I just watched the premiere of the Lifetime biopic Searching For Neverland and am rushing this review out while the film is still fresh on my mind. First of all, I’ll just acknowledge that I know this review isn’t going to please everyone, as a goodly percentage of the fan base was already gunning for this film from the start. However, despite some reservations, I said I would give it a fair viewing before jumping the gun to condemn it. I am glad I approached it with an open mind.
Here is really the bottom line: One’s reaction to this film is inevitably going to be based on how one felt about its source material, the book Remember The Time by former bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. Fan reception of the book was every bit as polarizing as any MJ project that gets released. Some praised it as a positive account of Michael’s final two years, revealing his struggles to provide a normal life for his three children despite mounting financial issues and the fallout from the molestation trial. Others condemned it as a violation of the very trust that Michael had placed in them.
I gave the book a fairly positive review back in 2014. I suppose given that I was one of those more charitably predisposed to the book, it may explain why I was willing to give a bit more benefit of the doubt to this movie. Let’s just say, if you were one of those who liked Remember The Time, you’ll probably love Searching For Neverland. The movie is pretty much simply a faithful, condensed version of the book. Which also means if you were one of those who disliked the book, it will no doubt color how you view this film. but if we put that aside and just view the film on its own merits, I found it refreshingly sweet and endearing in its portrayal of Michael as a family man struggling to keep together the most important thing to him-his life with his children. Sure, the eccentricities are there, but this was not one of those condescending portrayals intended to make him look one dimensional, naive, or mentally challenged. (Indeed, the few eccentricities will be familiar ground to anyone who routinely watches celebrity biopics; Michael does not come across as worsted for them ). For once, I think a genuine effort was made to portray Michael in all his human complexities, which is at least a big step in the right direction. The worst thing for me was Navi’s accent, which was frankly terrible, but overall, his performance was surprisingly nuanced. I think he did a good job, certainly exceeding my expectations. Despite what some reviewers have said, he is not a “dead ringer” for Michael Jackson, but his performance was believable and earnest enough to transcend those concerns (and, in fact, in some segments such as the Ebony photo shoot, he managed to perfectly capture the sizzling sex appeal of mature era Michael. Refreshingly, this was one of the few portrayals in which we actually are able to see what the fans always knew-that this was still a sizzizingly sexy and vibrant man, not the media portrayed “freak”-and, yes, we even get the scene of the “backseat date”). In another refreshing twist, this was the first film I have seen to successfully capture both the wonder and enchantment of Michael’s world view without the kind of patronizing condescension of so many projects. Despite the title, there is no pixie dust and no childishly naive pleas to everyone around him to “just believe.” What we do have is a realistic depiction of a man who once truly believed he could create magic, but has become worn down by a world that has turned its back on him. This is the story of a father who simply wants to find a home again, both for himself and his children.
By far the biggest complaint, one leveled at both the book and film (and an irony not lost on most reviewers) is that the film is still, nevertheless, an exploitation of a man whose last years were already the stuff of exploitation. Certainly there is something to be said for those arguments. However, perhaps it is my own journalistic background, but I tend to take a more tolerant and long sighted view of these things. Michael Jackson was a public figure, and even his personal life has become public property. The simple fact is that, while fans may know and cherish the knowledge of this Michael Jackson-the devoted father who strove to give his kids an ordinary life amidst the most extraordinary circumstances possible-it is still a side of him that many do not know, and haven’t bothered to know. If even a fraction of those bothered to tune in tonight, they will have met a very different man from the “Wacko Jacko” they thought they knew. And if the film at the very least accomplishes that goal, it is a worthy endeavor. I’m not going to necessarily subscribe to the school that insists every single project made about Michael Jackson is some sort of gross exploitation. Most are, but for every fifty films that are trash, there is always going to be at least one that deserves a fair chance to be seen and heard.
As I had mentioned back when I first reviewed Remember The Time, the one thing that really struck me the most was how they captured the claustrophobic sense of how small Michael’s world had become at that point, a world consisting mostly of himself, his kids, nanny Grace, and the bodyguards. There have only been two books that have successfully shed light on what those last two years were like for Michael and his kids, the other being Dr. Karen Moriarty’s Defending A King: His Life and Legacy (which also originated from Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard as sources). Not surprisingly, this is also a central narrative of the film, and even though it doesn’t dwell on any of the real controversies that created these circumstances, it successfully conveys the pathos of a wildly famous father, his life now tainted by scandal, who is struggling to keep life for his children as safe, secure, and filled with love as possible. The bottom line is that, as much as we may wish to respect Michael’s bid for privacy from a human perspective, his life-both public and private-has long since passed into the realm of public domain. We live in a celebrity dominated culture, where interest in the private lives of public figures continues to be a billion dollar industry, and where the proliferation of biographies, biopics and “tell all” memoirs are a permanent fixture of our culture. For better or worse, future journalists, historians, bloggers, scholars and, yes, filmmakers, will be telling his story. In this case, at least some genuine and heartfelt effort was made to get it right, even if they may have failed on one or two minor fronts.
Of course, this was not so much Michael’s story as it is Bill Whitfield’s (and to a lesser extent, Javon Beard’s). Like most celebrity memoirs told from the perspective of another party (be it friend, former employee, lover, etc) we already understand that it is going to be filtered through the lenses of that individual’s perception. That is the nature of memoir, for better or worse. In Michael’s case, almost everyone who ever came into contact with him-for all of five minutes-has claimed at some point to have been his closest confidante. Whitfield and Beard are no exceptions. However, as a narrative frame device, it holds the film together well, and Chad Coleman (familiar to Walking Dead fans as Tyrese) gives a compelling performance as Whitfield, a man torn between his obligations to his own family and the surrogate family he has come to love.
There are some controversial aspects, however, although it’s not anything that anyone already familiar with the book won’t know. The worst, and I suppose the one still most difficult to grapple with, is when we see Michael obliviously piling a shopping cart with Christmas gifts for his own kids while supposedly knowing that the body guards had not been paid in months and were not even able to buy gifts for their own kids. But even here, it is not so much an attempt to portray Michael as selfish or disconnected from reality; instead, it is further evidence of just how little control Michael had by that point over his own finances, and indeed even his own life. (As in the book, Raymone Bain is quite villified). Scenes like this are not intended so much to belittle as to humanize, and I liked that the film seemed at least capable of walking that tightrope without tripping to the extremes of either condescension on the one hand, or mindless sychophantism on the other. In other words, Michael is allowed something in this film that he’s very rarely been allowed to have in any film portrayal up to this point, with the possible exception of An American Dream over twenty-five years ago: His humanity. It won’t please everyone, but it is what it is. And it did not detract in the least from the endearing sympathy already built for the character (if we keep in mind this is as much a story with a narrative as a depiction of a real life). If I had not already been in love with Michael Jackson before I watched this film, I certainly would have been afterward, and I think that is the power it has (and again, a huge credit for this must go to Navi’s affecting performance; terrible accent or not, he did manage to capture Michael’s essence without resorting to cloy sentimentality or childish caricature). I also appreciated that the film actually had a sense of humor. It enabled viewers to see a side of Michael rarely glimpsed in these types of films, as someone who could be a bit self deprecating and loved practical jokes. The humor here is endearing, as it was in real life; not in a way that simply makes him look foolish or immature.
This is still a long way from being the perfect MJ biopic (I’m not even convinced such a thing is ever going to be possible) but, as with An American Dream, it is a satisfying recount of one particular chapter in his life, and for bringing that story full circle, a fairly decent companion piece to that film. (This may not be surprising, considering Suzanne de Passe was the force behind both). Understandably, it still leaves gaping holes in the story, even with its two and a half hours’ running time. As some reviews have already pointed out, Conrad Murray becomes little more than a side player, and the insinuation (just as with so many projects both better and worse than this one) is that Michael’s death was more about the bigger picture: The intense pressures of facing the This Is It shows, in which succumbing to Murray’s “treatments” merely becomes symptomatic of a much bigger problem: An inability to cope with the pressure squeezing him from all sides. As usual, this will most likely leave viewers to merely surmise, again, that Michael was indeed a victim, but perhaps more than anything, a victim of his own inability to cope. This isn’t so much a critique of the film as of the source material (even in the book, Whitfield and Beard were irritatingly soft on Murray). However, as far as these things go, it isn’t a fatal flaw of the film. Most viewers are intelligent enough to know that any movie can only cover so much ground, and that frankly, it isn’t really this film’s purpose to faithfully recount the events of those final two months of Michael’s life, in which Whitfield and Beard were no longer actively involved. Indeed, their story with Michael ends when Michael leaves for Los Angeles to begin rehearsals for This Is It. At any rate, that is another story perhaps beyond the present film’s scope. The events that transpired beyond those cloistered two years of Michael’s life spent in Vegas are certainly well documented enough for anyone who really wants to research further, and this is not a documentary.
