I realized today that the best thing to come out of doing a Part Two to this post was that it gave me a convenient excuse to get to watch this amazing show yet one more time!
In Part 1, I was mentioning Smooth Criminal and the lack of the lean move. But what’s really amazing to note is that the performance is so flawlessly executed that the famous move isn’t really missed at all (just as I honestly cannot say I missed it in This Is It). This serves as an important reminder that all of Michael’s most iconic moves and dance routines were really just icing on the cake. They were the fancy trimmings; the razzle dazzle. But strip all of that away, and what you have is simply one of the most amazing performers of our time singing some of the most incredible songs of our time. The beauty of Michael is that he didn’t need gravity-defying moves to keep us spellbound. I am reminded of a conversation that I had with someone about the proposed This Is It shows. As per usual, the conversation boiled down to the inevitable questions: “Do you really think he could have done 50 shows?” and “What if he had failed to deliver?”
The thing you have to remember about Michael is that there is no way in hell he would have “failed to deliver.” My answer is one I still stand by. Michael could have come onstage as an old man at 70, and sat on a stool the entire time, and still no doubt deliver a performance more electrifying and mesmerizing that any performer half his age moving all over the stage. The bottom line is that either one has “it” or they don’t. Michael had “it” from the age of five. He didn’t need all the razzle dazzle.
But there’s no denying that when he added all of the special tricks, illusions, and gravity-defying dance moves, his performances became something not quite of this stratosphere. He transported us to another dimension. That was his magic quality, and it’s something very few performers have accomplished with quite the same finesse.
As I mentioned before, one of the most fascinating aspects of Wembley for me is seeing many of his performances in this state of transition. One thing very apparent is that he had become heavily influenced during this period by the art of miming. You can see the influence of this art on many of his dance routines here, especially at the close of Human Nature and the beginning of Dirty Diana. (Michael’s use of white accessories and props, such as the white tape often worn on his fingertips, and of course, the white socks, can also be traced back to his fascination with mimes, who often wear white in order to direct the eye to specific hand and feet gestures). There is also a touch of the old time silent performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, both of whom were masters of pathos and of pantomine art, and both of whom Michael admired greatly. At Wembley, as he was doing throughout the Bad tour, we can see him introducing more and more of these elements into his stage performances.
While I’m on Dirty Diana, I might as well get to this performance that is undeniably the centerpiece of this concert. I keep up fairly religiously with what MJ fans are saying, and time and time again-when the question has been asked which performance from Wembley is the favorite, or the best, Dirty Diana almost universally tops the list. I had to finally get the disc to see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Let me just put it this way. If the entire disc had consisted of nothing but this one performance alone, it would have still been worth every penny of the cover price. In fact, if this was the night Michael was on fire-well, this was the performance that put the smokin’ hot in that fire!
The appeal of Dirty Diana as a performance piece is due to a lot of factors. For starters, it’s one of Michael’s darkest, hardest edged, and sexiest songs, and that alone is enough to make it a fan favorite. It has all of the element of great drama, with its tale of a souless vixen and the man whose own soul becomes consumed by hers. But perhaps its simple rarity as a performance piece is what has partially generated so much hype around Wembley. The Bad tour would be the only tour to feature Dirty Diana as a routine part of the setlist. By the time of Dangerous, the number had been retired. Michael had planned to perform it for This Is It, but as we all know, that show never came to be and even the rehearsal footage that might have been was never filmed (it was the song Michael was due to rehearse on the day he died). Because the Bad tour was not as heavily documented as the Dangerous and HIStory tours (of which many, many performances are available on Youtube and as downloads) that meant less opportunity for those who weren’t there to experience what a live performance of Dirty Diana was like.
Also, part of the hype comes from the well publicized conversation that took place that night, just minutes before the show, between Michael and Princess Diana. Michael tells that famous story here:
The big question that has been on my mind-and I’m not alone here!-is what to believe? Michael said he had taken the song out of the show out of respect to her, and that it was “too late” to put it back in, despite Diana’s disappointment. So…was a last minute decision made to put it back in? The only other possibility is that this performance may come from one of his other Wembley performances that week, but the disc has been marketed and sold as “The Royal Performance” and from what I can tell, there are none of the obvious, telltale splices that would give this away as an “edited in” performance. It seems to be the real deal. But if so, it still leaves the big question: Was this performance just for “her” and might that explain the especial intensity that Michael put into it that night?
