One of the perks of having this blog is that I get asked to review a lot of stuff-books, films, and so forth. Awhile back, I was contacted by a film company in Atlanta, who have put together a documentary series on Michael, “The Love You Save,” After viewing the film and coming to the conclusion that I could not give it an absolutely positive review, in light of some of the film’s content, I wrote them back to say as much. I felt it was only fair to give them warning, since after all, they did contact me. I really didn’t expect to hear anything back. However, much to my surprise, I received a very genial response that expressed genuine interest in some of the points I raised. They assured me that not only did they want me to run my review, warts and all, but that they would love to interview me for a future installment to counter some of the inaccuracies and views expressed here! That sounded like a fair offer, and since I will be in the Atlanta area at the end of the month, I said I would be happy to do it.
But first, some things to keep in mind about this documentary: It is a small and independent “labor of love” project. They do not have a huge budget to work with, nor do they have the endorsement of the estate. That automatically means there will be much that is missing-namely, Michael’s music, for starters. And we have seen from past endeavors of this sort how difficult it is to truly do justice to Michael Jackson when the one most important element of all is missing-the music that made him so great in the first place. It is the very thing that kept other projects of this type, such as David Gest’s ambitious “Life of an Icon” from being as enjoyable as they might have been. In this case, the producers do an admirable job of getting around that troublesome issue for the most part, but like the proverbial white elephant in the room, the viewer is always acutely aware of this lacking. That isn’t to say there isn’t any music at all. Like the spirit of Michael itself, the music is all around, and still manages to become an ethereal presence throughout, whether it is being sung by fans, or given to impromptu chants by street kids. And so in its own way, even without estate permission to use the actual recordings, it still manages to give us the perfect feel of just how magical and timeless Michael’s music is, and perhaps in a much more intimate way than we might have gotten with the use of the actual recordings. And, in the absence of the music, we often get something else that is just as valuable-Michael’s own words, taken from various interviews and public speeches, inserted at pivotal moments to provide the insight that only his own words can provide.
However, the fact that this is a project being done mostly at local level, on a low budget, means that we won’t be getting a lot of high profile celebrity interviews from people who actually knew Michael or worked with him. That, too, is a much needed ingredient that simply isn’t there. The producers do an admirable job of attempting to fill that gap with fan interviews, archival footage that isn’t owned by the estate, and interviews with various analysts and psychologists who attempt to “deconstruct” the Michael Jackson myth. The film’s promotional blurb reads:
Michael Jackson was locked in a cage his whole life. He held the key to escape but never knew how. This underground documentary deconstructs the complex psychological and emotional profile of a poor African-American kid from Indiana who became a music pop icon in an era when race mattered most.
Therein for me, however, lies part of the problem, and I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this. Read that blurb closely again. Yes. Somehow these words-“psychological,” “emotional,” etc- always become closely linked to anything about Michael Jackson, even too often, projects like this that are intended to be positive. It really begs the question: Why must it be necessary to approach every analysis of Michael as if he is a subject in need of being poked and prodded from a psychoanalytical perspective? I “get” that Michael was a complex human being, and I understand that part of the modus operandi here is to deconstruct some of the tabloid myths. But the problem I found, far too often, is that the documentary often feeds into those myths as much as dispelling them, and in the end, viewers are really left with no clearer idea of who Michael Jackson was at the end than at the beginning. The interviews with the so-called psychological “experts” do nothing to clear these issues. Like so many of their ilk, from Dr. Drew to Dr. Phil, they can do no more than offer up opinions about a man they never even met; for whom they never even sat down and had a conversation. Like so many, they have formed an opinion based on tabloid caricature or perhaps a few hastily read books from less than stellar sources. When their own knowledge of Michael Jackson is so obviously limited-the average fan will know far more than they do-it really begs the question of why they should be given a platform to offer half-baked theories of who Michael was or the forces that motivated him. At least with people like Schmuley Boteach, we know they knew Michael intimately enough to have an informed opinion. That isn’t the case here. And, too often, the constant need to offer up some kind of psychoanalysis of Michael Jackson, often at the expense of in-depth discussions of his art, only plays into the already tired and cliched’ narrative of Michael Jackson the Genius who Nevertheless Was One Screwed-Up Individual. The problem is that even when such approaches are intended to be sympathetic, they really offer nothing that is revelatory or that hasn’t already been hashed out a million times before. I think it is time for a new approach, one in which the complexities of his artistic genius can be discussed on equal terms with his complexities as a human being. Yes, we may surmise that anyone who has been raised from the age of five in the spotlight’s glare may have “issues.” Michael himself was forthright in telling us the damage that comes to children who are forced to take on adult responsibilities too soon. But the “damaged child” trope is already a well worn one, and there simply isn’t enough new insight brought to the topic here to warrant its inclusion. If any of those people would but pick up a copy of Dancing The Dream, or would but take the time to closely listen to the Dangerous and HIStory albums, they might be surprised to learn that Michael was already quite adept at self-analysis. Through his own art-often quite brutally and honestly-he had long ago stripped away most of the masks and illusions, and had allowed us to see him in all of his naked vulnerability. I guess I have simply become rather blase’ about the whole topic, but I am much more interested these days in how Michael’s own self analysis helped to create and inspire his art. For those who still find some lingering romanticism in the story of “Michael Jackson, Tragic Hero” perhaps they will find something of interest here. But for me, there’s just not enough that is new, and for others, it will still leave many of the most burning questions lingering uncomfortably.
