I just watched the premiere of the Lifetime biopic Searching For Neverland and am rushing this review out while the film is still fresh on my mind. First of all, I’ll just acknowledge that I know this review isn’t going to please everyone, as a goodly percentage of the fan base was already gunning for this film from the start. However, despite some reservations, I said I would give it a fair viewing before jumping the gun to condemn it. I am glad I approached it with an open mind.
Here is really the bottom line: One’s reaction to this film is inevitably going to be based on how one felt about its source material, the book Remember The Time by former bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. Fan reception of the book was every bit as polarizing as any MJ project that gets released. Some praised it as a positive account of Michael’s final two years, revealing his struggles to provide a normal life for his three children despite mounting financial issues and the fallout from the molestation trial. Others condemned it as a violation of the very trust that Michael had placed in them.
I gave the book a fairly positive review back in 2014. I suppose given that I was one of those more charitably predisposed to the book, it may explain why I was willing to give a bit more benefit of the doubt to this movie. Let’s just say, if you were one of those who liked Remember The Time, you’ll probably love Searching For Neverland. The movie is pretty much simply a faithful, condensed version of the book. Which also means if you were one of those who disliked the book, it will no doubt color how you view this film. but if we put that aside and just view the film on its own merits, I found it refreshingly sweet and endearing in its portrayal of Michael as a family man struggling to keep together the most important thing to him-his life with his children. Sure, the eccentricities are there, but this was not one of those condescending portrayals intended to make him look one dimensional, naive, or mentally challenged. (Indeed, the few eccentricities will be familiar ground to anyone who routinely watches celebrity biopics; Michael does not come across as worsted for them ). For once, I think a genuine effort was made to portray Michael in all his human complexities, which is at least a big step in the right direction. The worst thing for me was Navi’s accent, which was frankly terrible, but overall, his performance was surprisingly nuanced. I think he did a good job, certainly exceeding my expectations. Despite what some reviewers have said, he is not a “dead ringer” for Michael Jackson, but his performance was believable and earnest enough to transcend those concerns (and, in fact, in some segments such as the Ebony photo shoot, he managed to perfectly capture the sizzling sex appeal of mature era Michael. Refreshingly, this was one of the few portrayals in which we actually are able to see what the fans always knew-that this was still a sizzizingly sexy and vibrant man, not the media portrayed “freak”-and, yes, we even get the scene of the “backseat date”). In another refreshing twist, this was the first film I have seen to successfully capture both the wonder and enchantment of Michael’s world view without the kind of patronizing condescension of so many projects. Despite the title, there is no pixie dust and no childishly naive pleas to everyone around him to “just believe.” What we do have is a realistic depiction of a man who once truly believed he could create magic, but has become worn down by a world that has turned its back on him. This is the story of a father who simply wants to find a home again, both for himself and his children.
By far the biggest complaint, one leveled at both the book and film (and an irony not lost on most reviewers) is that the film is still, nevertheless, an exploitation of a man whose last years were already the stuff of exploitation. Certainly there is something to be said for those arguments. However, perhaps it is my own journalistic background, but I tend to take a more tolerant and long sighted view of these things. Michael Jackson was a public figure, and even his personal life has become public property. The simple fact is that, while fans may know and cherish the knowledge of this Michael Jackson-the devoted father who strove to give his kids an ordinary life amidst the most extraordinary circumstances possible-it is still a side of him that many do not know, and haven’t bothered to know. If even a fraction of those bothered to tune in tonight, they will have met a very different man from the “Wacko Jacko” they thought they knew. And if the film at the very least accomplishes that goal, it is a worthy endeavor. I’m not going to necessarily subscribe to the school that insists every single project made about Michael Jackson is some sort of gross exploitation. Most are, but for every fifty films that are trash, there is always going to be at least one that deserves a fair chance to be seen and heard.