I wasn’t sure if the performance of Dirty Diana would live up to the hype, but then, from the moment Michael stepped out of that tent and into the spotlight, I knew this performance was going to be something special. While the rest of the show to that point had been entertaining-and at times mesmerizing-I knew from the first new notes of Dirty Diana that this performance was going to be the moment of transcendence.
The movie critic Leonard Maltin once said that whenever he sees a movie he knows he is going to love, there is always that one defining moment; that one scene from which he knows there is no turning back. For me, the equivalent of that would be the moment Michael steps behind the microphone at Wembley to sing Dirty Diana. This was the moment I truly realized I was watching more than just a really good Michael Jackson concert. I was witnessing something unique and inexplicably magical-a performance that would take 24 years to be shared with the rest of the world.
And while I am on the topic of Dirty Diana, this performance is interesting for another reason as well. It provides a great opportunity to really see the interplay between Michael and Jennifer Batten, as they share the stage alone-just the two of them-throughout much of the song. There is a moment, right about the 1:04:13 mark into the song (2:47 in the video clip above) when Michael does his spin and drops to his knees as the music slows to a brooding tempo. Jennifer freezes into a slight dip, then as Michael is rising behind the microphone stand as in a kneeling prayer position, Jennifer walks behind him. It’s supposed to be a very serious moment, but just as she is passing behind him, she reaches out and teasingly strokes the back of his hair. This was one of those rare, little moments-totally impromptu and unrehearsed-that makes Wembley such a delight.
But with so much focus on Dirty Diana, let’s not forget the rest of the show! Dirty Diana is immediatly followed up by Thriller, and…here is perhaps one of the best surpises and delights of all! While Thriller is certainly one of Michael’s most entertaining set pieces, I wouldn’t exactly ever call it one of his “sexy” numbers. After all, Thriller is all about choreographed zombies and ghouls stomping around, right? Wrong! At least, wrong here, for this is hands down one of the SEXIEST Thriller performances I have ever seen from Michael! Don’t believe me? Just watch at 1:09 when he rips off the wolf mask and struts his stuff! That expression; those pouts, those solar plexus moves perfectly synched (“you hear the door slam”…bam!), all while strutting the stage like that proverbial “beast about to strike.” Well, you’ll have to tune in here in a few days to catch my Halloween post on the deconstruction of Thriller, but let’s just say this was the most fun I’ve had watching Thriller since This Is It offered up the delightful surprise twist of Threatened at the end.
What follows is yet another extrememly rare treat. As Michael disappears for an extended costume change, the band takes over for a lengthy jam session. We would never again see this kind of extended, impromptu interplay between Michael’s backup musicians, as future concerts became increasingly Michael-centric. Even during the extended costume changes, future concert goers would instead be shown video clips such as the Panther Dance sequence of Black or White in order to fill the void between numbers. Now, while I enjoy watching Michael’s great video clips as much as anyone, I have to say this jam session really got my blood pumping! It is good to be reminded that the magic of a Michael Jackson concert wasn’t just all about Michael, but was instead a collaborative effort that relied on the unique talents of many, including the best backup dancers, singers, and musicians. This segment gives them a “time to shine” (to borrow one of Michael’s own phrases).
This is followed by the intensely high octane Working Day and Night (though I’m not crazy about the Elvis-esque looking outfit he chose for that number) but anyway, while WDAN is a lot of fun, I’m going to skip ahead to Beat It. Just as with Thriller, there is an attitude; a kind of of intense eroticism, if you will-that Michael brings to this performance, giving it a fresh edge. Even though I am always one to say how much I love mature Michael, when I see performances like this it is a reminder that no one could top Michael when he had the advantage of youth on his side. While his performances of these numbers may have remained consistent, it is, in fact, that youthful swagger that makes them so intense here. But perhaps something else, too. These songs were still fresh to Michael, and he still believed in them. When he sang the words, you could tell he still believed intensely in the message behind them. He was still having fun with them. As I said, it’s not that the performances of Beat It and other numbers would become any less consistent as the years wore on, but they did seem at times to become much more rote. That is part of the appeal of Wembley, for it gives those fans such as myself (who have more or less worked our way backwards, starting our appreciation with the later shows and working back to discover the earlier performances) an opportunity to see the youthful energy of Michael Jackson encapsulated. “Ho!” never sounded quite so menacing.