For those who chose to condemn this movie out of hand, simply on principle, that is their right but in my honest opinion I think this was as good as a film of this caliber could be, given its limitations (low budget, no access to Michael’s music) and the generally low expectations most fans have come to expect from any movie made about Jackson’s life. Those trepidations don’t come lightly; they have been earned as per my previous post. I didn’t go into this one with high expectations, but within the first ten minutes, I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to be watching with a reviewer’s judgmental eye, and was simply caught up in a compelling story of an eccentric but beautiful dad struggling to keep together his beautiful family. Of course, it was a bit cheesy in places; this was a Lifetime biopic, after all, not an Oscar contender. But as these films go, it’s definitely a cut above some of the other recent Lifetime biopics, and as far as movies about Michael Jackson, it’s definitely a step beyond the usual drivel that we’ve been subjected to.
All in all, not perfect but certainly a very sweet and affecting film. Also, the follow up documentary that Lifetime is broadcasting, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Icon, is excellent. I highly urge everyone to check it out. (For those still convinced they won’t be able to stomach the movie, at the very least fast forward to The Ultimate Icon-it’s well worth it!).
I can honestly say, however, that Searching For Neverland has at least redeemed my hope that a decent MJ biopic can still be made. All it takes is a little heart and respect for who the man was. Unfortunately, it will still be found lacking in some regards. Viewers still will not come away with any enlightened view of Jackson’s philanthropy or work as a humanitarian. And they won’t learn anything new about Michael Jackson, the artist (however, as mentioned, the follow-up documentary The Ultimate Icon pretty much covers that ground). What we’re left with is, quite simply, a poignant and tender tale of a father’s love. But maybe that is all it really needs to be.
Now if we can just work on Navi’s accent (lol) and if the estate would loosen the purse strings on Michael’s music, we just might finally get ourselves a halfway decent MJ biopic.
With another June 25th rapidly approaching comes the usual onslaught of Michael Jackson documentaries. And also as usual, some will be decent at best; most will be garbage. I can count on one hand the number of documentaries that have successfully captured and discussed the essence of his musical genius. Some that have been simply generalized narratives about his life have been pretty decent, but few have been able to top The Jacksons: An American Dream and that has been over twenty-five years ago (from there, it has only gone from bad to worse). And to date, there has not yet been one that has taken a hard stance on providing any grain of truth or insight about the allegations made against him. At best, most have pussyfooted around the issue, leaving only broad innuendos and the usual “we’ll never really know for sure” cop-out. Like all fans, I have suffered and gritted my teeth through some pretty god awful documentaries, but by far, one of the worst I have had the displeasure to view recently was a film called “Man in the Mirror” which aired in the UK on Channel 5 back in March. Well, I should have known it was a stinker when they couldn’t exercise more imagination than resorting to the usual cliche’ of naming it after one of Michael’s song titles; even moreso, the fact that it bears the same title as the equally horrendous 2004 flick starring Flex Alexander.
I think by now we should know to be wary of any MJ documentary or movie that bears the title of this 1988 hit. Most filmmakers these days could care less what that lyric actually means. For them, it has simply become a convenient and gimmicky way to bait audiences into yet another attempt at pseudo psychoanalyzing Michael Jackson’s character and how he came to be the “tragic trainwreck” that the media is so determined to present him as.
So why, one might ask, am I even bothering to review this hot mess, especially when there are more worthwhile MJ topics to discuss? Let’s just say partly because I want to inform any readers who might be curious enough to check it out, and also because, well, sometimes ripping apart something that stinks can be a lot of fun. Or at the very least, cathartic. (And, I might add, anything I can say will probably be quite kind compared to what has already been said about this film on social media and fan sites). So here goes…
In order to keep the discussion focused, I’ll be taking the film in sequential ten minute chunks, and then will conclude with a summation of thoughts and commentary at the end.
Okay, when I say we’re going to start at the beginning, I mean really the beginning, where the seeds of this documentary’s intent are already being planted. Let’s consider, for example, this disclaimer at the beginning (small white letters against a pitch black background):
The events and scenes in this dramatized film are based on archive sources and first hand accounts of Michael Jackson’s life.
Notice they use the term “archive sources” as an impressive way to make it sound as if this film has been based on extensive research. With such a disclaimer, we might be led to believe that the filmmakers have accessed some very deep resources for this film, but within ten minutes, even the most causal viewer will know what a crock that claim is. In short, these “archive sources” are nothing more than forty years’ worth of pop cultural consciousness, most of it arising from well worn tabloid stories and common knowledge. The truth is this: Michael Jackson’s story, his rise to fame from humble beginnings in Gary Indiana; the sacrifice of a normal childhood; the transcendence to adult superstardom; the forces that conspired against him and eventually brought him down; his own inner and outward struggles, is a story already all too familiar. The narrative of Michael Jackson’s life was played out on the world’s stage for four decades, and so the question remains: With all the hordes of books, films, and documentaries that are readily available, what is the purpose of adding to that number unless there is something truly new or unique to add to the Michael Jackson saga? Within the first few minutes, this film is already treading on ground not only familiar, but so familiar as to render it cliche’.
Interestingly, this description was lifted from Earnest Valentino’s Youtibe channel:
Earnest Valentino makes several appearances as the adult Michael Jackson throughout the Documentary which shows the pain, and suffering Michael Jackson endured while being used, abused, and accused from those he thought were his friends.
That’s all fine and good, but unfortunately, this film, like so many others of its ilk, gives lip service to this kind of empathy for Michael’s tragic life while at the same time further hammering the final nails of insult and betrayal into his coffin. And it raises another problematic issue, as well. As has been the case with so many projects that purport to be about Michael Jackson, the “cult of celebrity” and the morbid fascination with what is commonly perceived as the “tragedy” of his life overshadows any apparent interest in his art. As always, the aim seems to be more about psychoanalyzing Michael Jackson than truly appreciating his artistry or in making any kind of serious attempt to understand the roots and nuances of that artistry. It’s not that I would disagree if anyone said that Michael Jackson’s life was tragic. In many ways, it was. But to boil all of the complexities of his life and who he was down to this very one-dimensional kind of narrative is worse than misleading. It is blatantly insulting.
Over this black background, ominous music plays. These kinds of choices are not accidental. Granted, I understand the limitations that these films are up against, given the legal restrictions placed on using Michael’s actual music, but why must it sound like something from a horror film soundtrack? Instead of something joyous or upbeat that would be befitting the kinds of feelings that Michael Jackson’s music normally inspires, they choose this very somber intro with music that is guaranteed to make the listener feel creepy, more appropriate for the beginning of Friday the 13th than a documentary on an artist who inspired the world. And sure enough, the very first shot we see is a garishly made up Earnest Valentino (resembling a very cartoonish caricature of MJ’s early 90’s look) creeping down the stairs in only a bathrobe. It is December 1993, and this scene is supposedly reenacting the strip search at Neverland.
MJ Tribute Artist Earnest Valentino-Fairly or Not-Has Taken A Lot of Heat For His Participation In This Project. Perhaps He Needs To Stick With What He Does Best-Imitating The King of Pop’s Dance Moves!
This is the second time that filmmakers have attempted to reenact this scene, and they have yet to get it right. (The otherMan in the Mirror film had him ridiculously blocking out the humiliation of the strip search by gazing at a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, as if her supposed “presence” was the only thing enabling him to get through a strip search-which goes into even weirder territory than what we have here).
In both cases, we might say they are making a sincere attempt to portray how humiliating the strip search was for him, but the problem is that both portrayals present him as so annoyingly childish and out of touch with reality that any sympathy is instantly negated. I suppose if there is a positive, it does give us a sense of Michael’s vulnerability in that moment. Stripped naked before the gawking gazes of onlookers and their cameras, this is (supposedly) Michael Jackson with all illusions stripped away. Since this is a prominent narrative of the film, I can guess that this may have been at least part of the reason for “going there” right off the bat. The strip search itself becomes a kind of symbolic allegory for Michael’s life, someone who up to that point had managed to layer on illusion upon illusion and for whom image was everything.
But even if I “get that” as a viewer, it still raises a lot of troubling questions as to why they felt they had to start out of the gate with a scene of the strip search, immediately dredging up associations of Michael Jackson with accusations of child molestation. I agree wholeheartedly with the video blogger who posted this reaction to the film: Why the need to “go there” right off the bat? As viewer bait, this scene already sets the tone for the entire project. And this video blogger gets something else right, too: The narration sounds disturbingly (and all too eerily) like Martin Bashir. And the fact that Bashir’s footage is used repeatedly throughout the film (as if no other footage was readily available) further adds to the creepy similarities to Bashir’s 2003 hit piece. (To be fair, perhaps Living With Michael Jackson has so permanently scarred the psyche of anyone who has ever loved, admired, or appreciated Michael Jackson that even a hint of a British documentary in that same eerily and monotonously toned accent is enough to cause psychosomatic shudders!). But it’s not just the accent-it’s that same, heavy handed, overly dramatized tone, as if any recount of Michael Jackson’s life can only be done justice by being delivered in the heavily pedantic tone of a crime docudrama.
