June 25th, 2017 will mark the eighth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s transition. At this point, some may be wondering what stage of transition he is currently in, at this eight year juncture. I don’t have those answers, but I do have enough knowledge and have researched enough on the topic of spiritual transition to offer some possible insight. It is my hope that what I have to say will be a comfort to those who wonder where Michael is right now; in what form he may exist, and if he is still in any way connected to his earthly existence as Michael Jackson.
But I will also offer some pre-warning statements so as to save some of you the bother of reading. First of all, this post is not for you if you do not believe in an after life. It is not for you if are among those who believe Michael faked his death and is therefore still alive somewhere on this planet. In that case, then Michael still exists in his earthly form (which I do not believe). This post is also not for those who may hold so dogmatically to their own religious beliefs that they will only accept their own religion’s version of what happens to us “on the other side.”
However, it may be worth noting that for every person who dies, their experiences in their new realm of existence will automatically be dictated by their own religious beliefs. In other words, whatever we have believed devoutly on earth still colors our perceptions of what we experience in the afterlife. There are many phases along the spiritual journey that will appear to replicate “Heaven” just as there are phases that will replicate the Christian version of “Hell” (Indeed, we are reassured that many souls will falsely believe they are in “Hell” during some transitional phases, but that it is only a temporary penitence; once the soul has undergone the necessary self reflection and growth, they will be allowed to progress to the next stage of transition).
Interestingly, it has been said that those who believe nothing happens to them beyond earthly existence will experience just that-nothingness. But this stage, too, is only temporary as the earthly consciousness is gradually separated from the spiritual consciousness. After what seems an eternal period of deep sleep, they, too, will eventually awaken to the sight of their deceased loved ones guiding them into the next phase. I found this very interesting and wondered how Michael’s early training as a Jehovah’s Witness might have impacted his after death experience (even though he was not a practicing JW at the time of his death). Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that, upon death, the body and soul simply sleep together until the arrival of the earthly paradise (and/or the ascension to rule with Jehovah in Heaven if they are among the anointed 144,000). In their belief system, there is no such thing as after death consciousness. However, since Michael had long since strayed from many of the JW’s tenets, one would certainly have to question how many of these beliefs he still held to at his time of death. I personally do not believe that Michael exists in a state of unconsciousness, although it is very possible that, due to his beliefs, he may have initially experienced such a state temporarily. Of course, there is also another possibility-that unfinished business may have kept him earth bound and within his earthly consciousness for an extended time. In his case, this is very likely, for reasons I will go into shortly.
There are several afterlife transitions that are universally recognized and accepted regardless of religion and cultural beliefs. These are stages that have been universally observed and recognized across all cultural and religious boundaries. The first phase-familiar to any of us who have kept bedside vigils with terminally ill loved ones-is that the dying person is greeted by deceased loved ones and/or spirit guides who will assist them in their transition. This is the phase we know and recognize universally as “going to the light.” Although no dead person has ever been able to come back to recount their experience, this is the stage most often recollected by those who have been just “close enough” to have experienced it (i.e, those who have been clinically dead and resurrected) and their accounts are all eerily similar in detail. Most recount it as a very peaceful experience, so much so that coming back into their physical bodies is unbearably traumatic and undesired.
For those who continue into the light, this becomes very much a kind of “welcome home” party. They will be in the presence of relatives, friends, children and spouses from whom they have been separated for years. It is a joyous time of homecoming and of “catching up” and for many, they become convinced at this stage that this is indeed “Heaven” (or whatever variant of Heaven that their own religion dictates). However, this is still only a temporary phase, though understandably, one that many are reluctant to part from. (I have a suspicion that my own dearly departed grandmother, a true chatterbox who could spend hours reminiscing with old friends, may well still be in this stage even after thirteen years! I could imagine she is still “catching up” on her gossip). However, the purpose of this phase is merely a kind of initiation; a way of easing the soul into the afterlife so that no one experiences the trauma of having to go it alone. Also at this phase, the soul is still very much connected to their earthly existence. They still possess the consciousness of their earthly life. They still retain their earthly memories and emotions, which connects them not only to those who have greeted them, but to those they have left behind as well. They will still remember the things that gave them joy and pleasure in their earthly body (favorite foods, scents and yes, even sex!).