As I had mentioned back when I first reviewed Remember The Time, the one thing that really struck me the most was how they captured the claustrophobic sense of how small Michael’s world had become at that point, a world consisting mostly of himself, his kids, nanny Grace, and the bodyguards. There have only been two books that have successfully shed light on what those last two years were like for Michael and his kids, the other being Dr. Karen Moriarty’s Defending A King: His Life and Legacy (which also originated from Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard as sources). Not surprisingly, this is also a central narrative of the film, and even though it doesn’t dwell on any of the real controversies that created these circumstances, it successfully conveys the pathos of a wildly famous father, his life now tainted by scandal, who is struggling to keep life for his children as safe, secure, and filled with love as possible. The bottom line is that, as much as we may wish to respect Michael’s bid for privacy from a human perspective, his life-both public and private-has long since passed into the realm of public domain. We live in a celebrity dominated culture, where interest in the private lives of public figures continues to be a billion dollar industry, and where the proliferation of biographies, biopics and “tell all” memoirs are a permanent fixture of our culture. For better or worse, future journalists, historians, bloggers, scholars and, yes, filmmakers, will be telling his story. In this case, at least some genuine and heartfelt effort was made to get it right, even if they may have failed on one or two minor fronts.
Of course, this was not so much Michael’s story as it is Bill Whitfield’s (and to a lesser extent, Javon Beard’s). Like most celebrity memoirs told from the perspective of another party (be it friend, former employee, lover, etc) we already understand that it is going to be filtered through the lenses of that individual’s perception. That is the nature of memoir, for better or worse. In Michael’s case, almost everyone who ever came into contact with him-for all of five minutes-has claimed at some point to have been his closest confidante. Whitfield and Beard are no exceptions. However, as a narrative frame device, it holds the film together well, and Chad Coleman (familiar to Walking Dead fans as Tyrese) gives a compelling performance as Whitfield, a man torn between his obligations to his own family and the surrogate family he has come to love.
There are some controversial aspects, however, although it’s not anything that anyone already familiar with the book won’t know. The worst, and I suppose the one still most difficult to grapple with, is when we see Michael obliviously piling a shopping cart with Christmas gifts for his own kids while supposedly knowing that the body guards had not been paid in months and were not even able to buy gifts for their own kids. But even here, it is not so much an attempt to portray Michael as selfish or disconnected from reality; instead, it is further evidence of just how little control Michael had by that point over his own finances, and indeed even his own life. (As in the book, Raymone Bain is quite villified). Scenes like this are not intended so much to belittle as to humanize, and I liked that the film seemed at least capable of walking that tightrope without tripping to the extremes of either condescension on the one hand, or mindless sychophantism on the other. In other words, Michael is allowed something in this film that he’s very rarely been allowed to have in any film portrayal up to this point, with the possible exception of An American Dream over twenty-five years ago: His humanity. It won’t please everyone, but it is what it is. And it did not detract in the least from the endearing sympathy already built for the character (if we keep in mind this is as much a story with a narrative as a depiction of a real life). If I had not already been in love with Michael Jackson before I watched this film, I certainly would have been afterward, and I think that is the power it has (and again, a huge credit for this must go to Navi’s affecting performance; terrible accent or not, he did manage to capture Michael’s essence without resorting to cloy sentimentality or childish caricature). I also appreciated that the film actually had a sense of humor. It enabled viewers to see a side of Michael rarely glimpsed in these types of films, as someone who could be a bit self deprecating and loved practical jokes. The humor here is endearing, as it was in real life; not in a way that simply makes him look foolish or immature.
This is still a long way from being the perfect MJ biopic (I’m not even convinced such a thing is ever going to be possible) but, as with An American Dream, it is a satisfying recount of one particular chapter in his life, and for bringing that story full circle, a fairly decent companion piece to that film. (This may not be surprising, considering Suzanne de Passe was the force behind both). Understandably, it still leaves gaping holes in the story, even with its two and a half hours’ running time. As some reviews have already pointed out, Conrad Murray becomes little more than a side player, and the insinuation (just as with so many projects both better and worse than this one) is that Michael’s death was more about the bigger picture: The intense pressures of facing the This Is It shows, in which succumbing to Murray’s “treatments” merely becomes symptomatic of a much bigger problem: An inability to cope with the pressure squeezing him from all sides. As usual, this will most likely leave viewers to merely surmise, again, that Michael was indeed a victim, but perhaps more than anything, a victim of his own inability to cope. This isn’t so much a critique of the film as of the source material (even in the book, Whitfield and Beard were irritatingly soft on Murray). However, as far as these things go, it isn’t a fatal flaw of the film. Most viewers are intelligent enough to know that any movie can only cover so much ground, and that frankly, it isn’t really this film’s purpose to faithfully recount the events of those final two months of Michael’s life, in which Whitfield and Beard were no longer actively involved. Indeed, their story with Michael ends when Michael leaves for Los Angeles to begin rehearsals for This Is It. At any rate, that is another story perhaps beyond the present film’s scope. The events that transpired beyond those cloistered two years of Michael’s life spent in Vegas are certainly well documented enough for anyone who really wants to research further, and this is not a documentary.
