave Me Alone: One of my favourites. An unabashed condemnation of the fairground attraction that his life had become by this point. Paparazzi dogs roam the slopes of the Giant Michael Coney Island Coaster, searching for the opportunity to snap the tiniest bit of a scoop. Meanwhile Mike dances with the bones of the Elephant Man whom he clearly shares a kinship with. These parasitic creatures plagued his entire life, turning small misinterpretations into sensational stories until the truth was impossible to find. Those moments like this and Scream, when Michael achieves a brief lucidity and takes on an aggressive rancour at how petty and ugly people can be without patronising his audience or becoming too melodramatic feel like him at his most honest and mature. This was the angry, outspoken, sharp-witted man we were waiting for him to grow into.
Moonwalker: A fictionalised version of Michael, who has, we can presume, been entrusted the care of three children for the afternoon runs through an idyllic meadow playing American football with a British soccer ball, like a giggling Tommy Wiseau, until their dog Skipper runs into a cave literally crawling with tarantulas, and containing a peanut-guzzling drug lord with a global operation planned that basically entails turning every child in the whole world into a drug addict (despite the fact that kids have no access to money for further, sustained drug use). Later in a deserted 1930s Chicago his army of Cobra troopers attempt to gun down and pursue Michael (now dressed like a pinstriped Nazi) but he turns into a car.
Is that the most nonsensical thing that happens in Moonwalker? That is the bit that makes the MOST sense!
Michael goes into a club full of guys and dolls, enquires after the health of a woman named Anni sixty-two times and leaves.
Katie, his favourite of the three kids gets snatched by Frankie LiDeo and Michael pursues them to his Bond Villain hideout. Mike gets the shit beaten out of him and hulks out into an enormous metal rage monster, machine-gunning Mr Bigg’s Cobra troopers. And at this point he is really on a screaming, destruction release, laying waste to this gun toting army. Then he turns into a spaceship, destroys Bigg’s super laser, and flies back to his home planet. That’s not even me being sarcastic, it’s the subtext. That’s what Michael wanted us to see. His leaving us behind while we cried, as confused, grateful children ourselves.
At the very end Michael returns in human form, and tells the kids (who actually may be orphans because they sure as shit aren’t going home to see any parents and find some comfort there) that he’s back again and that he has a surprise for them, leading them through to a concert where (wearing a WWF championship belt) he performs a cover of Come Together by John Lennon. One of the boys is Sean Lennon, who lost his father to a poisonous fan eight years previously. There is so much heavy symbolism in there I don’t know how to separate the strands.
This is all me being dreadfully scathing, but it’s hard to describe what’s going on in a literal sense. These are what an eight year old sees criminals as (smooth or otherwise). An eight year old twelve years prior to the Internet, an eight year old with an incredibly sweet and naive disposition who cannot tell something that is harmful from something that isn’t. An eight year old who badly needed wise guidance, rather than being exploited by a cruel, greedy taskmaster of a father.
But also Smooth Criminal is one of the greatest music videos of all time, from the man responsible for about twelve of the top 100, and if you’re going to make a whole movie to showcase it, this is the appropriate casing to convey the mind that came up with this stuff.
Side note: Watching this on PAL DVD I realised how the speed change is unacceptable on something so fundamentally framed around extremely popular music. A movie played slightly higher pitch you can get used to, music that’s a permanent fixture in your Sony Walkman here played 4% faster just sounds wrong. That makes the blu ray which of course contains the NTSC running time of 93 minutes, not 88, potentially a fairly essential upgrade for British fans. However it has also been slightly cut during the scenes where Joe Pesci slaps Katie around and tries to inject her with heroin (way too hamfisted to be essential) but also cropped from pan and scan to enforced widescreen, something I see all too often with classic music videos on YouTube. It’s barbarism towards art to suit a comfortable, ignorant norm, the same as releasing “fullscreen” DVDs and I hate it more than most things about entertainment. It’s worse for Americans though, as I believe because of distribution issues they get no version of this whatsoever.