The scene is interspersed with comments from Jennifer Batten, Michael’s long time touring lead guitarist, who apparently was one of the few reliable and trustworthy persons close to him to agree to be interviewed for this travesty. All I can say is, thank God for her presence, but it’s not nearly enough to offset the rest of the crap, and her comments (as with all of the participants) have been heavily edited. She does make the point that Michael was someone who was “betrayed over and over” and repeatedly “stabbed in the back” by people he thought he could trust. But it would have been really nice if the filmmakers had done more to connect the dots between that statement and what the viewer is seeing being enacted with the strip search. The bait lines that follow all sound like carefully scripted tabloid headlines, and are presented in a disturbingly factual manner that leaves little room for the viewer to question whether these are, in fact, hypothetical conclusions that have been drawn. Granted, the first two sound bites are not ones I would dispute: Michael as the product of an abusive father; Michael as the child star forced to grow up too soon amidst the adult trappings of stardom and show business; Michael as the child being exposed too soon to things that no child should know about. But beyond that, it goes into territory that is clearly blurring the lines between fact, speculation, and the media’s long held cherished “pet theories”: Michael as the boy “trapped by childhood,” unable to “embrace the adult world”; Michael as Peter Pan; Michael as the caricature boy “unable to grow up,” the Michael whose sexuality remains a question mark, yada yada yada. You get the drift. It’s the same old rote every fan knows by heart by now. Certainly, Michael himself played a hand in at least semi creating that image of himself, and that is a topic I have addressed before and will certainly address again. But the irony is that even here, in a documentary whose very purpose seems to be as a kind of expose against the imagery Michael Jackson created around himself, the writers don’t seem to “get” that this was at least as much a part of Michael’s carefully crafted image as anything else-and as such, equally subject to scrutiny. Just why it has been so often taken at absolute face value seems to have a much more sinister root, based on an obvious desire to keep Michael Jackson at precisely that level of complexity (as has so often been noted, the media’s obvious and determined emasculation of Michael Jackson has been, and remains, an ongoing obsession). Most unforgivable of all, however, is what happens next: Without even a hint of question about it, the narrator states unequivocally that Michael Jackson was “unable to create his own family.” Of course, guess who pops up as the next interviewee-none other than good ol’ Mark Lester! Yes, he gets a platform here in order to continue with his usual dancing around of how he “could be” Paris’s biological father but how that shouldn’t matter because “Michael was her father” (then in that case, why doesn’t he stop giving these kinds of interviews?).
Here is the real problem, though. Yes, there has been a lot of media speculation about the biological paternity of Michael’s kids, and as it’s a topic beyond the scope of this post, I don’t wish to get into it here except to say that such speculations are just that: Speculations. What’s more, it has been speculation largely fostered by the same media that has so determinedly emasculated Michael at every turn. Unfortunately, it is a campaign that has been carried out with such success to the point that even some fans now seem to have fallen under its sway. Yet we have lost sight of one very simple truth: It’s never been confirmed by any reliable source that his three kids are not his biological children. Michael always insisted that all three children were his own, and until there is proof to the contrary, it is simply unethical to state anything otherwise-and to present such a speculative statement as if it were factual is utterly unforgivable.
At this point, I’m sure this is when most fans would have already checked out, but I wanted to see just how bad it could really get and to get a taste of what UK audiences saw. And, boy, does it ever get bad.
To be fair, some of the early segments depicting reenactments of young Michael growing up in Gary, Indiana are decent (at least if one can overlook the poor acting) and the actor cast to play little Michael is passably endearing (even if lacking in physical resemblance) but, then, this is hardly controversial stuff here, and indeed, it’s a story already familiar to anyone who has seen the much superior The Jacksons: An American Dream. At any rate, the documentary’s obvious modus operandi isn’t so much about how little Michael Jackson, aged five, became a singing prodigy, and it isn’t about the rise of an American working class black family from rags to riches. Instead, it is clear that what the writers here want to get to-as quickly as possible-is how all of this laid the foundation for Michael’s adult psychological issues. Thus, one of the film’s few really charming segments (the Jackson children harmonizing on the spiritual “Down to the River To Pray”) is quickly dispensed with so we can move on to that ol’ devil Joe Jackson beating the kids.
This segment picks up with the Jackson kids honing their skills and polishing their act to become one of the premier musical acts of Gary, Indiana and nearby Chicago. Again, nothing particularly controversial here, as the documentary pretty much recounts what is already well known. But Joe’s rages and demands for perfection quickly becomes a predictable center piece. Howard Bloom recounts a meeting with Joe where he states, “I could see the flames of hell burning in his eyes.” Perfectly timed with this quote is a close-up on the face of the actor playing Joe in the reenactments, indeed looking like Satan incarnate (or the close-up of Michael’s demonized cat eyes at the end of Thriller!). I mean, really. I have met Joe and seen him from pretty much the same distance as Howard Bloom, and while Joe is undeniably an intimidating presence, to say he has “the flames of hell” in his eyes is an absurd exaggeration.
I’m not denying (and never have) that the abuse was real, and of course, I have already written many past posts about the complicated relationship Michael had with his father. But whatever we can say about that relationship, it was definitely not as one dimensional as it is portrayed here. However, in this case, it is quite clear why the writers want to tread this ground yet again. It is an important early chapter in understanding Michael’s adult psyche, which is clearly where this whole thing is bent on heading. What this segment does set us up for is the disconnect from a reality that a child performing at such a young age would naturally experience, and no doubt this was a disconnect that did continue to haunt him into adult life. It wasn’t as if his performing was an occasional weekend gig, or a side hobby. By age seven, he was already touring regularly on the chitlin’ circuit, so of course, any hope of a “normal” childhood was no longer an option. In one of the few redeeming segments of the film, the especial challenges and dangers of being a black family act traveling to gigs during a still racially segregated America was interesting, but far too brief. It would seem fair to say that this, also, had to have had a tremendous impact on young Michael’s psyche, as well as shaping his world view at a very vulnerable age. But instead, the writers seem far more obsessed with the shaping of his adult sexuality (which we already know will be portrayed as, at best, from very troubled to perverted to non-existent, not necessarily in that order). There is a very protracted and creepy reenactment in which a young Michael spies on a fleshy stripper, while the narrator comments on how he was exposed too young to “sex and sexuality.” This narrative comes straight from Michael himself, who never shied away from discussing what he was exposed to in those early strip club gigs, so again, it’s not that I have an issue with the validity of what is being said. In truth, Michael was exposed to adult sexuality at a much too young age. The only thing I take issue with is the fact that, once again, we know where this is going, and it is an already cliched’ narrative which is not going to get any fresh insight here. At worst, the emphasis on Michael’s unusual and precocious sexual experiences is intended to make the viewer question if this sort of thing could lead one to become a sexual abuser as an adult. At the very least, it is setting the viewer up for a distorted perception of Michael as a sexual adult, as most viewers will be bound to wonder how he could possibly have come out of all those experiences with a healthy adult sexuality. It seems to me that at least part of the suggestion here is that Michael’s sexuality may well have become fixated at this stage, which would certainly open the door for some rather disturbing if albeit speculative conclusions. I would certainly agree that growing up with a promiscuous father on the one hand, and a devoutly religious mother on the other, could certainly create some psychological conflicts about sex, and Michael was actually quite open about these conflicting feelings-all one has to do is listen to his lyrics! In truth, we really don’t need documentaries to tell us who Michael was, or what it felt like to be him. His own catalog of music is really his own greatest autobiography; his personal confessions in which he revealed all and spared few. In doing so, we can also clearly trace his personal growth from an insecure youth who feared eternal damnation as the wages of sin to a confident adult who could freely sing about adult relationships with no hint of self castigation. But I think where we have to be careful is in automatically equating these kinds of childhood experiences with a damaged psyche. Michael Jackson would hardly have been the first child-and certainly hardly the first male child-to see an adult naked woman at a tender age. Most kids at some point have stumbled into their parents’ bedroom at an inopportune time, and growing up in that tiny house in Gary with its paper thin walls, we can only imagine what he probably overheard from his parents’ bedroom! Michael’s brothers all had the same exposure, and yet few have questioned the impact of these early experiences on their adult sexuality. Unless there is actual physical abuse involved, most children-especially male children-are able to bounce back from such early memories relatively unscathed; it may even become something they joke about later in life, and Michael himself certainly never implied that he felt “damaged” by those experiences, only indicating that it was one of many “interesting” experiences that made his childhood unique. But, anyway, I am digressing. Back to the review…
This segment depicts the arrival at Motown and the beginning of worldwide fame. Again, a fairly decent segment but only because it is simply treading familiar, non controversial ground. And hence, one of the major problems that this, or any MJ documentary, must face. Like so many documentaries of MJ that have missed the mark, this one can’t seem to find a balance between the absurdly speculative on the one hand, and the banal cliches’ of a narrative that has already become all too familiar to most music fans. But even in this segment, it becomes less about Michael’s rise to childhood stardom and more about the way he was already being taught to manipulate his image. “This is where the root of this tragedy really begins,” states Carvell Wallace, and indeed, the whole purpose here is about the roots of that “tragedy.” There is a reenactment of a press conference that depicts the already nearly 11-year-old Michael lying about his age and stating he is eight. When questioned about the lie, he states with adult savvy, “…if they say something about my image that isn’t true, it’s ok. It’s not a lie. It’s PR.” I don’t know that Michael ever said those exact words. However, it is historical fact that he was at first promoted as an eight-year-old singer when, in reality, he was closer to eleven. The bottom line here is that, through the Motown machine, Michael was learning valuable lessons about how to manipulate his image. Again, this is not an issue of disputing what I already know to be true. But in this case, where we have to consider that we are dealing with a particular filmmaker’s vision, it’s important to examine why this becomes a central focus. Clearly, the intent here is to portray Michael as someone who learned from a young age how to manipulate his own image, as well as the press. It doesn’t take a major leap to know where this is going, and how it will be applied to Michael’s adult relationship with the media. It is a theory that will be confirmed much later in the video.