For those who chose to condemn this movie out of hand, simply on principle, that is their right but in my honest opinion I think this was as good as a film of this caliber could be, given its limitations (low budget, no access to Michael’s music) and the generally low expectations most fans have come to expect from any movie made about Jackson’s life. Those trepidations don’t come lightly; they have been earned as per my previous post. I didn’t go into this one with high expectations, but within the first ten minutes, I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to be watching with a reviewer’s judgmental eye, and was simply caught up in a compelling story of an eccentric but beautiful dad struggling to keep together his beautiful family. Of course, it was a bit cheesy in places; this was a Lifetime biopic, after all, not an Oscar contender. But as these films go, it’s definitely a cut above some of the other recent Lifetime biopics, and as far as movies about Michael Jackson, it’s definitely a step beyond the usual drivel that we’ve been subjected to.
All in all, not perfect but certainly a very sweet and affecting film. Also, the follow up documentary that Lifetime is broadcasting, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Icon, is excellent. I highly urge everyone to check it out. (For those still convinced they won’t be able to stomach the movie, at the very least fast forward to The Ultimate Icon-it’s well worth it!).
I can honestly say, however, that Searching For Neverland has at least redeemed my hope that a decent MJ biopic can still be made. All it takes is a little heart and respect for who the man was. Unfortunately, it will still be found lacking in some regards. Viewers still will not come away with any enlightened view of Jackson’s philanthropy or work as a humanitarian. And they won’t learn anything new about Michael Jackson, the artist (however, as mentioned, the follow-up documentary The Ultimate Icon pretty much covers that ground). What we’re left with is, quite simply, a poignant and tender tale of a father’s love. But maybe that is all it really needs to be.
Now if we can just work on Navi’s accent (lol) and if the estate would loosen the purse strings on Michael’s music, we just might finally get ourselves a halfway decent MJ biopic.
With another June 25th rapidly approaching comes the usual onslaught of Michael Jackson documentaries. And also as usual, some will be decent at best; most will be garbage. I can count on one hand the number of documentaries that have successfully captured and discussed the essence of his musical genius. Some that have been simply generalized narratives about his life have been pretty decent, but few have been able to top The Jacksons: An American Dream and that has been over twenty-five years ago (from there, it has only gone from bad to worse). And to date, there has not yet been one that has taken a hard stance on providing any grain of truth or insight about the allegations made against him. At best, most have pussyfooted around the issue, leaving only broad innuendos and the usual “we’ll never really know for sure” cop-out. Like all fans, I have suffered and gritted my teeth through some pretty god awful documentaries, but by far, one of the worst I have had the displeasure to view recently was a film called “Man in the Mirror” which aired in the UK on Channel 5 back in March. Well, I should have known it was a stinker when they couldn’t exercise more imagination than resorting to the usual cliche’ of naming it after one of Michael’s song titles; even moreso, the fact that it bears the same title as the equally horrendous 2004 flick starring Flex Alexander.
I think by now we should know to be wary of any MJ documentary or movie that bears the title of this 1988 hit. Most filmmakers these days could care less what that lyric actually means. For them, it has simply become a convenient and gimmicky way to bait audiences into yet another attempt at pseudo psychoanalyzing Michael Jackson’s character and how he came to be the “tragic trainwreck” that the media is so determined to present him as.
So why, one might ask, am I even bothering to review this hot mess, especially when there are more worthwhile MJ topics to discuss? Let’s just say partly because I want to inform any readers who might be curious enough to check it out, and also because, well, sometimes ripping apart something that stinks can be a lot of fun. Or at the very least, cathartic. (And, I might add, anything I can say will probably be quite kind compared to what has already been said about this film on social media and fan sites). So here goes…
In order to keep the discussion focused, I’ll be taking the film in sequential ten minute chunks, and then will conclude with a summation of thoughts and commentary at the end.
Okay, when I say we’re going to start at the beginning, I mean really the beginning, where the seeds of this documentary’s intent are already being planted. Let’s consider, for example, this disclaimer at the beginning (small white letters against a pitch black background):
The events and scenes in this dramatized film are based on archive sources and first hand accounts of Michael Jackson’s life.