But this only applies to those who do, in fact, actually cross over. Unfortunately, many souls become trapped and earth bound, for various reasons. They are initially greeted by their guiding spirits, but for whatever reason, fail to complete the journey forward. These are the restless souls that eventually manifest themselves as ghosts (apparitions that can be seen or sensed) or, more malevolently, as poltergeist entities. In almost all cases, spirits who remain earth bound are those who died untimely deaths; those who died violently or unnaturally (including many suicides and murder victims); those who died angry, or those with unfinished, urgent business. In some cases, an especially strong attachment to a loved one on earth-or to several-may also hold a spirit earth bound.
All of the above criteria certainly applies to Michael, who did die untimely; whose death was a homicide; whose death took place under mysterious circumstances that still have not been resolved; who certainly had urgent business and uncompleted obligations (the This Is It tour); who certainly had many earthly concerns weighing on his mind at the time of death; and who certainly had strong emotional attachments to people he was leaving behind (his three minor children). Additionally, Michael’s earthbound ties would have been compounded many times over by his mass, global world wide following; those millions who mourned his death and who, no doubt, kept his energy earth bound for much longer than the normal duration. (This is true to some extent of all celebrities, especially those who die young and violently and are worshipped on a mass scale-Elvis and Princess Diana come immediately to mind, but I think Michael’s case was particularly unique in the way all of these factors combined. it was a recipe guaranteed to keep him earth bound for a considerably extended time).
Based on what I experienced at the time, I believe that Michael initially experienced only a brief few weeks of conscious unawareness. His “awakening” began in July of 2009 and, as an earth bound entity, peaked around August/September 2009. This was the time when so many of us felt his energy and presence most strongly. Over the years, I have heard and collected many, many stories from fans of their collective “after death” experiences with Michael,and the stories all have an uncanny similarity, especially among those who became, in essence, posthumous fans. In all cases, there was a universal, palpable energy that we all felt; a driving desire to tap into something we could not quite explain. Many who had not been fans of his in life, or who had only been casual fans at best, suddenly felt overwhelmed with grief; with inexplicable sadness, and an urge to somehow “correct” the wrongs that had been done to him. The stories, as I have said, are universally similar. It is normal, for example, that in the wake of most celebrity deaths, we might become curious and more interested in that person for a short while. We might be inclined to read more about them or to research their life; we might feel genuinely sad that they passed. But usually that is the extent of it. However, what happened in the wake of Michael Jackson’s passing was much more; it was on a scale with a mass awakening. To this day, it is a force that remains inexplicable to those of us who experienced it.
It was also during this time that many of us experienced some form of contact, through visions or dreams or other mediums of communication. I recounted my own experience here when I reviewed the Deborah Stefenaik book. (Interestingly, I have since had a similar, though less graphic, experience with Prince, who still seems very confused that he is actually dead). In hindsight, these experiences were not surprising. in this earth bound stage, Michael was a restless spirit determined to get the truth out, as well as seeking his own answers. This was the time in which his physical body remained unburied, and during which the circumstances of his death were under the most intense scrutiny and investigation. These conditions, combined with the intense outpouring of global grief, kept him earth bound for a quite prolonged period.
I don’t know how long Michael remained in this stage. I can only say from my own experience that i felt his energy most intensely and palpably throughout that summer and into early fall. For me, it began to taper off after September of 2009 and I believe strongly that finally entombing his physical remains had something to do with it.
Also, as more and more people began to take up the mission of uncovering the truth about what had happened to him, he may have finally become satisfied that his mission was completed. Nevertheless, others did continue to have and record experiences (not that I necessarily believe all of them; there are a lot of charlatans out there, but I do believe many of them are genuine). All in all, it would appear that Michael remained in this earthbound phase for anywhere from at least six months to a year. During this phase, he was still very much connected to his earthly existence as Michael Jackson; his consciousness was still that which he carried in his physical incarnation; his earthly memories were still intact. But like a kid at play, he was reveling in the newfound freedom of being able to take any form he chose; to project himself into any consciousness sensitive enough to pick up on him; to converse with anyone he chose at any given time and to be in many places at once.
An earth bound spirit can still eventually transition. Sometimes they require assistance to do so; other times, they simply evolve to a stage whereby they can make the transition on their own. When this happens, it means they are finally experiencing what more fortunate souls were able to experience from the very beginning-that time of bliss in which they are allotted to spend with the loved ones who have finally welcomed them through the transitional process. I don’t know exactly when this happened for Michael, but I do believe strongly that by late 2010 he had definitely “crossed over.”
One thing I have learned from my teachings is that there is no definite time table that exists in this realm, and every individual’s experience is different just as the needs of every individual will differ. Ultimately, each progression is about the evolution of the soul to its most pure spiritual essence-what some call “The Spiritual Plane”-and that journey is quicker for some than for others. This is the stage at which soul and spirit finally are joined as one entity and all ties to earthly existence have been severed. But this destination can take decades, or even centuries.