The first episode begins mostly as a grassroots tribute to Michael, comprised of various street interviews with fans, shots of various memorials that sprang up in the aftermath of his death. and footage of the Carolwood house. This segment is interesting, even if we aren’t really seeing anything that hasn’t been done in other similarly formatted documentaries such as “The Way He Made Us Feel.” However, this film gives us a broad spectrum of fan reactions, and some are quite revealing in their own way, such as the James Brown lookalike in Episode 1 who says he wishes he had known Michael because if he could have been a friend to him, “I think he’d still be here.” The comment is touching, but raises another interesting question about the psychology of fandom (which may, also, have been part of the producers’ intent). There are so many of us, like this gentleman, who seem to feel that we could have somehow “saved” Michael, by being that one, true friend we often imagine he never had (this, too, is part of the romantic trope that clings to Michael’s “tragic” image, as a kind of sacrificial lamb who never had one, true friend he could trust). It is mostly myth, of course. In reality, Michael did have many close friends who remained loyal to him to the end, but then, we have also seen how many of them, over time, showed their true colors, whether in his lifetime or afterward. So while it may be in part a myth, it is not a myth totally without merit.
In the most touching segment of Episode 1, a child reads an autobiographical narrative of Michael for a school project. His report, spoken from Michael’s perspective, begins with a boy who is born poor in Gary, Indiana but later buys a place called Neverland that is made into an amusement park and consists of almost three thousand acres. This essentially becomes the theme of Episode 1, and like the story of Elvis Presley-who went from poverty in Tupelo, Mississippi to the wealth of Graceland-it is a story deeply woven into the American fabric; the classic tale of The American Dream. However, we know that for both Elvis and Michael, achieving “The American Dream” didn’t bring with it automatic fulfillment. For Michael, especially, it would become a kind of hollow victory, for unlike Elvis he had yet another hurdle to overcome-racism. This is a topic I really would have liked to have seen the film explore in more depth. Perhaps instead of two more caucasion psychoanalysts attempting to deconstruct Michael’s psyche from their perspective of white privilege, we could use more African-American expertise on what happens to a black child blessed with enormous talent when he learns that everything he accomplishes is going to have to be “in spite of” having been born in his skin.
For me, the documentary’s main strength is in exploring fan reactions and the “cult of celebrity.” Where it is lacking is when it attempts to explore more controversial aspects without providing the much needed contexts. Yes, we know if you interview enough random people on the streets, you are bound to get a mixture of reactions, both positive and negative. There will be some, as shown here, who still have ambivalent opinions about the allegations and other issues. I have no personal qualms with acknowledging that there is, indeed, a whole other side to the Michael Jackson mythos, including those who have doubts. What I find more problematic, however, is in giving a platform to these views without offering anything substantial either in the way of context or refutation. The problem, of course, is that these people being randomly interviewed on the streets can’t be expected to have those answers. They obviously only know what they have seen reported in the media; they don’t know any factual information about the cases. If those issues are going to be raised; if they are going to be alluded to in any way, then they should at least be followed up with a rebuttal by a knowledgable individual on those accusations. But too often in this film, these controversial issues are raised and the uncomfortable fallout simply left to settle as it may. Perhaps that was part of the intent, but if so, it would seem to defeat the film’s overall purpose of gaining further insight into either who Michael was, or the forces he had to swim against. In other words, if the viewer is still left with a bigger question mark than before, then one might ask, What’s the point?