Notice they use the term “archive sources” as an impressive way to make it sound as if this film has been based on extensive research. With such a disclaimer, we might be led to believe that the filmmakers have accessed some very deep resources for this film, but within ten minutes, even the most causal viewer will know what a crock that claim is. In short, these “archive sources” are nothing more than forty years’ worth of pop cultural consciousness, most of it arising from well worn tabloid stories and common knowledge. The truth is this: Michael Jackson’s story, his rise to fame from humble beginnings in Gary Indiana; the sacrifice of a normal childhood; the transcendence to adult superstardom; the forces that conspired against him and eventually brought him down; his own inner and outward struggles, is a story already all too familiar. The narrative of Michael Jackson’s life was played out on the world’s stage for four decades, and so the question remains: With all the hordes of books, films, and documentaries that are readily available, what is the purpose of adding to that number unless there is something truly new or unique to add to the Michael Jackson saga? Within the first few minutes, this film is already treading on ground not only familiar, but so familiar as to render it cliche’.
Interestingly, this description was lifted from Earnest Valentino’s Youtibe channel:
Earnest Valentino makes several appearances as the adult Michael Jackson throughout the Documentary which shows the pain, and suffering Michael Jackson endured while being used, abused, and accused from those he thought were his friends.
That’s all fine and good, but unfortunately, this film, like so many others of its ilk, gives lip service to this kind of empathy for Michael’s tragic life while at the same time further hammering the final nails of insult and betrayal into his coffin. And it raises another problematic issue, as well. As has been the case with so many projects that purport to be about Michael Jackson, the “cult of celebrity” and the morbid fascination with what is commonly perceived as the “tragedy” of his life overshadows any apparent interest in his art. As always, the aim seems to be more about psychoanalyzing Michael Jackson than truly appreciating his artistry or in making any kind of serious attempt to understand the roots and nuances of that artistry. It’s not that I would disagree if anyone said that Michael Jackson’s life was tragic. In many ways, it was. But to boil all of the complexities of his life and who he was down to this very one-dimensional kind of narrative is worse than misleading. It is blatantly insulting.
Over this black background, ominous music plays. These kinds of choices are not accidental. Granted, I understand the limitations that these films are up against, given the legal restrictions placed on using Michael’s actual music, but why must it sound like something from a horror film soundtrack? Instead of something joyous or upbeat that would be befitting the kinds of feelings that Michael Jackson’s music normally inspires, they choose this very somber intro with music that is guaranteed to make the listener feel creepy, more appropriate for the beginning of Friday the 13th than a documentary on an artist who inspired the world. And sure enough, the very first shot we see is a garishly made up Earnest Valentino (resembling a very cartoonish caricature of MJ’s early 90’s look) creeping down the stairs in only a bathrobe. It is December 1993, and this scene is supposedly reenacting the strip search at Neverland.
MJ Tribute Artist Earnest Valentino-Fairly or Not-Has Taken A Lot of Heat For His Participation In This Project. Perhaps He Needs To Stick With What He Does Best-Imitating The King of Pop’s Dance Moves!
This is the second time that filmmakers have attempted to reenact this scene, and they have yet to get it right. (The otherMan in the Mirror film had him ridiculously blocking out the humiliation of the strip search by gazing at a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, as if her supposed “presence” was the only thing enabling him to get through a strip search-which goes into even weirder territory than what we have here).
In both cases, we might say they are making a sincere attempt to portray how humiliating the strip search was for him, but the problem is that both portrayals present him as so annoyingly childish and out of touch with reality that any sympathy is instantly negated. I suppose if there is a positive, it does give us a sense of Michael’s vulnerability in that moment. Stripped naked before the gawking gazes of onlookers and their cameras, this is (supposedly) Michael Jackson with all illusions stripped away. Since this is a prominent narrative of the film, I can guess that this may have been at least part of the reason for “going there” right off the bat. The strip search itself becomes a kind of symbolic allegory for Michael’s life, someone who up to that point had managed to layer on illusion upon illusion and for whom image was everything.