Here we pick up with the coming into adulthood and newfound independence: Breaking away from Motown, and eventually, from the Jacksons. I’ll skip over a lot of it, as there is nothing especially new or revelatory in the telling of the group’s switch from Motown to Epic. However, once we get into Michael’s acceptance of the role of the scarecrow in The Wiz and the move to New York (which wasn’t exactly a clean break away from the family, as he was still sharing digs with LaToya) it simply becomes more embarrassingly cringeworthy fodder for the white male interviewees to smugly cast aspersions on his sexuality. They seem to make much ado of the fact that here he was, on his own in the big city, hanging out nightly at Club 54, and apparently having little interest in-gasp!-a girlfriend. They erroneously state that Tatum O’Neal had been his only girlfriend up to that point. In fact, he was, at the time of his stint in New York, involved in a steady (and well publicized) relationship with Stephanie Mills, a fact they curiously choose to ignore. In one of the most ridiculously patronizing segments of the entire film, Epic Records producer Bobby Columby claims to have tried to talk to an obviously adult Michael about the birds and the bees, only to allegedly be informed by Michael that he “already had someone-Diana Ross” (which, of course is treated as a huge joke even though Michael and Diana Ross, also, had had a very blatantly obvious flirtation going on for years).
The whole segment is just very condescending and, again, the favorite media narrative of Michael Jackson, emasculated black male, takes center stage. Time and again, they go back to Michael’s supposed “ambivalence about sex” (a phrase actually used in the doc, several times) and yet the question remains: Ambivalence according to who? And just why has this narrative persisted so doggedly, mainly from the perspective of white male journalists? Clearly as long as that is the power in control of Michael’s image, that is the myth that will remain, firmly embedded somewhere between affectionate incredulity (that someone so pure and naive could possibly have been real) and patronizing scorn.
As cringeworthy as this may be to any real fan, it might be somewhat forgivable if the project can at least offer challenging insight into the artistry of a brilliant artist. But here, too, the doc falls disappointingly short. We enter into the next segment with a nod to Michael’s growing artistic independence from his family, but then comes the annoyingly ominous Martin Bashir-esque narrator to tell us how Michael’s first attempt at songwriting was “very nearly a disaster.” Never mind that this “very near disaster” just happened to be “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground,” one of the most successful and instantly recognizable tracks of the disco era-a song that is still a Jacksons classic to this day.
Sure, It Was Only One Chord. It Was Also Brilliant!
So you get the idea. The next segment picks up with a kind of clashing of wills between Jackson and a frustrated Bobby Columby who isn’t sure what to do with a song that is “one chord” that “goes on for twenty minutes.” Columby mentions the “disconnect” of Michael’s dynamic verse and chorus against that single chord, but within five seconds of listening to that familiar, catchy track one would think there would at least be some acquiesce; some admittance that clearly the kid knew what he was doing. Of course, we may grant that it’s almost always true: In the back story of every great track there was some producer who simply didn’t get it, or that maybe they heard the original track in such a raw state that they might be forgiven for their shortsightedness. Instead, we don’t get any indication from Columby that his opinion ever changed, and instead he brags about everything he had to “pile” onto the track in order to make it into a complete record. Unfortunately, these kinds of stories fit too patly yet another favorite narrative often perpetuated by white musicologists, which is the idea of Michael as the “talented but narcissistic boy genius in need of white saviors to bail him out of his own excesses.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I would ever begrudge giving due credit to those who guided Michael’s artistry-his wonderful collaborators, engineers, producers and musicians who worked with him. It’s just that I have noticed a rather disturbing trend, one that seems to permeate many recent biographies and documentaries, in which Michael simply comes off either as excessive egomaniac (at worst) or the childishly naive boy wonder (at best) who simply leaves all of those working around him feeling exasperated (the underlying assumption being that they are the “normal” ones who are having to keep his feet on the ground). It’s not that there isn’t some grain of truth in these stories-after all, genius seldom is fully grasped or understood by mere mortals-but it is downright insulting when an artist of Jackson’s caliber is time and again patronized in this manner. I can’t think of any similar documentaries on well respected white musicians (or even most black icons) where this kind of patronizing tone is so prevalent. I can’t imagine, for example, a documentary on The Beatles where we would have so many condescending “father figures” in the control room boasting of how they had to make John Lennon’s songs into something salvageable. Later in the documentary, there will be a reenacted scene where Michael simply flees the recording session, only to be found dancing maniacally in the hallway. That story actually is based on a true incident, but the reasoning was because Michael was so engrossed in the track that he had to “dance it out” before he could stand still and sing it. In the film, however, the way the scene is reenacted only makes him look foolish (even, albeit, mentally challenged) and the excuse given is that he is imagining himself running away from Joe (an excuse to get in another dig at Michael’s alleged, scarred psyche rather than focusing on something that might have been far more fascinating-how he went through his creative process). In fact, as has been so often the case in these short-sighted projects, any interest in that creative process is only given the thinnest veneer of lip service, at best. To their credit, it does get better once we get into the Off the Wall and Thriller eras, but that isn’t saying much, considering the back story of those albums is already well known. Even here, however, there are some unforgivable factual errors, such as stating that “Billie Jean” was the lead single from Thriller, when in fact the lead single was “The Girl is Mine.”
One thing they do get right is how Michael broke down “barrier after barrier” during this era, and the story of the hungry young artist with something to prove to the world-“he had the Eye of the Tiger”-remains compelling, even in a project as otherwise mediocre as this. I think they also do a fairly decent job of portraying how torn Michael was during this era between his desire for solo stardom and guilt over abandoning the family act, a guilt compounded by Joe who reminds him in one of the more harrowing reenactments, “This was all for you.” They also do a fairly decent job in acknowledging how racism in the industry impacted Michael’s early success, with the infamous Grammy snubbing of Off the Wall and its one pathetic nomination for Michael in the Best Male R&B vocalist category. As they correctly point out, it is out of the ashes of this disappointment that comes Thriller, and Carvel Wallace is able to get in some enlightening commentary on how many still view Michael Jackson as an “urban artist” simply because of the color of his skin. But even here, they can’t resist taking their digs. Michael’s understandable anger and resentment against the obvious racism of the Grammy snub is branded merely as another indication of his “emotional immaturity.” Sadly, this objective seems ever present, undercutting almost every aspect of the narrative. Even as it moves into the creation of the great Thriller video, the film can’t resist the constant tug between Michael as eccentric boy genius on the one hand; a naive child on the other, and/or emerging “shape shifter” who is evolving into a ruthless and master manipulator of the media and his own image (never quite reconciling how someone supposedly so naive and emotionally stunted could accomplish such a feat). Again, it’s not a matter of denying that all of these conflicting elements are an integral essence of who Michael was, to greater or lesser degrees. But it has more to do with the particularly disturbing angle that these interpretations take. For example, instead of looking at the shape shifting element of Thriller as an example of Michael’s evolving artistry, it is treated merely as the prelude to his personal downfall, as he becomes ever more the clever showman who can shape shift between man and beast; between human and monster. Granted, this could be a fascinating discussion on one level, but here it is so very obvious that this is not going to lead to any kind of serious analysis of either Michael’s art or image, but as I stated, merely as a prelude to the possible sinistry that may have lurked just beneath the childlike exterior. In other words, the discussion of Thriller is cleverly disguised merely as a way of preparing viewers for the predictable controversy that will follow. As this segment comes to its close, our Martin Bashir soundalike assures us that Thriller, Michael’s greatest commercial success, will also be the very thing that destroys him. It’s a catchy bait line, but a flawed one. Michael wasn’t destroyed by Thriller; that is equivalent to saying he was destroyed by his own art. This becomes yet another cleverly disguised way of saying that Michael Jackson was ultimately responsible for the tragic downward spiral of his own life. Sure. It all begins and ends with the success that he himself willingly created. Again, I don’t think the filmmakers are denying that he was victimized time and again by manipulators and backstabbers, but at least part of the modus operandi seems to be in pointing out that all of the evil around him can somehow be traced back to Michael himself as the ultimate maestro standing at the nexus of his own self destruction.
