Review of New Jackson Doc Series: "The Love You Save"

frontOne 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 albumsthey 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 film's strength is in the voices of the fans
The film’s strength is in its objectification of the fandom.

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.

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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.

16 thoughts on “Review of New Jackson Doc Series: "The Love You Save"”

  1. The best things is to tell them to scrap the project for the way I see it being viewed by you, it really doesn’t bring any difference to the table then the hundreds of books, docus etc. are already out there. This doesn’t sound good and I’ll be highly vexed if it was to show the way it stands right now. I do not know who these people are, whether they are true MJ Fans or just some more people that just want to bring out something they feel might sell. I am tired like you hearing about the “Analysing Psychological Aspects of Michael Jackson” when really and truly all of them are missing the goddamn point. MJ didn’t have a problem, it was them, the public and all those that ridiculed him that had the problems. If the people who keep attempting to write or make a docu of MJ cannot see that, or even put themselves in his shoes, labelled as a public freak, then it is no surprise that MJ isolated himself from giving any interviews etc. etc., especially after Oprah, its a goddamn normal reaction, cause at the end he must have told himself whats the point! I do not find his childlike and youthful attitude strange, but rather ask myself the question, is it not US the Rest that are strange by thinking that when we become adults – everything stops! I wish we all would live and continue to have fun like kids, how great live could be. I don’t know I rather not have anybody right now making any other documentaries about MJ – nobody seems to get it right! Thanks for the review

  2. Raven, thank you for your very detailed, thorough review of this documentary. I agree with Elke. It needs so much reworking, is it worth the effort they can afford to put into it? It is very confusing and there are a multitude of themes that don’t go far enough to give the viewer something to ponder. I’ve seen YouTube videos that were so much better: brought tears to my eyes, anger and frustration to my heart, and that led me to do more research for the truth about various aspects of his life and person. This “documentary” just left me shaking my head and trying to figure out why they bothered. I might be sounding a bit paranoid, but a question came up in my mind as to whether this isn’t actually being produced by certain forces who continue to try to keep Michael’s legacy in the dumpster, at least for Michael Jackson non-fans, and they threw in a little bit of good stuff to throw us off.

    1. I don’t believe they were approaching the project with bad intent; I believe the “intent” was to look at the phenomenon of Michael Jackson from many angles. However, like you, there were things I found very off-putting, such as when they interview the guy on the street about the allegations and then immediately cut to the psychologist who says that for a grown man like Michael to be exhibiting such a childlike persona, “there had to be something dark in there.” It is very obvious at that point that they are using splice editing to coincide her comment with that conversation, when the reality was that this was obviously part of a much longer, more in-depth interview in which her comment was obviously being taken out of context. That kind of manipulative editing smacks too much of Bashir. Also, as I said, the very long, uninterrupted interview segment with the woman who was going into all the reasons Michael didn’t want to be black (without once ever mentioning his skin disease) really bothered me. Those views ARE countered much later in the series, but my concern is that for some uninformed viewers, that may be too little, too late. Her segment comes fairly early in the piece, and is given a sizeable chunk of time. Granted, I would not have an issue with allowing this woman to express her views (we know there are still some Africans and African-Americans who feel this way about him, unfortunately) if they had been presented as part of a larger context in which all sides of the debate and other, counter views were given equal weight. How about interviewing an expert on vitiligo on how the disease impacts a person’s life and appearance? How about an in-depth discussion of “They Don’t Care About Us” or the “Black or White” film (but then, there is the issue of not being able to actually use the material, although I’m sure there could be creative ways to get around that hurdle). This is why I said the doc really needs a stronger narrative focus. They could have each episode dedicated to an isolated subject, like “Race” for example, and then use the duration of that episode to explore the subject in-depth, from many facets. I just found the overall structure very confusing. For example, that woman’s interview comes in a very early episode, and it isn’t until several episodes later that we get a very compelling interview from a man who discusses Michael’s struggles in dealing with racism in the industry and vitiligo. Again, it would really help to have those interviews grouped together so that they form a kind of continuity.

      I think their biggest hurdle overall, however, is that there just isn’t enough here that is going to appeal to either fans or those with a more neutral stance. The “interviewing fans in the street” thing has already been done to death. But again, if the purpose and intent is to look at the devotion of fandom and celebrity, that could be interesting in its own right for a documentary. But that doesn’t seem to be the angle, only a part of it. Exploring the sensationalism of such topics as plastic surgery, whether he did or didn’t want to be black, and dredging up the allegations in a way that’s meant to raise more questions than answers won’t appeal to fans, who are tired of these topics, and don’t bring enough that is new to the table to be of interest to anyone else.

      The sad part is that there ARE, occasionally, some really insightful interviews from intelligent and knowledgeable fans. I was very interested in what the young man from Zimbia had to say, for example, and there are other very good interviews that come much later in the series. I just wish we had more of them, and that they weren’t so scattered throughout.

  3. Raven, I’m confused. I’ve never heard of anyone submitting a work-in-progress for a “review”. It sounds like they’re asking you to do a big chunk of their work for them. Anyone can plunk a camera in front of random folks and let them run off at the mouth about Michael. It’s the filmmakers’ job to present a coherent point of view. It seems they lack confidence and skill.

    1. I assumed it to be a work-in-progress when they asked if I would be willing to do an interview for a future segment. That means it would have to be still ongoing; also, it looks as though they are continuing to add new episodes. I certainly don’t mind doing the interview IF my input can help correct some of the inaccuracies here or balance the other views being presented. However, the more I think about it, I do have valid concerns about how my words could be edited (like they did to the psychologist when they spliced her comment about “something dark in there” after the street conversation about the allegations). I agree it needs a more coherent point of view, and it isn’t my place to tell them what that point of view should be. All I can do is review it and, if they want my input, I can do that, but they will have to figure out on their own what they really want it to be. But if they’re looking for fan input, I’m sure this review and thread are already giving them a pretty good idea of how fans feel.