“Life Review” is often cited as the next phase of the journey. From all the descriptions I have read, most souls-especially if they have been steeped in Christian teachings-will certainly assume that this is the period of judgement. However, the difference is that, while all of their earthly actions are reviewed, the purpose is less about judgement and more about the need for the deceased to learn and grow from the mistakes and sins they committed on earth. During this time, the person’s entire life is played before them (some mediums say it really does resemble a personal theater, where the deceased person watches their entire life projected onto a huge movie screen!). But it is not over in a single viewing. The person is shown their entire life through their own perspective, and then, one by one, through the perspective of every individual involved in their life. It is here that they learn exactly how their actions have impacted others-those they have helped by their actions; those that they have hurt by their actions. Every deed is accounted for. From here, they will enter a stage of purification (a time of intense reflection and penitence). Some souls may interpret this stage as banishment to Hell, as it is a time spent in isolation,but it is said to be only temporary. However, this stage can be considerably long, or of relatively short duration. If the individual lived a mostly righteous life, and/or if they resolved many of these issues in life (practicing forgiveness and making restitution to those they hurt, for example) then this stage may be relatively short.
I could only imagine that, given the life Michael Jackson lived and his status as a global superstar and icon, his life review has probably been an exceptionally long one. Imagine a review in which everyone impacted by the life of Michael Jackson-everyone he ever encountered, no matter how briefly- must be accounted for. If one imagines how his life and career was encapsulated in that wonderful Lifetime Achievement montage, just imagine something similar only now including not only every monumental career achievement, but also every personal relationship, and every incident from many multiple perspectives, and one can see how Michael’s life review could certainly be both monumental as well as utterly draining and exhausting. When we consider that even the average person still impacts many lives, one can only imagine how much this is compounded for the public figure whose life has impacted millions, both directly and indirectly. Imagine being Michael and forced to re-live and reevaluate that endless parade of managers, record executives, tour promoters, every hanger-on; every partner; every accuser, every fan; every leech; every friend; every acquaintance; every employee, every relative, etc etc must be considered! A review in which every choice made; every action; every word, both public and private, and every consequence must be weighed and evaluated! Imagine a process whereby he must re-live not only every action he has done onto others (both good and bad, for whatever that is worth) but also, again, every action done unto him. That means, yes, every betrayal must be re-lived; every knife in the back experienced all over again. It means not only experiencing, again, the thrill and high of every concert, but also the entire scope of every trial (imagine his four month ordeal of the Arvizo trial expanded indefinitely and you get the idea!) But, for all the pain, there is joy as well. He will re-live the births of his children; he will experience again Grammy night of 1984; he will embrace Ryan White; he will feel again his grandparents’ caress; this is all part of the experience, the pain as well as the joy and bliss).
Given the immense scope of Michael’s life, he may very well still be in the stage of Life Review. But it depends, as I said, on a number of factors. If Michael had resolved many of his life issues before passing, this stage will be reduced considerably. But often those who die untimely or unexpectedly do not have the necessary time on earth to make these kinds of restitutions. Thus, the stage of purification may take longer.
After purification, the soul has evolved to a new level of growth and is ready for servitude. It has been said that many choose to continue in some capacity whatever roles they fulfilled on earth. For example, a teacher may still desire to teach; a caregiver will still wish to serve others. Many choose to become spirit guides. At this stage, there is no longer earthly conscience (the ties of their former life are broken after purification and after all lessons from that earthly life have been learned) but they may still choose to periodically watch over loved ones left behind. I can imagine that Michael would choose to spend his time of servitude in some healing capacity, or perhaps he is still performing and providing comfort and joy to other souls still progressing through their journey. So often in the past eight years, whenever some major tragedy strikes, I have heard people say, “If only Michael was still with us, he would know what to do or say about this; he would know how to bring us together.” If Michael has indeed reached the stage of servitude, then we can be rest assured that he is not only well aware of these earthly events, but is working diligently to help those victims who are transitioning to their own spiritual phase.
I suspect at this stage of his journey that Michael’s spirit is somewhere between the phases of life review, purification and servitude. I do not think he has yet achieved the apex of soul/spirit unification-or what many religions refer to as “Bliss”-just yet, as that is a process that takes many decades or even centuries to complete. If we consider that Michael only “crossed over” from earthbound entrapment a little over seven years ago, that is not a long time in the spiritual journey. However, I believe strongly that Michael was already a highly evolved spirit, which is going to make his transition much easier and speedier than it might have been otherwise.