Indeed, we no sooner get into the next ten minutes and already this theory is being born out. After having run through the impressive matriculation of Michael’s musical and professional life, we are reminded by our ominous “Batshit” sounding narrator that “while his mastery of pop muic and performance was divine, his mastery of himself was far more troubled.” I did enjoy hearing Vincent Paterson’s analysis of the Billie Jean video, but again, the narration intercepts with very puzzling and cryptic comments. If, for example, it can be acknowledged that “Billie Jean” is allowing us a glimpse into the “inner complexities” of Michael’s world, how can we on the other hand dismiss this great piece of complex work as coming from someone without a stable grip on the complexities of the adult world or adult relationships? Again, there is no real attempt to connect any of these dots; everything is simply thrown out for the viewer to make sense of as they see fit. Anyway, at this point I’m going to skip through a lot for the sake of time, as most of this segment simply recounts how the Motown 25 performance came about and its aftermath, all of it familiar territory for any Michael Jackson fan (nothing really bad here, but nothing new, either).
The segment begins on a high note. Michael has been fully vindicated for the Off the Wall snub, winning a total of eight Grammys for Thriller including Album of the Year. This time, he had created something so phenomenal that it simply couldn’t be ignored by the industry. But as any fan knows too well, Michael Jackson’s life was one of incredible peaks and unfathomable lows. During this same period comes the infamous Pepsi commercial accident that will affect the quality of the rest of his life. This incident is often portrayed as a kind of defining moment in Michael’s life, a clean division between the exuberant, clean cut youth and the “tortured” adult who would become dependent on painkillers and the desire for anything to numb the physical and emotional pain. In terms of story and narrative, it marks the perfect dramatic catalyst, and it serves that function no less here. In truth, it is actually one of the more compelling moments in the documentary and is handled at least somewhat tastefully. For the casual viewer who may not know very much about the details of the accident or its horrendous aftermath for Michael; the series of painful surgeries; the balloon implants placed into his head, the disfiguring third degree scars, this segment is at least informative and factual. Of course, it also becomes another excuse to harp on the increasing “disconnect” between Michael the private person and Michael Jackson, the image, with much being made over his request to be photographed even on the stretcher with his white glove on.
The only difference is that I think this is a segment where the discussion is at least somewhat warranted. Clearly, this incident was a prime example of Michael’s obsession with image, and it was clear that the line between his public and private persona was becoming increasingly blurred. I don’t fault the filmmakers for desiring to explore this territory, but I think part of the problem here (which is true for any MJ documentary and not entirely anyone’s fault) is that no justice can really be done to such a very complex topic within the confines of an hour and a half, and certainly not when dished out as merely ten second sound bites. As has so often held true, the very scope of Michael Jackson’s life and complexities makes any project like this doomed to a certain amount of failure from the outset. Just as with so many other projects, both better and worse than this one, there simply isn’t enough room or space in which to cram both all of the events of Michael’s life and career and to delve into any kind of detailed psychoanalysis that would provide any kind of satisfactory closure to these kinds of questions (indeed, as is so often the case with most Michael Jackson documentaries, it simply becomes a convoluted mess that only succeeds in raising far more questions about the man and the artist than it can answer). Anyway, the film wastes little time in establishing the obvious connection: The accident leads to painkillers; painkillers lead to addiction; it all starts a chain reaction of destruction that will take several decades to reach its ultimate, tragic resolution. And again, the objective is one disturbingly bent on painting Michael as the one in control of his own demise. Sure, he was a victim of a horrific accident, the filmmakers seem to be telling us, but he also made a series of deliberate choices, beginning with the choice to swallow those pills. It is those deliberate choices, they want us to know, that will slowly “destroy” him, just as he was “destroyed” by the success he himself created with his own music.
To compound the poor attempt at psychoanalysis, the discussion of the burn surgeries (which is at least fair and accurate) leads into, and quickly deteriorates into, a discussion of cosmetic surgery. Yep, you had to know they were going to “go there” as well, and the discussion is lamely predictable. Our creepy “Batshit” narrator states, without the batting of an equivocal eye, that plastic surgery becomes for Michael a kind of “self harm.” It’s the same old bs where insecurity and body dysmorphic disorder blurs the fine line with the obsession for some perceived perfection. Honestly, I am weary with the subject as most fans are, but if we just have to go there, it would certainly be far more innovative and enlightening to entertain some other possible theories other than the usual “he hated his looks/wanted to change his race, or as is stated here, “an external manifestation of the confusion he was feeling about who he truly was.” For example, I would love to see a project that would be daring enough to take on the topic of how Michael used appearance, in the same way that David Bowie and countless other artists have used evolving looks, to create their artistic personas and alter egos (I’m convinced that Michael’s roster of evolving looks owed as much to his artistic aesthetics as to any perceived insecurities). What if it stemmed, not from deliberate self confusion, but a purposeful desire to confuse his audience? Equally fascinating would be a discussion of the disconnect between the media perception of a “freak” vs a fandom who never stopped desiring him as a sexual object (however, in this case, at least, we already know that any serious discussion of Michael as an object of sexual desire is not going to be entertained, anyway). It’s not that the discussions of insecurity and obsession for perfection have no validity, but my point is just that there are so many more interesting places that they could go if they’re going to bring up the topic of Michael’s appearance and cosmetic surgery, but admittedly, perhaps, these are discussions beyond the project’s scope. So all we’re left with is the usual banal explanations and surface discussions.
Maybe one day someone will be innovative and far sighted enough to take on those discussions in a film project. But that time hasn’t come yet, least of all here. Besides, it’s pretty difficult to take any discussion of Michael’s cosmetic surgery seriously when the best they can do is compare a youthful photo of the real Michael Jackson to a close-up of the garishly made-up face of Earnest Valentino! Duh, of course the comparisons are going to look a million miles apart when one is a pic of the real Michael Jackson, pre-vitiligo, and the other is a Michael Jackson impersonator in very bad makeup! Oh, but it gets even better. Next, we cut back to Mark Lester stating assertively that Michael was trying to reconstruct his face to become the Disney version of Peter Pan. (Huge eye roll moment). To further compound the potential confusion of casual viewers, the only mention of vitiligo is a brief clip of Michael’s response to Oprah Winfrey, but the only thing offered in the way of follow up commentary is that Michael “became defensive” at no longer being able to play on his terms” (whatever that is supposed to mean). It’s left to Jennifer Batten to even bring up the topic of artist reinvention and its necessity in the pop music world, but her comments are then edited to segue directly into a scene that depicts a very devious Michael as “play[ing] with the press” by intentionally manipulating the Elephant Man and hyperbaric chamber stories. They state, in fact, that Michael intentionally spread these rumors, as if the tabloid media itself played no hand whatsoever. The clip ends with our “Batshit” narrator stating that it was more “schoolboy prank than sinister manipulation” but then lingers on a close-up of Earnest Valentino grinning deviously. So now another seed has been planted. The media’s crucifixion of Michael Jackson stemmed from his own cunning, and he was at least as much to blame as the tabloids themselves. What the film fails to address, however, is just why and how the media came gunning for him with such relentless ferocity from that point forward. Even for a celebrity who courted publicity, I think few would argue that what was done to Jackson was beyond the pale, and the media’s refusal to take an iota of responsibility in that crucifixion, as evidenced here, remains an unforgivable blot. This is not just a theory of the document’s intent. They state it explicitly: “As Michael watched his carefully created image disintegrate, he struggled to understand that it was he who had facilitated it.” (It’s worth mentioning that this quote is inserted over an image from the Earth Song video, thus taking one of Michael’s most powerful political statements out of context and manipulating it into a mere image of a man sorrowful over the loss of his image).
This segment picks up with the move to Neverland. Here, again, the narrative is more predictable cliche’ about Michael’s need to escape and recreate the childhood he never had. We know this was at least part of the MO behind what Michael created at Neverland, but Michael’s home was so much more than that. It was an oasis of serenity in a chaotic world; 2700 sprawling acres built on Native American sacred land; a place for inspiration and meditation. They do acknowledge that Michael’s goal was to make the place a haven for sick children, but the primary narrative of this segment is that of an overgrown, spoiled kid who, because he now apparently had no one to tell him “no,” could indulge in any kind of excess he craved. Not only is the tone here irritatingly patronizing (assuming that a thirty-year-old man somehow still needs a daddy figure in his life to tell him “no”) but also is much too open ended in allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the exact kind of debauchery that this unrestrained excess and access to children could include (understand they are not explicitly implying guilt, but nor is there any given reason for viewers’ minds to not automatically jump to those conclusions). All this does, essentially, is to set the stage for another favorite media cliche’-the unrestrained child/man, freely indulging his whims and desires, who wants to surround himself with kids and have endless sleepovers. Again, the one spot of salvation is Jennifer Batten’s commentary. She states that Michael was an avid reader who took joy in teaching the children and introducing them to the wonders of the world. Thanks to her, there is at least some balance to the commentary but given the overall impression that the segment creates, I’m not sure it is enough. This leads us into the introduction to Jordan Chandler, and from here it goes from bad to worse.