      Like Michael, I try to see the good in most people. I tend to take the view that if someone is trying to do something in Michael’s name with good intentions, I don’t want to totally trash their efforts. I would rather offer encouragement in how to do it right. It “could” all come down to lack of confidence and skill; then again, maybe they are genuine in wanting the input of fans to help shape the final product. Letting them know what fans definitely do and do not want, as well as giving them a clear indication of what fans already know and don’t need more of, is a good place to start-if, indeed, the fans are the target audience (but, frankly, I’m not sure they are, and therein, for me, lies part of the confusion).

  4. You dont have to be a fan to make an indepth , honest , documentary of Michael Jackson . You have to be interested in the man and artist , a skilled biograper/ documentalist , take a fresh approach or a new angle and take time for indepth study. Why indeed not from a black perspective, that would be something new.
    Good intentions and ‘a work of love ‘is really not enough to document an artist of Michaels stature.
    Bob Marley . Amy Whineouse and Kurt Cobain have great documentaries /biographies why not Michael.
    Who is really in need of the next fans or man in the streets opinon about Michael Jackson next to the barrage we already get on social media.
    If this summarizes what the documentary is about I will pass.

    “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”

    I am glad that they contacted you Raven ,they could have contacted someone less knowledgeable or worse !! I hope they take your advice.

  5. I will pass on this one. About had it with psychoanalysis by folks who didn’t know him, never had conversation with him and yet examine and diagnosis his psyche from afar. Based on your input and review, Raven, I hope they take your suggestions which are, as always, balanced and fair.

  6. The trouble is, if only projects that pleased everyone went ahead then nothing about MJ would ever be made.

    Michael, his life and work are such controversial subjects, and the fanbase has such strongly held views, that even the most well-intentioned, carefully put-together works end up being very divisive.

    I’m just happy that you, Raven, will hopefully get involved and provide some input in your usual informed and eloquent way.

  7. Hi Raven

    I am very glad that these people have contacted you, but do wish they had done so before putting out anything – feels a bit like closing the stable door once the horse has bolted!! but I suppose better late than never.

    I haven’t watched any of it so can’t legitimately comment on it , but my mind goes to the other doccie The Trial of Michael Jackson in which I was very disappointed, as seemingly in this one, there was very little of Michael himself. I did enjoy the David Gest one as at least he interviewed people who were close to Michael in some way The best one for my money was the Spike Lee one on BAD and I am very keen for the Off The Wall one to come out. Spike is dealing with the music in documentary form, rather like Joe Vogel does it in book form in Man In The Mirror – both jobs very well done indeed

    I really believe that we know pretty much all there is to know about Michael’s life now if we care to look, and I don’t think another fan documentary is going to cut it somehow. There is enough info on the internet for serious “sleuths” as Willa and Nina called us in their Dancing With The Elephant blog recently to find out as much of the truth as we can. I am not particularly interested in what other fans think of Michael 6 years after his death, and certainly not in people continuing to print errors about him and psychoanalyse him – no point in that. Rather let’s deal with his legacy of music and his art – that would be much more interesting and will I feel in the end negate a lot of the rubbish put out up until now.

  8. I totally agree with Caro, and want to add that we should focus equally on his efforts to promote peace on our planet and toward all the time and effort he gave to improving the quality of life for the most vulnerable of our earthly citizens, our children. If all pro MJ writers, bloggers, film-makers, and fans alike focused on his artistic genius and humanitarian efforts, we could “blitz” away most of the trash still lingering in the media.

  9. Thanks Raven for this in-depth review, and for being willing to have a conversation with the folks who made it. It does seem to me that it would be good to work on trust-building with them. In other words, maybe go and talk with them off the record, to get a sense of what their intentions were and why they messed up the way they did. If that goes well, perhaps you could offer guidance on how to use material they collect, and who else they might interview.

    Michael’s life and work and impact was pretty complex, so it’s inevitable mistakes will be made. But they fumbled some basic stuff, so if they don’t demonstrate a big desire to get it right, I’d pass on that interview.

    By the way, I loved your review of the HIStory albums that just appeared at https://www.academia.edu/16633338/Michael_Jacksons_HIStory_and_The_Art_of_Musical_Autobiography. It was excellent!

  10. I agree with Raven about giving credit where it’s due; and they are trying.

    I’m not so sure they messed up or fumbled, so much as their idea lacks development—as yet. As a few have remarked here, they seem to lack a focus, or a *thesis*.

    I’ve only seen the first part, so I can’t speak for the rest of the project. But even in the short segment, I saw a number of choices they were making with both camera and editing that might have been better, even with budgetary constraints. If they were my students, I might be able to help them conceptualize their project.

    The creative art of documentary filmmaking works a little bit differently than composing a polemic, or message, using the written word alone. For one thing, documentary makers must find a way to “translate” their ideas—which usually arrive in verbal form—to a language specific bit of images and sound.

    I’ve been making films and teaching filmmaking (including documentary and other forms of nonfiction) for a lot of years, and it’s a *very* complex undertaking in itself. Beyond purely informational concerns, it should *look* good; and a project like this ought to have a smooth, logical flow from one subtopic (or event) to the next. I was almost tempted to volunteer to help them, but…..

    1. But? I’d love it if you would Nina, you’d be perfect for the job. And I can’t even imagine how much work would be involved. Probably just a ton or two : ) Is that your hesitation?

  11. Yes, Keely, I’m afraid so, lol! Depending upon what level of involvement would be needed, I’d ask to be paid for my time. There’s also the question of artistic differences.

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