But even if I “get that” as a viewer, it still raises a lot of troubling questions as to why they felt they had to start out of the gate with a scene of the strip search, immediately dredging up associations of Michael Jackson with accusations of child molestation. I agree wholeheartedly with the video blogger who posted this reaction to the film: Why the need to “go there” right off the bat? As viewer bait, this scene already sets the tone for the entire project. And this video blogger gets something else right, too: The narration sounds disturbingly (and all too eerily) like Martin Bashir. And the fact that Bashir’s footage is used repeatedly throughout the film (as if no other footage was readily available) further adds to the creepy similarities to Bashir’s 2003 hit piece. (To be fair, perhaps Living With Michael Jackson has so permanently scarred the psyche of anyone who has ever loved, admired, or appreciated Michael Jackson that even a hint of a British documentary in that same eerily and monotonously toned accent is enough to cause psychosomatic shudders!). But it’s not just the accent-it’s that same, heavy handed, overly dramatized tone, as if any recount of Michael Jackson’s life can only be done justice by being delivered in the heavily pedantic tone of a crime docudrama.
The scene is interspersed with comments from Jennifer Batten, Michael’s long time touring lead guitarist, who apparently was one of the few reliable and trustworthy persons close to him to agree to be interviewed for this travesty. All I can say is, thank God for her presence, but it’s not nearly enough to offset the rest of the crap, and her comments (as with all of the participants) have been heavily edited. She does make the point that Michael was someone who was “betrayed over and over” and repeatedly “stabbed in the back” by people he thought he could trust. But it would have been really nice if the filmmakers had done more to connect the dots between that statement and what the viewer is seeing being enacted with the strip search. The bait lines that follow all sound like carefully scripted tabloid headlines, and are presented in a disturbingly factual manner that leaves little room for the viewer to question whether these are, in fact, hypothetical conclusions that have been drawn. Granted, the first two sound bites are not ones I would dispute: Michael as the product of an abusive father; Michael as the child star forced to grow up too soon amidst the adult trappings of stardom and show business; Michael as the child being exposed too soon to things that no child should know about. But beyond that, it goes into territory that is clearly blurring the lines between fact, speculation, and the media’s long held cherished “pet theories”: Michael as the boy “trapped by childhood,” unable to “embrace the adult world”; Michael as Peter Pan; Michael as the caricature boy “unable to grow up,” the Michael whose sexuality remains a question mark, yada yada yada. You get the drift. It’s the same old rote every fan knows by heart by now. Certainly, Michael himself played a hand in at least semi creating that image of himself, and that is a topic I have addressed before and will certainly address again. But the irony is that even here, in a documentary whose very purpose seems to be as a kind of expose against the imagery Michael Jackson created around himself, the writers don’t seem to “get” that this was at least as much a part of Michael’s carefully crafted image as anything else-and as such, equally subject to scrutiny. Just why it has been so often taken at absolute face value seems to have a much more sinister root, based on an obvious desire to keep Michael Jackson at precisely that level of complexity (as has so often been noted, the media’s obvious and determined emasculation of Michael Jackson has been, and remains, an ongoing obsession). Most unforgivable of all, however, is what happens next: Without even a hint of question about it, the narrator states unequivocally that Michael Jackson was “unable to create his own family.” Of course, guess who pops up as the next interviewee-none other than good ol’ Mark Lester! Yes, he gets a platform here in order to continue with his usual dancing around of how he “could be” Paris’s biological father but how that shouldn’t matter because “Michael was her father” (then in that case, why doesn’t he stop giving these kinds of interviews?).
Here is the real problem, though. Yes, there has been a lot of media speculation about the biological paternity of Michael’s kids, and as it’s a topic beyond the scope of this post, I don’t wish to get into it here except to say that such speculations are just that: Speculations. What’s more, it has been speculation largely fostered by the same media that has so determinedly emasculated Michael at every turn. Unfortunately, it is a campaign that has been carried out with such success to the point that even some fans now seem to have fallen under its sway. Yet we have lost sight of one very simple truth: It’s never been confirmed by any reliable source that his three kids are not his biological children. Michael always insisted that all three children were his own, and until there is proof to the contrary, it is simply unethical to state anything otherwise-and to present such a speculative statement as if it were factual is utterly unforgivable.
At this point, I’m sure this is when most fans would have already checked out, but I wanted to see just how bad it could really get and to get a taste of what UK audiences saw. And, boy, does it ever get bad.