After eight years, I do not feel that palpable sense of energy and urgency that I once felt from him. I don’t feel the anger, desperation or intense sadness that I once felt from his energy, which tells me at once that he is both at peace to some extent and has let go of much of his earthly connections. But it says something else as well: That he has also moved further away from us. I don’t know what the experiences of others have been (I hope some will feel free to weigh in). But I do feel his essence, every single day. It is a much lighter energy now, minus the heavy oppressiveness of before. I am not naive. I know this comes at least partly from having evolved, myself, to a point of acceptance. When Michael died, I grieved intensely, but over time, even the most intense grief gradually fades to acceptance. I know that is part of it, but it is also something more. I am not sure if he is at peace, but I do think he has evolved to a stage that is much less concerned with ties to his earthly existence and memory. If that is so, it is a reality that is, of course, much sadder for us than for him. As Michael himself once wrote in his poem “Are You Listening,” he was well aware that “from Bliss I came” and “To Bliss” he would return. In that poem, he spoke of the power and eternalness of that which we call “Essence:”
I remain ever the same
From Bliss I came
In Bliss I am sustained…(Michael Jackson)
Bliss is, indeed, the state of all energy in its purest and most evolved form. Religions that believe in reincarnation also believe it is only here that souls can either become born again in a new physical form, or else have transcended the need for further incarnation altogether (This may explain why Michael chose the line, “From Bliss I came”). In that poem, he also reminds us that “This body of mine/Is a flux of energy” and goes on to speak of that energy as eternal. His poem is really just a reminder of what we are already well aware: That flesh is temporary; the soul transcendent, and that the energy of spirit-that which we call essence-is forever. Even in his art, we often see how Michael was continuously playing with the ideas of life, spirit, and resurrection, always reminding us that he-like all of us-was both temporal and transcendent; perishable and transitory, yet ever eternal.
In both “Is It Scary” and its later incarnation, “Ghosts” Michael depicts himself dying and being miraculously resurrected. But in the earlier “Is It Scary” we actually see the process of the physical resurrection, whereby it is through pure love and faith that he is risen out of his own dust and pieced together again. He was also similarly “resurrected” in “Moonwalker.” Even his idea for the “Unbreakable” video (which never materialized) was going to portray him as a dancing skeleton who has been resurrected, bone by bone, after a nasty fall that has broken him into pieces.
In reflecting on the eight years since Michael left us, I am reminded more strongly than ever that it really does not matter where he is, or what stage of his spiritual journey he is in. What truly matters is that, as Maya Angelou so eloquently stated, “We had him.”
“We Had Him” by Maya Angelou
Beloveds, now we know that we know nothing Now that our bright and shining star can slip away from our fingertips like a puff of summer wind
Without notice, our dear love can escape our doting embrace Sing our songs among the stars and and walk our dances across the face of the moon
In the instant we learn that Michael is gone we know nothing No clocks can tell our time and no oceans can rush our tides With the abrupt absence of our treasure
Though we our many, each of us is achingly alone Piercingly alone Only when we confess our confusion can we remember that he was a gift to us and we did have him
He came to us from the Creator, trailing creativity in abundance Despite the anguish of life he was sheathed in mother love and family love and survived and did more than that
He thrived with passion and compassion, humor and style We had him Whether we knew who he was or did not know, he was ours and we were his We had him
Beautiful, delighting our eyes He raked his hat slant over his brow and took a pose on his toes for all of us and we laughed and stomped our feet for him
We were enchanted with his passion because he held nothing He gave us all he had been given
Today in Tokyo, beneath the Eiffel Tower, in Ghana’s Blackstar Square, in Johannesburg, in Pittsburgh, in Birmingham, Alabama and Birmingham England, we are missing Michael Jackson
But we do know that we had him And we are the world.-Maya Angelou
Recently, a new video surfaced on Youtube that features a rare, inside look at what a person visiting Neverland Ranch (i.e, prospective buyers) might expect to see in 2017. The video was filmed by Coldwell Banker realtor Brad Pearson. As fans are all too aware, we got the devastating news in 2014 that Colony Capital had decided to put Neverland Ranch (re-renamed Sycamore Valley Ranch) on the market. Compounded with the sale of the Sony/ATV catalog, the action stands as a sad reminder that much of the empire that Michael built has been slowly siphoned off. But despite the fact that Neverland has sat dormant for over a decade, ever since Michael himself abandoned the property in 2005, it is encouraging to see that the magical imprint he left there is still very much intact.