Jordan Chandler is portrayed as if he were simply one of many random kids allowed to “sleep over” at Neverland. No mention is made of the circumstances under which they met, or of Michael’s association with Jordan’s parents (perhaps they assumed these details were irrelevant; however, they are anything but). I understand there is only so much that can be crammed into a 94-minute documentary, and they can’t be expected to go into minute detail about everything, but to cut corners with something this important to Michael’s story is unforgivable, especially if the main point is supposed to be an expose’ of how Michael Jackson was destroyed by betrayal.
But again, the purpose here is definitely not in “proving” or “disproving” guilt, and that remains one of the most troubling aspects of even the most well intentioned projects. We can say that the worst of the lot simply presumes guilt, but even the more sympathetic projects are more than content to simply leave the viewer to draw their own conclusions, without elaborating on any of the hardcore evidence that actually supports his innocence. What’s worse, they often use heavy handed innuendo and editing to make the possibility of guilt seem more likely (in reality, these kinds of scenes are meant to serve as titillation, but the damage they do is just as much as if they came out and proclaimed straight up guilt). This film is no exception. A particularly disturbing reenactment has Michael and Jordan playing games in the bedroom, indulging in a pillow fight, etc and finally deciding it’s time for bed, we see the adult Michael slowly and ominously closing the bedroom door. It doesn’t take adding two and two to assume what most viewers would make of that scene, no matter how much the commentators wax about him simply wanting to be a big kid. That has always been, and remains, the weakest defense imaginable. There is only a brief reenactment of Evan Chandler confronting Michael, and as usual in every film that only does a half ass job of reporting on the Chandler case, poor Evan Chandler is simply portrayed as a concerned father, understandably upset and outraged over what he suspects is going on with his son. Predictably, there is no mention of Evan’s extortion attempt; no mention of his infamous recording to Barry Schwartz in which he as good as confessed how he was setting Michael up; no mention of what a psychotic personality Chandler actually was; no mention that Jordan Chandler’s description of Michael’s genitals proved false; no mention that the financial settlement did not preclude a criminal trial from taking place; not even an explanation for why Michael agreed to settle in the first place.
Why Don’t We Get Evan Chandler-Concerned Father-Stating These Words?
With all of this information simply left hanging, casual viewers are no more educated on the circumstances of the Chandler allegations than they would have been before, other than perhaps knowing the names of the parties involved. If before I would have given the film at least a C-for effort, here it fails completely. And I’ll just say for the record that the one thing we don’t need at this point are more projects like this that are simply going to further muddy those waters. The segment ends with Evan determinedly whisking Jordan away from Neverland while a pathetically dejected looking Michael pleads, “Don’t go; please don’t go.” (Chalk up one more huge eye rolling moment). So let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture here. Supposedly again this is a project about Michael being betrayed over and over, but what we actually see depicted here (as is done repeatedly throughout the film) is that it is really Michael’s own eccentric behavior that has led to his loss and desertion. Other parties, including the Chandlers, are simply helpless bystanders caught up in the vortex of Michael’s own tragically scarred psyche. It’s a pattern that doesn’t stop here.
This segment picks up with marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, and is predictably awful but with one saving grace: At least the romance and marriage is treated as being genuine. In some ways, that is probably a huge leap from what we might have gotten ten years ago from a project like this. But I had to laugh when our “Batshit” narrator in his heavy handed delivery announced, somberly as a church service, that this was perhaps Michael’s “one shot” to have “a real lover.” There is a somewhat sweet courtship reenactment but for anyone who has seen the just as awful otherMan in the Mirror flick, it is a scene that could have come just as easily from it. Of course, there is no hint of the MJ that Lisa Marie actually described as having been attracted to-the guy who flirted voraciously, who talked dirty over shots of Crown Royal and impressed her with his “real guy” normalcy. Instead, this is the same whispery man/child who waxes poetic about her smile over a romantic dinner, but at least the scene does culminate in a kiss, insinuating that-gasp!-Michael is actually going to make love to a woman.
But from here it spirals downhill. They keep saying that Michael was insistent on having a family with Lisa (which is true) but the disintegration of the marriage quickly becomes a one-sided affair. It is Michael’s manipulative, demanding ego that comes between them; it is Michael who humiliates poor, poor Lisa time and again; it is Michael who insists on “seeing other kids behind Lisa’s back” and, finally, it is Lisa who walks out simply because she can’t take anymore; that Michael is “too much to handle” and should never be a parent because “he needs a parent himself.” Again, this is an insult to every fan who knows anything about that marriage. Yes, it was stormy and yes, both parties were at fault. But why lay all the blame for its failure squarely at Michael’s feet? What about Lisa lying about the birth control pills? (Talk about betrayal!). What about the four-year affair they carried on after the marriage, as she pursued him relentlessly for a reconciliation? (None of this is speculation, since Lisa confirmed it in her last Oprah interview, but instead of using that interview, they instead dredge up that horrific 2005 Oprah interview also featuring Priscilla Presley; the one I like to call the “bitch fest”). The major difference between the two is that the 2005 interview came fresh out of the anger, hurt and frustration of the relationship, whereas the 2010 interview came out of a place of maturity and intense reflection on what her feelings for Michael actually were. I’m sure the filmmakers were aware of this later interview, but purposely chose to ignore it because the 2005 interview more closely fit their agenda.
Anyway, the entire mess ends predictably with Lisa storming out and a dejected, pathetic Michael sitting on the stairs begging, “Please don’t go.” Once again, the message is loud and clear: Michael’s own irresponsible behavior has cost him his “one shot” at true love and a real family.
As you can no doubt guess, it doesn’t get any better from here. Considering how much of Michael’s epic story we still have to cover (marriage to Debbie Rowe; the births of the children; Invincible; the feud with Sony; Martin Bashir; Gavin Arvizo; the Trial of the Century; exile; return; AEG and This Is It; Conrad Murray and death) the film passes over all of it relatively quickly and with very little depth, much less any pause for real consideration about the forces coming together that would be the true cause of his “downfall.” In fact, by this point, huge chunks of Michael Jackson’s story remain untold. All of the albums he has recorded since Thriller have been pretty much ignored (even Bad only gets a passing nod; as for Dangerous, HIStory, Blood on the Dance Floor and Invincible they might as well have never existed!). Major accomplishments and career coups, such as the 1993 Superbowl performance, are completely ignored. They state that Michael was too naive to “sense danger,” insinuating the betrayal of Martin Bashir with the Living With Michael Jackson documentary, and yet never mention the underhanded tactics Bashir used to get the results he wanted with that documentary (and again, considering that a goodly percentage of this film is comprised of Bashir’s footage, one can understand why he is given a free pass here). The entire Gavin Arvizo allegation and trial is passed over far too quickly, and with all the same problematic flaws as the handling of the Chandler allegations. Curiously, no mention is made of Tom Sneddon and his relentless vendetta. As usual, all parties as well as all factual circumstances of the cases are handled with kid gloves, and no real accusing finger is pointed at anyone save Michael Jackson himself (who isn’t acting maliciously, let’s be reminded; he simply can’t help the fact that he is damaged goods).
Essentially, viewers are getting the bare bone facts but little else; if anything, the film is more than content to merely summarize events. But this is nothing that any informed viewer couldn’t get by simply going to Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia, and the commentators, for all good intentions, simply can’t compensate for the lack of real informative material. It’s a given that Michael’s physical and mental health was worn down by the trial. We get that. But what viewers really need to know-and perhaps want to know-is just how and why Michael was found “Not Guilty” on all counts. Once again, there is no attempt made to delve into any real evidence. Either the viewer accepts that Michael was innocent, or continues to believe he was a guilty man who “got off” due to his celebrity status. There is no reason given here for any on the fence viewer to change their mind.
The entire series of events leading up to This Is It and June 25th, 2009 are barely scraped, with Conrad Murray becoming almost a side player. Much more emphasis is naturally placed on Michael’s own “addiction” to sedatives to drown his own troubles. In one of the most unforgivably egregious errors of the entire film, the infamous audio tape of a drugged Michael slurring to Conrad Murray about how “I hurt”-the audio tape secretly recorded by Conrad Murray in one of the ultimate acts of betrayal, and played at trial as evidence against Murray-is said to be a phone conversation with Murray. This is the kind of unethical error that is unforgivable for a documentary because it is (whether intentionally or not) distorting truth. To state that this was a phone conversation between Michael and Murray detracts from the actual fact that this was a doctor secretly recording his oblivious patient, thus violating the rights of his patient in the most vile manner possible, and for no obvious purpose other than perhaps future blackmail or to strike a deal with tabloids. Again, for a documentary that proposes as its main agenda how Michael was repeatedly betrayed by the people around him, you don’t get a more golden opportunity to prove it than with that incident, and yet they completely miss the boat on that one, alleviating Murray from all culpability by passing it off as merely an innocent phone conversation that Michael initiated by phoning Murray up. And, of course, this factual error covers yet another of Murray’s violations, by totally ignoring that the very reason Michael was in such a state was due to having already received a massive dose of Propofol at Murray’s own hands! No, by this logic, it makes it sound like poor, poor Michael simply drugged himself up on some sedatives and then decided it was a good time to ring up his friend Conrad Murray and “spill” about his life.