To be fair, some of the early segments depicting reenactments of young Michael growing up in Gary, Indiana are decent (at least if one can overlook the poor acting) and the actor cast to play little Michael is passably endearing (even if lacking in physical resemblance) but, then, this is hardly controversial stuff here, and indeed, it’s a story already familiar to anyone who has seen the much superior The Jacksons: An American Dream. At any rate, the documentary’s obvious modus operandi isn’t so much about how little Michael Jackson, aged five, became a singing prodigy, and it isn’t about the rise of an American working class black family from rags to riches. Instead, it is clear that what the writers here want to get to-as quickly as possible-is how all of this laid the foundation for Michael’s adult psychological issues. Thus, one of the film’s few really charming segments (the Jackson children harmonizing on the spiritual “Down to the River To Pray”) is quickly dispensed with so we can move on to that ol’ devil Joe Jackson beating the kids.
This segment picks up with the Jackson kids honing their skills and polishing their act to become one of the premier musical acts of Gary, Indiana and nearby Chicago. Again, nothing particularly controversial here, as the documentary pretty much recounts what is already well known. But Joe’s rages and demands for perfection quickly becomes a predictable center piece. Howard Bloom recounts a meeting with Joe where he states, “I could see the flames of hell burning in his eyes.” Perfectly timed with this quote is a close-up on the face of the actor playing Joe in the reenactments, indeed looking like Satan incarnate (or the close-up of Michael’s demonized cat eyes at the end of Thriller!). I mean, really. I have met Joe and seen him from pretty much the same distance as Howard Bloom, and while Joe is undeniably an intimidating presence, to say he has “the flames of hell” in his eyes is an absurd exaggeration.
I’m not denying (and never have) that the abuse was real, and of course, I have already written many past posts about the complicated relationship Michael had with his father. But whatever we can say about that relationship, it was definitely not as one dimensional as it is portrayed here. However, in this case, it is quite clear why the writers want to tread this ground yet again. It is an important early chapter in understanding Michael’s adult psyche, which is clearly where this whole thing is bent on heading. What this segment does set us up for is the disconnect from a reality that a child performing at such a young age would naturally experience, and no doubt this was a disconnect that did continue to haunt him into adult life. It wasn’t as if his performing was an occasional weekend gig, or a side hobby. By age seven, he was already touring regularly on the chitlin’ circuit, so of course, any hope of a “normal” childhood was no longer an option. In one of the few redeeming segments of the film, the especial challenges and dangers of being a black family act traveling to gigs during a still racially segregated America was interesting, but far too brief. It would seem fair to say that this, also, had to have had a tremendous impact on young Michael’s psyche, as well as shaping his world view at a very vulnerable age. But instead, the writers seem far more obsessed with the shaping of his adult sexuality (which we already know will be portrayed as, at best, from very troubled to perverted to non-existent, not necessarily in that order). There is a very protracted and creepy reenactment in which a young Michael spies on a fleshy stripper, while the narrator comments on how he was exposed too young to “sex and sexuality.” This narrative comes straight from Michael himself, who never shied away from discussing what he was exposed to in those early strip club gigs, so again, it’s not that I have an issue with the validity of what is being said. In truth, Michael was exposed to adult sexuality at a much too young age. The only thing I take issue with is the fact that, once again, we know where this is going, and it is an already cliched’ narrative which is not going to get any fresh insight here. At worst, the emphasis on Michael’s unusual and precocious sexual experiences is intended to make the viewer question if this sort of thing could lead one to become a sexual abuser as an adult. At the very least, it is setting the viewer up for a distorted perception of Michael as a sexual adult, as most viewers will be bound to wonder how he could possibly have come out of all those experiences with a healthy adult sexuality. It seems to me that at least part of the suggestion here is that Michael’s sexuality may well have become fixated at this stage, which would certainly open the door for some rather disturbing if albeit speculative conclusions. I would certainly agree that growing up with a promiscuous father on the one hand, and a devoutly religious mother on the other, could certainly create some psychological conflicts about sex, and Michael was actually quite open about these conflicting feelings-all one has to do is listen to his lyrics! In truth, we really don’t need documentaries to tell us who Michael was, or what it felt like to be him. His own catalog of music is really his own greatest autobiography; his personal confessions in which he revealed all and spared few. In doing so, we can also clearly trace his personal