While there have been many fan videos posted from the gates of Neverland, we have had precious few glimpses-that is, recent glimpses-of what has transpired with the property since going on the market in 2014. These days, only prospective buyers and realtors are offered access to the house and grounds. It is not open for public or private tours. But for prospective buyers who just happen to be fans, it is an added bonus. At any rate, the video does offer an interesting glimpse into the manner in which Neverland is being marketed to potential buyers, and it is an encouraging sign.
The worst fear of most fans is the idea of some millionaire buyer scrubbing the property of all reminders of Michael Jackson’s residency, and turning Michael’s magical creation into just another sterile, faceless California ranch. Indeed, that could well still happen (I had shudders reading here about the proposal of Golf Digest to turn it into a golf course). But it does seem obvious that Coldwell Banker, the company currently listing the Neverland property, has made no concentrated effort to scrub the property clean of Michael Jackson’s memory, and in fact, seems to be using it as a selling point.
Neverland currently is being touted to prospective buyers pretty much exactly as Michael left it. From the first few seconds of the video to the final frame, every square inch of the property is instantly familiar, evoking the same magical feeling as it always has. True, as the articles are always quick to point out, the rides and animals are long gone, but there was always so much more to Neverland than just its mini amusement park and zoo. The main house has not been refurbished or remodeled in any way. Although the echoes of the hardwood floors are a stark reminder of the home’s emptiness, its exterior and interior are still instantly recognizable from countless photographs and TV interviews. It still reflects the tastes of the man who called it home for nearly seventeen years.
A tour of the property reveals that not much has changed since 2008. The petting zoo looks to be in very good repair, as is the train station and other amenities added by Michael during his time spent at the ranch. Visitors can still experience the tranquility of The Giving Tree; they can still observe the same diving board where Macaulay Culkin pushed Michael into the pool in “Private Home Movies.”
But easily the most emotional-and perhaps biggest selling point of the home-is a small, square spot in the center of the studio dance floor, eternally lit by a single spotlight. It marks the scuff spots left by endless hours of diligent practice. On the wall, a video of Michael practicing to “Stranger in Moscow” in that very spot is kept on a loop. This is a spot that all potential buyers are brought to, as a reminder of what they would be purchasing; a reminder that the house does carry with it a legacy, and that the inheritance of that legacy will come along with its purchase. Of course, once the property is sold, all remnants of that legacy may remain or may be eradicated completely, depending on the whims of the new owners, but at the very least, I think it is an encouraging sign that Michael’s ownership and presence is being built up as a selling point for the property, rather than downplayed or dismissed. I think it increases the likelihood that the property could end up being purchased by a fan who respects the property as Michael Jackson’s former home. I can’t expect that a new owner would not wish to put their own stamp on the place, but I would be happy so long as I knew that Michael’s original vision for the property was still respected and maintained in some way, however great or small. That would indeed be the “best case” scenario (rumors of Prince, Paris and Blanket perhaps purchasing the property notwithstanding).
Of course, it stands to reason that it could well be more than just sentimentality that is prompting Coldwell Banker to retain as much of Michael Jackson’s presence as possible. There is also a very practical reason, as well. The additional amenities that Michael added to the property-including the 50 seat movie theater, dance studio, train station, stables, and guest cottages-have added substantially to the property’s total value. This is confirmed by the description given on Joyce Rey’s website, the Coldwell Banker realtor who is currently handling the property. The following paragraphs all allude directly to amenities only added to the property after Michael Jackson became owner:
Adjacent to the main home is a separate staff annex above the five-bay garage, with a ground-level estate manager’s office, which has a gas fireplace and bathroom. The property also includes separate staff facilities, a movie theater and dance studio, barns, and corrals.
The primary guest house, about 150 feet from the main house, consists of four units, each with a separate entrance, HVAC, and full bath. The hill house, with sweeping views, was used by William Bone during the construction and could now be used as guest or staff quarters.
In a separate building of approximately 5,500 square feet, there is a movie theater and dance studio. The spacious, 50-seat inclined cinema has theatre-grade projection and sound system, private viewing balcony, and a stage with trap doors.
A Disney-style train station has a kitchenette, loft, and two fireplaces. There is also an approximately 1,900 square foot private fire station and administration building with three restrooms and a shower.-Joyce Rey
I also find it interesting that the tag “formerly known as Neverland Ranch” is being used prominently in the property’s promotion. What this says is that they are still very much aware that the property’s former history remains its greatest selling asset.