In One Of The Most Egregious Factual Errors Of All, They State That This Recording of Michael Was A Phone Conversation Between Himself and Conrad Murray, Implying That Michael Phoned Murray In A Drugged State. No Mention Is Made Of The Fact That This Was A Conversation Conducted In Person, In Which Murray Unethically, Secretly Recorded His Patient-After Administering The Drugs Himself!
Oh gosh, I could go on but at this point the film simply unravels to its predictable and disastrous end. Michael dies. Granted, the final shot which is of the actual memorial and features Paris’s now famous and emotional speech is touching, and it does succeed in bringing the narrative satisfactorily full circle-the man who never had a childhood and so desperately wanted to give back a childhood to others has had that legacy cemented by his tearful, grieving daughter who proclaims him “the best daddy you could ever imagine.” Here I won’t fault the well intended sentiment, but for a documentary, it still leaves too many troubling holes unfilled.No mention is made, by the way, of anything that came of Conrad Murray afterward, not even the fact that he was convicted of manslaughter. It is as if with the end of Michael’s existence simply comes the culmination of his own, tragic story, brought on mostly by his own damaged sense of entitlement and the usual cliches’ about the burdens of fame. In looking back over the whole of this documentary, what’s left out is every bit as interesting-and puzzling-as what is left in. Michael’s great artistry and impact on music is discussed, but not with any real sense of depth or new insight (it simply isn’t that type of documentary). His sex symbol status is simply ignored. Some of the most major accomplishments of his career, such as the purchase and ownership of the Sony/ATV catalog, rendering him one of the most powerful figures in the music industry, is curiously ignored as well. Was such a glaring omission due to time constraints, or could it have more to do with the fact that this wouldn’t jibe with the image they were determined to project of Michael Jackson as a naive and childish man who would never be able to make such a savvy business move? (Also curiously, the fact that this catalog ownership became the proverbial albatross around his neck, one that exacerbated his fears of betrayal from those around him as well as providing ample motivation for many of those betrayals,is simply omitted as well).
What little we are left with has unfortunately become an all too familiar and, as I’ve already stated, well worn narrative, and I’m sure that some readers by now are still questioning as to why this particular documentary has been worth such a detailed analysis. Mainly, it is because I think it bears questioning as to why the media is so persistent on selling this very particular and limited narrative of Michael Jackson and his story to the public; why the particular insistence on selling, over and over, the version of an emasculated man/child who never grew up, who remained emotionally stunted (to the point that even his most monumental artistic accomplishments are usually more credited to his “mentors” like Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy) and why the perpetual insistence on continuously casting his story as simply one more celebrity tragedy? As I will stress again, I do not deny for a moment that Michael Jackson had a tragic life. This was a guy abused in childhood, who never knew a normal existence. Did that leave its scars? Of course it did! Did that impact his adult perceptions of the world? Of course it did, but I would daresay probably to no less or greater extent than any adult who has had to compensate for a lost childhood. The excesses of Michael’s life, for what they were, were no greater or less than many young musicians who suddenly find themselves awash in fame and riches at an age before they are truly capable of responsibility (insert here most any rock and roll or hip hop artist you can think of who became enormously wealthy before the age of 25). Michael inherited all of the same problems that all child stars inherit to some degree; he grappled with all of the same excesses and temptations that all musicians must, at some point, grapple with. As I am writing this, the tragic news of Chris Cornell’s recent passing is still headline news, and I see much of the same media strategy being played out: At first they mourn and honor; then comes the tearing down. Somehow, there is always a way to place the blame squarely on the performer’s shoulders, with no thought to the enormous internal and external pressures that these people actually face on a daily basis (I am still, as of this writing, grappling with the shock of having just seen Chris Cornell perform only days before his death, and how fine and in good spirits he seemed).
But to paint Michael Jackson’s life, over and over again, as nothing more than a modern tragedy, is a huge disservice. It is a disservice to the life he actually lived. It is a disservice to the enormous contributions he made, both to music and to the world through his enormous humanitarian efforts (which, to no surprise, are also omitted completely from this film). Usually there is almost always at least some lip service given to how Michael’s wealth and fame made him a target for greed, but inevitably, as happens here and so often in all other projects, the real culprit always comes back to the “man in the mirror” and that apparent seed of self destruction that was planted long ago in Gary, Indiana when a talented but strong-willed little boy was first struck by an angry, demanding father.
The problem is that this narrative, one so loved and cherished by the media because it makes good copy, is not the end all of the story. But it’s a narrative that alleviates a lot of responsibility from other parties. The media gets a reprieve because, after all, Michael was the one manipulating them, and should have known better. The Chandlers, Arvizos, Tom Sneddon, etc all get reprieves because, after all, well, if Michael had been acting like a grown-up instead of having sleep overs with kids, then by golly, none of this would have happened. Conrad Murray gets a reprieve because, well, clearly Michael was a drug addict who voluntarily put himself in that position.
And for those who will come back saying I am merely excusing Michael’s behaviors and trying to shift all the blame onto other parties and factors, that isn’t true, either. But there is nothing wrong with advocating for balance, fairness, and most importantly, accuracy. A documentary can manipulate just as easily by the facts they choose to omit or ignore as by what they choose to include, and from the start, the agenda of this particular project is all too clear. For whatever reasons, it continues to be of vital importance to certain parties that Michael’s story is portrayed in as simplistic a manner as possible, keeping him ultimately just the way they want him-emasculated, weak, non-threatening to white male superiority, immature and ever the victim. This continues to be a matter of concern, especially with so many upcoming MJ projects slated including the upcoming Lifetime film Searching For Neverland, which I will also be reviewing after its Monday night airing. Navi, the other famous MJ tribute artist appearing in that flick, has already issued a public statement condemning Valentino’s participation in this project, but it remains to be seen whether his own project is going to be any better (I can only say for now that the previews seem decent, but we’ll know more come Monday night). Clearly, these misrepresentations are continuing for a reason. Partly (perhaps even mostly) it is laziness. It’s easier to present an already pre-packaged stereotype than to err on the side of new insight or to research source material that might actually challenge some of these notions. For better or worse, most of the public thinks they know by now what Michael Jackson was like. They envision the soft-spoken man/child who never really grew up, or they have bought into the more sinister “Wacko Jacko” representations. From media perceptions, they have bought into the cliche’ of a talented but flawed and tragic figure, charmingly eccentric but ultimately out of touch with reality-“textbook weird,” as Sean Lennon recently stated. What most fail to realize is that this figure, too, is a myth, one that has been every bit as carefully crafted by the media as Michael, in turn, helped create it. Unfortunately, no documentary or film project, yet, has been daring enough to challenge these perceptions or to penetrate the myth. And now, with Michael gone, it has become easier than ever to simply further cement the same old misperceptions, rather than challenging them. And sadly, most filmmakers remain more obsessed with either salacious innuendo or in perpetuating the myth they have themselves partially created.
Another problematic factor is simply the sheer scope of Michael’s life. To fully do justice to any aspect of it almost requires a full documentary unto itself. To really understand the forces that went down, one needs an entire documentary just on the Chandler allegations alone; one needs an entire documentary on the Arvizo trial; we need an entire documentary on the events leading up to June 25th and their aftermath. And, needless to say, we need at least the scope of a full documentary to truly appreciate what Michael accomplished as a musician, dancer, humanitarian and philanthropist. This documentary is plagued by the very thing that has hampered so many projects-too much story to tell, and too little time and space to tell any of it adequately.
That’s the forgivable part. But what is harder to forgive is the agenda, ultimately, to portray Michael once again as simply the naive yet manipulative master orchestrator of his own self destruction. To do so is still only telling half his story. Perhaps one day there will be a filmmaker brave enough to take on the real Michael Jackson, to lift him beyond the burden of victimhood and caricature and to tell his real story, with no holds barred. Until then, the best bet may be to simply stick with those documentaries that focus on what Michael Jackson did best-his music.
When it comes to books on Michael Jackson, there is certainly no shortage. It is a market that continues to grow more glutted with every passing year, but unfortunately, books focusing solely on the man’s art and music still lag far behind the voluminous outpouring of salacious “tell all” biographies and questionable memoirs from so-called “friends.” While recent years have brought about a much needed renaissance of serious critical interest in Michael Jackson’s music and the cultural importance of his musical legacy, the commercially available books that delve into this subject with any depth remain shockingly sparse. Other than the works of Joe Vogel, Armond White, Susan Fast and a few others, the market for books of serious discussion on Michael Jackson as an artist (and especially as an artist provocateur) has not overall proven as profitable as books designed to cater to the tabloid-fed demographic. For that reason alone, Mike Smallcombe deserves props for daring to tread into territory that few have dared to tread-at least with any hope of profitable return.