growth from an insecure youth who feared eternal damnation as the wages of sin to a confident adult who could freely sing about adult relationships with no hint of self castigation. But I think where we have to be careful is in automatically equating these kinds of childhood experiences with a damaged psyche. Michael Jackson would hardly have been the first child-and certainly hardly the first male child-to see an adult naked woman at a tender age. Most kids at some point have stumbled into their parents’ bedroom at an inopportune time, and growing up in that tiny house in Gary with its paper thin walls, we can only imagine what he probably overheard from his parents’ bedroom! Michael’s brothers all had the same exposure, and yet few have questioned the impact of these early experiences on their adult sexuality. Unless there is actual physical abuse involved, most children-especially male children-are able to bounce back from such early memories relatively unscathed; it may even become something they joke about later in life, and Michael himself certainly never implied that he felt “damaged” by those experiences, only indicating that it was one of many “interesting” experiences that made his childhood unique. But, anyway, I am digressing. Back to the review…
This segment depicts the arrival at Motown and the beginning of worldwide fame. Again, a fairly decent segment but only because it is simply treading familiar, non controversial ground. And hence, one of the major problems that this, or any MJ documentary, must face. Like so many documentaries of MJ that have missed the mark, this one can’t seem to find a balance between the absurdly speculative on the one hand, and the banal cliches’ of a narrative that has already become all too familiar to most music fans. But even in this segment, it becomes less about Michael’s rise to childhood stardom and more about the way he was already being taught to manipulate his image. “This is where the root of this tragedy really begins,” states Carvell Wallace, and indeed, the whole purpose here is about the roots of that “tragedy.” There is a reenactment of a press conference that depicts the already nearly 11-year-old Michael lying about his age and stating he is eight. When questioned about the lie, he states with adult savvy, “…if they say something about my image that isn’t true, it’s ok. It’s not a lie. It’s PR.” I don’t know that Michael ever said those exact words. However, it is historical fact that he was at first promoted as an eight-year-old singer when, in reality, he was closer to eleven. The bottom line here is that, through the Motown machine, Michael was learning valuable lessons about how to manipulate his image. Again, this is not an issue of disputing what I already know to be true. But in this case, where we have to consider that we are dealing with a particular filmmaker’s vision, it’s important to examine why this becomes a central focus. Clearly, the intent here is to portray Michael as someone who learned from a young age how to manipulate his own image, as well as the press. It doesn’t take a major leap to know where this is going, and how it will be applied to Michael’s adult relationship with the media. It is a theory that will be confirmed much later in the video.
Here we pick up with the coming into adulthood and newfound independence: Breaking away from Motown, and eventually, from the Jacksons. I’ll skip over a lot of it, as there is nothing especially new or revelatory in the telling of the group’s switch from Motown to Epic. However, once we get into Michael’s acceptance of the role of the scarecrow in The Wiz and the move to New York (which wasn’t exactly a clean break away from the family, as he was still sharing digs with LaToya) it simply becomes more embarrassingly cringeworthy fodder for the white male interviewees to smugly cast aspersions on his sexuality. They seem to make much ado of the fact that here he was, on his own in the big city, hanging out nightly at Club 54, and apparently having little interest in-gasp!-a girlfriend. They erroneously state that Tatum O’Neal had been his only girlfriend up to that point. In fact, he was, at the time of his stint in New York, involved in a steady (and well publicized) relationship with Stephanie Mills, a fact they curiously choose to ignore. In one of the most ridiculously patronizing segments of the entire film, Epic Records producer Bobby Columby claims to have tried to talk to an obviously adult Michael about the birds and the bees, only to allegedly be informed by Michael that he “already had someone-Diana Ross” (which, of course is treated as a huge joke even though Michael and Diana Ross, also, had had a very blatantly obvious flirtation going on for years).
The whole segment is just very condescending and, again, the favorite media narrative of Michael Jackson, emasculated black male, takes center stage. Time and again, they go back to Michael’s supposed “ambivalence about sex” (a phrase actually used in the doc, several times) and yet the question remains: Ambivalence according to who? And just why has this narrative persisted so doggedly, mainly from the perspective of white male journalists? Clearly as long as that is the power in control of Michael’s image, that is the myth that will remain, firmly embedded somewhere between affectionate incredulity (that someone so pure and naive could possibly have been real) and patronizing scorn.