As encouraging as these signs are, however, it still remains the greatest hope of most fans that the property could be converted into a Michael Jackson museum. I highly encourage everyone to read this excellent new piece from Annemarie Latour, “7 Reasons Why Michael Jackson’s Neverland Should Be A Museum.” This is not just another fan fantasy piece or sentimental fluff; it is a very enlightening piece that delves into the very realistic pros and cons of such a venture. But it is also a very poignant reminder of why such a place is so sorely needed. The absence of any true mecca is a void that Michael Jackson fans have felt keenly for the past eight years. True, we still have Hayvenhurst and we still have Michael’s childhood home in Gary, Indiana, and both have their respective place in Michael’s history. But neither of these homes were ever exclusively his (rather, they were the domain of the entire Jackson clan) and they do not represent the vision that was exclusively his. Only Neverland can provide that experience.
Latour’s article makes a good point (actually, several but this one stood out to me): After three years on the market, the property still remains unsold. That doesn’t mean it won’t sell eventually, of course. But it does say there must be something that is holding potential buyers back. Aside from the obvious fact that most people don’t just have 67 million dollars lying around to burn on real estate, perhaps there is a deeper reason. Stepping onto the grounds of Neverland now, even after twelve years, still feels like trespassing. Any potential owner has to know that, regardless of any changes or renovations made, they will be living with the ghost of Michael Jackson (and what’s more, all superstition aside, will inherit the legacy of the property as a fan gathering spot, something that won’t be easy to eradicate). I can almost imagine the ghost of Michael, mischievously interfering with every potential deal that “almost” goes through. Clearly, no matter who eventually buys Sycamore Valley Ranch, they will have only two options: Embrace its legacy as Neverland, or have a miserable life trying in vain to eradicate that legacy. I think by now, even its sellers have had to come to terms with the fact that what they are selling isn’t just another California ranch property. What they are selling is the home and soul of Michael Jackson, and any buyer-fan or not-will have to have some measure of peace with that idea.
The sad reality is that, ultimately, once the property is sold, its new owners can do with it whatever they want. They can tear down the train station; chop down The Giving Tree; demolish the dance studio to make room for an extra golf course, and there won’t be anything that fans can do other than to accept it and move on. However, that is only the most extreme end of the scale and it seems far more encouragingly likely that Neverland’s chances of being sold to a buyer who will at least respect its heritage is extremely good, given that its former owner and his contributions to the property’s value remains its biggest selling feature. The best case scenario is that it might be purchased by a very rich fan who will not only respect what the home meant to Michael Jackson and his original vision for the property, but would even be willing to open it up for occasional private or public tours-or, better yet, someone who would find a way to finally give us that museum! But, really, I have to say from a personal standpoint that it does not matter to me as long as whoever buys it is respectful to the property, takes care of it and cherishes it as did Michael. The ideal future owner of Neverland, as I see it, is a steward who will continue to respect the unique stamp that Michael Jackson left on this property, even as they convert it into a home that will invariably reflect their own lifestyle and values.
Most importantly, they must recognize the futility of competing against a ghost. Obviously, some things due to their sacred nature should remain untouched at Neverland. The Giving Tree should be left undisturbed, and only a complete and utter fool would wish to erase those scuff marks from the dance studio floor. But true stewardship of the property must extend beyond just Michael Jackson’s memory. We must also remember that hundreds of years before Michael Jackson called Neverland home, this was also the sacred ceremonial grounds of the Chumash Indians. This was already sanctified land centuries before Jackson purchased it. Therefore, respect for the land itself and conservation of the property’s natural resources should remain the top priority of any true steward.
It is probably the wisest approach that the realtors have chosen to embrace Michael Jackson’s seventeen year residency. After all, any attempt to downplay it would only be doomed to failure. Realtor tours of the property are conducted almost as guided tours inside a superstar’s home (indeed, that seems to be the reaction of many even if that is not the actual intent of the tours; I would imagine-unless there is a stringent vetting process- they get their fair share of the simply curious who just want to see the inside of Michael Jackson’s home). Prospective buyers know what they are getting, as well as all of the history-both famous and infamous-that comes with ownership of the property. I think it is, at the very least, an encouraging sign that if Michael Jackson’s stamp on the property is used as a selling point, it is a selling point that will likely continue to hold value for its future buyer.
Three years and counting, we are still waiting anxiously to see what this next chapter reveals.
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, bit 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.