Smallcombe’s book had the misfortune of dropping this past April, only a few months on the heels of Steve Knopper’s The Genius of Michael Jackson, a book that purported to be a balanced insight into Michael Jackson’s artistic vision (at least according to the title) but instead disintegrated quickly into another snide odyssey from the perspective of a white male writer (another Rolling Stone writer, at that) whose respect for his subject’s artistry remained questionable at best (and, not surprisingly, largely limited to his Thriller-era, Quincy Jones produced work). However, with that being said, I didn’t necessarily detest Knopper’s book with the same level of vehemence as some fans. For starters, although Knopper offered little in the way of original theory, the fact that he had researched many of the more serious scholarly works on Jackson’s music at least said something, and if nothing else, his book may serve as a gateway for those mainstream readers curious enough to dig deeper into the growing body of scholarly research on Michael Jackson’s work. Secondly, the fact that Knopper wasn’t totally dismissive of Jackson’s Dangerous and HIStory era work suggests an interesting paradigm shift in the critical assessment and appreciation of Michael’s more mature work. For this reason and others, I was more prone to view Knopper’s book as at least a small but important turning stone in the overall canon of Michael Jackson books-at least, one that set out with the intent of analyzing his art rather than his life, even if it fell far short of that goal.
Nevertheless, the Knopper book still managed to raise a lot of ire among fans who, for the most part, found his often condescending attitude toward his subject more than off putting. Why write a book purporting to be about an artist’s “genius” and then spend at least a goodly half of the book attempting to portray this artist, by turns, as a spoiled brat and megalomaniac who essentially burned his “genius” out early and then spent the rest of his career running all of his well meaning producers, engineers, musicians, directors and record executives insane with his over the top demands, budget excesses, and eccentricities?
Thus, when news hit that yet another book was coming down the pipe from yet another white male journalist, purporting to celebrate Michael Jackson’s musical legacy, the mood among the fandom was understandably skeptical. Putting aside the works of Vogel and a few other notable exceptions, could we really trust another white male journalist to “get it right” this time?
I will be honest. I downloaded Smallcombe’s book onto my Kindle app with small expectations, despite much of the hype around it at the time. I started reading it and thought that, at best, I would be in for a pleasant but slightly boring journey down a path of already well tread stories. After all, most fans who have put any degree of research into Michael Jackson’s music are already well familiar with the stories of how his most famous albums and songs came together. That isn’t to say that the story of Michael Jackson’s rise from Jackson 5/Jacksons front man to international global superstar isn’t a phenomenal story. Of course it is, and it’s certainly a story that deserves to be told. It is a story that harkens back to the very essence of the American hero archetype. But it is a difficult story to tackle and to give true justice; its very epic scope is its own worst limitation. In the past, the most successful projects that have attempted to trace the rise of Michael Jackson have been content to trace that rise from The Jackson 5 days to the beginning of the Off the Wall and Thriller eras, which in itself is one of the most phenomenal success stories in all of popular music. Many projects are content to leave it there, with the promise of all the greatness and magic that was to ensue-as well as, of course, the inevitable (and by now almost cliche’) hint of the tragic fall to come, without ever taking into consideration that this “downfall” would bring about the greatest artistic resurgence of his career.
I admired the courage of Smallcombe to undertake the project, and the premise certainly sounded interesting; that is, essentially, the idea of making the reader a “fly on the wall” as the great metamorphosis that became the creation of Michael Jackson, adult superstar legend, was born. But admittedly, it took me awhile into this journey before I was truly captivated. Now, having finally read it all (it is a massive book and a huge commitment) I think I can safely say in hindsight why the book was slow to grow on me-but when it did, I was truly hooked.
Much of it has to do with the fact that, unlike most of the ilk of white male music journalists who undertake the task of analyzing Jackson’s art, Smallcombe actually has a deeply ingrained appreciation for ALL eras of Michael Jackson’s work, but especially his 90’s era work. In a promotional interview given at the time of the book’s release, Smallcombe stated that his favorite Michael Jackson album is Dangerous, followed closely by HIStory.
This fact alone gives the book far more credibility than many similarly earnest but ultimately failed attempts by past music writers, who usually end up making the fatal mistake of treating later albums like Dangerous, HIStory, Blood On The Dancefloor and Invincible as mere footnotes to Jackson’s legacy. Well, given the fact that these four albums alone outnumber the two-fold magic punch of Off the Wall and Thriller (with Bad often caught somewhere in the middle as the follow-up album “almost as good as Thriller but not quite) it may be worth noting that if we persist in relegating these albums to mere footnotes, that is one very long note indeed. Perhaps far better that we begin to attempt some serious analysis of what these albums actually do mean in terms of the Michael Jackson canon.
Although the entire book is certainly engaging, I was really most hooked from the later chapters forward. Sure, there were a lot of the familiar and expected facts, some of which can be tedious to hardcore fans who already know much of this stuff (however, Smallcombe isn’t writing necessarily for the hardcore fan, but for the lay reader who may not already be familiar with some of the more routine details of how these albums came to be) but in almost every chapter there would be some interesting tidbit or story I had not heard before. The stories are often amusing, revealing to lay readers the depth of Michael’s often childlike and wickedly humorous charm; sometimes shockingly sad; sometimes infuriating (the chapter on Invincible, for example, pulls no punches about Sony’s part in its publicity sabotage) and, at all times, respectful of the fact that the complexities of genius are not something that can be easily pinned down.
Of course, as with all books of this kind of scope, there are some inherent flaws. A fully comprehensive book of Michael Jackson’s entire adult career cannot be truly possible without cutting some corners, which means that no one era or album can be covered in depth. Also, those who are looking for more detailed accounts of Michael’s personal life would be advised to look elsewhere. Smallcombe does touch upon all of the major events of Jackson’s adult life, but only so much as those events are relevant to the music (but in all honesty, this is the approach that Michael would have us take if we must dissect his life at all-in the end, as with all great artists, all that matters of how he lived his life is what transpires into the art). Nevertheless, nothing here feels short changed. The sections dealing with the Chandler and Arvizo allegations, for example, appeared well researched and certainly informative enough for the lay reader who, again, would only need enough to know how vastly these events shook the core of Jackson’s foundation and inspired the works that came out of these dark chapters.
I think that mainstream readers will also appreciate Smallcombe’s balanced and objective approach. Even though Smallcombe is obviously a fan, and his genuine admiration of Michael as a human being and artist shines through at all times, it isn’t a book that in any way attempts to deify Michael or to excuse some of his excesses and flaws. However, there is very big marked difference between Smallcombe’s approach and that of, say, the approach that Steve Knopper took in The Genius of Michael Jackson. This is a book from an author who obviously respects Jackson’s artistry and is willing to examine his art objectively from the perspective of a genius musician, songwriter, and performer whose talent-like that of all the greats-was given to enormous ebbs and flows of energy. And in this story, we get a very real sense of the dark forces that were around Michael and that ultimately played their role in diminishing (though never killing) that energy.
However, this book-like all of the best books written on Michael Jackson-is not a tragic story, but rather, the inspiring story of a fighter and a survivor whose gift of music prevailed through all of the worst storms of his life. Smallcombe reminds us that Michael’s life, at the end, can be viewed as a glass half empty or half filled. On the one hand, yes, the tragedies are there. There were passages quite hard to read or, as a fan, to be reminded of again, such as Michael courageously attempting to rise to the demands of his This Is It rehearsals while his body was being systematically poisoned by Murray’s “Frankenstein” medical experiments. But Smallcombe also reminds us that Michael Jackson nevertheless died fully in saddle, with his boots on, having lived long enough to see the unprecedented demand for his ticket sales and having miraculously overcome his medical difficulties to deliver two nights of amazing rehearsals that, of course, would be forever immortalized as his final performances (and thereby cheating all of those naysayers who had predicted for him a life of ruination and exile).
Smallcombe’s book is much more than just a musical odyssey through the turbulent up’s and down’s of a musical icon’s adult career. It is also an important reminder that in the person of Michael Jackson, we had our closest American incarnation of a true epic hero, one whose art enabled him to achieve true “invincibility” and to survive against every odd-at least, until his great heart finally gave out and refused to take up the tiresome burden of living again. And that is where this story ultimately ends, as Smallcombe made the conscious choice not to exploit Jackson’s controversial posthumous “career.” Perhaps that is fitting, for no matter how much money Michael Jackson continues to earn from the grave, his legacy is firmly built on the songs and albums he left us, those he blessed with every ounce of his sweat, energy, and undying drive for perfection. And as Smallcombe reminds us in many passages, that obsession could at times be Jackson’s own worst enemy-it resulted, for example, in at least a fifth of Invincible’s greatest tracks being left on the cutting floor-but it was also this quality that made his greatest work, truly great.
Making Michael is a book that celebrates the greatness of Michael Jackson’s music with honesty and a refreshing lack of the usual “white privilege” cynicism that permeates the writing about Jackson from so many white male music writers. Fans will no doubt have varying opinions as to their own satisfaction with the book (I have read all of the reviews, and some of the more negative points are valid) but, overall, this book stands as an important addition to the growing list of scholarship on Jackson’s work.