Sadly, perhaps, it also serves as a reminder of the intense pressure Michael was under as he prepared for the 02 shows, knowing people would expect him to be able to do at 50 what he had done here, at 29. But I’ve always believed that the pure enegy and freshness of those shows would have galvanized him. Still, even if they had not, we have to allow the man some slack. He was fifty years old, returning to the stage for the first time in nearly a decade. But if This Is It remains the ultimate glimpse of What Might Have Been, Wembley stands as an important record of What Was. And an even greater appreciation of the enormity of what was lost.
Just a couple of more performances to comment on: Billie Jean, by this point, had pretty much evolved into the routine that Michael would perform consistently for the rest of his career, with perhaps the only exception being that he hadn’t yet introduced the shaving case routine or the element of pathos he would bring to it later. At its core, Billie Jean was a routine that varied little from Michael’s original, legendary Motown 25 performance, the only difference being that he would later add a very extended improv segment where he dances only to the beat of the drum (and which is already fully in place by the time of the Bad tour). Watch these segments of Billie Jean closely, because even though they may look the same, Michael never performed them exactly the same way twice! What especially impressed me about this Wembley performance was the smoothness of his side moonwalk, a step that is, if anything, even more technically challenging to execute than his more famous backwards moonwalk step. I have never seen Michael give a bad performance of Billie Jean, but I have definitely seen some performances that were more “on” than others.
This performance isn’t “the” best but definitely ranks in the top five. As always, he is simply electrifying to watch. And as always, there is a point where one almost wonders if he has ceased to be human, for when Michael dances-and when he is truly in his element-he seems to become something not quite of this world.
The high energy continues into Bad (another treat as this was also a song that would be retired from live performances after the Bad tour). But while the entire song is great, this is really worth watching for the fun interplay between Michael and the musicians as the song closes out. Michael was never more adorable (and yes, I’m an unashamed fan girl so I can get away with saying that!), whether it is doing a surprise two-step with Sheryl Crow, or even some good natured homoerotic play with keyboardist Greg Phillinganes (and I will quote for you guys what my husband said to me after watching that little exchange-“He’s definitely not gay!” Indeed, only a guy super confident in his own sexuality would have ever allowed that little exchange).
The fun continues with a group of kids who join Michael onstage, including one youngster whom Michael pretends to be irate with when the kid very nearly upstages him (but it’s all in good fun!).
Lastly, Man In The Mirror is as powerful as always. But to reiterate what I have been saying throughout the entire review, everything about Michael seemed to have an especially intense aura that night. As he enters the song’s fade out, and spreads his arms, gazing upward (a gesture that became a kind of prayer or invocation for him) the moment is extended for so long that it almost begins to feel a little surreal, even a bit scary. I watched that moment again tonight, and it seemed as if whatever energy he was drawing at that moment could be palpably felt, even through the monitor screen and across the 24 years that physically separated myself from him at that moment. And yet, I felt it, as real as if I was standing right in front of him.
Michael’s power; his ability to channel whatever that divine energy was that coursed through him and gave vent in his performances, was truly something incredible indeed. And, just for a moment near the close of Wembley-if you allow yourself the moment-you can feel it with him.
Perhaps that was what his open arm stance was really all about. In that moment, he was doing more than just receiving the energy that fed him. He was giving it back, a thousandfold.
So has Wembley replaced Live at Bucharest as my all time favorite Michael Jackson concert? That’s one I will still have to give some thought to. But for sure, this is a disc to be treasured by all fans. We have now, captured forever, our Michael at the height of one of his most fondly remembered eras.
It’s a reminder that even as much as I love mature Michael, there is still something about youthful Michael that can’t be argued. His power as a performer never diminished, but man, oh man, that strut, that attitude, that sheer in-your-face energy…this was Michael in his prime.
And Wembley has captured it. Gloriously.