Overall, my biggest impression is that the film is uneven. There are moments of very insightful commentary (the man from Zambia interviewed in Episode 2, for example) who provide much needed insight into what Michael Jackson means to his fans of the world. But then, too often, these jewel moments are followed up by glaring inaccuracies that form a distorted picture. I was especially enraged at the segment where a woman, also from Zambia, goes on and on in an uninterrupted interview for several minutes espousing her views on why Michael “didn’t want to be black.” This was problematic for me because the interview was conducted in 2010, a full year after Michael’s autopsy was made public, confirming that he did have the skin disease vitiligo. It’s even more puzzling that the producers not only allow her views to stand unchecked, without rebuttal or the offering of counter information, but never even mention that he had vitiligo (even more puzzling, the complete omission even of the claim of vitiligo, which was so often cruelly referred to in the media as Michael’s “alleged” skin disease”). I don’t think his vitiligo is even mentioned until, in a much later episode, a fan being interviewed casually mentions it. But for viewers who may catch only this isolated episode, they may form the opinion (especially since the interviewee appears reasonably informed and assured of her views) that hers is the correct view. So again, a controversial issue is merely raised, with no real attempt to address the issue or counter it. However, this is an ongoing series, so perhaps those issues will be addressed in upcoming episodes. I certainly hope so, At any rate, they have demonstrated a fair willingness to allow counter perspectives, so we’ll see.
Overall, I found the general structure and chronology of the series a bit confusing, too. There does not seem to be a real narrative focus, and I’m not sure if this is intentional, but it’s a quality I usually expect from documentaries. Rather, it seems to drift rather haphazardly from point to point, while the viewer may be left unsure how a current interview fits into the overall context, or even what that current context is supposed to be. At times, it seems as though it is trying to be too all-inclusive, and that may be part of the problem. The scope of Michael Jackson’s life, career, musical impact, and social impact is simply too vast to be adequately covered in one project, and it means that no matter how you slice it, all are apt to get short changed in the process. This, too, was an issue with David Gest’s “Life of an Icon,” which became a bit unwieldy at times, but to his credit, Gest managed to maintain a strong narrative focus throughout that held the entire, two and a half hour project together. “The Love You Save,” however, feels very disjointed at times, with no real sense of thematic connection.
There is, of course, much to commend here and I do feel it is a genuine product of love made by people who want to shed some light on the Michael Jackson mystique, while maintaining a balanced perspective. And there is something to be said for its very genuine, grassroots approach. The main problem may be that, for diehard fans, there isn’t going to be enough here that is new to them, and for those with only a casual and passing interest, there simply aren’t enough of the tough questions that are truly explored or, more to the point, satisfactorily answered. This is the same conundrum that has so often plagued many well-intended, but ultimately misguided, projects on Michael Jackson. However, what it does offer-and where its strength lies-is in the obvious sincere devotion of the fans as expressed in those street interviews, showing a microcosmic view of just how Michael and his music impacted so many lives. I also like how they compared and contrasted the street views from 2004 (at the height of the Arvizo scandal) with those of today. These provide an interesting glimpse of how the public view and perception of Michael Jackson shifted from 2004 to 2009 and beyond, and help to serve an important historical function in the study of how public perceptions of celebrity can be shaped by the media and how those perceptions can be altered over time, especially as the media itself continues to evolve. Also, the fan views are interesting because they are not one sided, but rather, run the gamut from the truly zealous to the bitter rants against the media, America’s racism, and the hypocrisy of those who ragged him in life only to embrace him in death.
I will certainly look forward to the opportunity to add my own views to this series, and judging from the response I received, I believe the producers really wanted to put the word out on this series and to get feedback from the fan community. This is, after all, still a work in progress and I believe they are sincere in wanting our input, so please, by all means, let them know what you think.
Here is the link to the first episode; from there, you can access the rest of the episodes.