As cringeworthy as this may be to any real fan, it might be somewhat forgivable if the project can at least offer challenging insight into the artistry of a brilliant artist. But here, too, the doc falls disappointingly short. We enter into the next segment with a nod to Michael’s growing artistic independence from his family, but then comes the annoyingly ominous Martin Bashir-esque narrator to tell us how Michael’s first attempt at songwriting was “very nearly a disaster.” Never mind that this “very near disaster” just happened to be “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground,” one of the most successful and instantly recognizable tracks of the disco era-a song that is still a Jacksons classic to this day.
Sure, It Was Only One Chord. It Was Also Brilliant!
So you get the idea. The next segment picks up with a kind of clashing of wills between Jackson and a frustrated Bobby Columby who isn’t sure what to do with a song that is “one chord” that “goes on for twenty minutes.” Columby mentions the “disconnect” of Michael’s dynamic verse and chorus against that single chord, but within five seconds of listening to that familiar, catchy track one would think there would at least be some acquiesce; some admittance that clearly the kid knew what he was doing. Of course, we may grant that it’s almost always true: In the back story of every great track there was some producer who simply didn’t get it, or that maybe they heard the original track in such a raw state that they might be forgiven for their shortsightedness. Instead, we don’t get any indication from Columby that his opinion ever changed, and instead he brags about everything he had to “pile” onto the track in order to make it into a complete record. Unfortunately, these kinds of stories fit too patly yet another favorite narrative often perpetuated by white musicologists, which is the idea of Michael as the “talented but narcissistic boy genius in need of white saviors to bail him out of his own excesses.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I would ever begrudge giving due credit to those who guided Michael’s artistry-his wonderful collaborators, engineers, producers and musicians who worked with him. It’s just that I have noticed a rather disturbing trend, one that seems to permeate many recent biographies and documentaries, in which Michael simply comes off either as excessive egomaniac (at worst) or the childishly naive boy wonder (at best) who simply leaves all of those working around him feeling exasperated (the underlying assumption being that they are the “normal” ones who are having to keep his feet on the ground). It’s not that there isn’t some grain of truth in these stories-after all, genius seldom is fully grasped or understood by mere mortals-but it is downright insulting when an artist of Jackson’s caliber is time and again patronized in this manner. I can’t think of any similar documentaries on well respected white musicians (or even most black icons) where this kind of patronizing tone is so prevalent. I can’t imagine, for example, a documentary on The Beatles where we would have so many condescending “father figures” in the control room boasting of how they had to make John Lennon’s songs into something salvageable. Later in the documentary, there will be a reenacted scene where Michael simply flees the recording session, only to be found dancing maniacally in the hallway. That story actually is based on a true incident, but the reasoning was because Michael was so engrossed in the track that he had to “dance it out” before he could stand still and sing it. In the film, however, the way the scene is reenacted only makes him look foolish (even, albeit, mentally challenged) and the excuse given is that he is imagining himself running away from Joe (an excuse to get in another dig at Michael’s alleged, scarred psyche rather than focusing on something that might have been far more fascinating-how he went through his creative process). In fact, as has been so often the case in these short-sighted projects, any interest in that creative process is only given the thinnest veneer of lip service, at best. To their credit, it does get better once we get into the Off the Wall and Thriller eras, but that isn’t saying much, considering the back story of those albums is already well known. Even here, however, there are some unforgivable factual errors, such as stating that “Billie Jean” was the lead single from Thriller, when in fact the lead single was “The Girl is Mine.”
One thing they do get right is how Michael broke down “barrier after barrier” during this era, and the story of the hungry young artist with something to prove to the world-“he had the Eye of the Tiger”-remains compelling, even in a project as otherwise mediocre as this. I think they also do a fairly decent job of portraying how torn Michael was during this era between his desire for solo stardom and guilt over abandoning the family act, a guilt compounded by Joe who reminds him in one of the more harrowing reenactments, “This was all for you.” They also do a fairly decent job in acknowledging how racism in the industry impacted Michael’s early success, with the infamous Grammy snubbing of Off the Wall and its one pathetic nomination for Michael in the Best Male R&B vocalist category. As they correctly point out, it is out of the ashes of this disappointment that comes Thriller, and Carvel Wallace is able to get in some enlightening commentary on how many still view Michael Jackson as an “urban artist” simply because of the color of his skin. But even here, they can’t resist taking their digs. Michael’s understandable anger and resentment against the obvious racism of the Grammy snub is branded merely as another indication of his “emotional immaturity.” Sadly, this objective seems ever present, undercutting almost every aspect of the narrative. Even as it moves into the creation of the great Thriller video, the film can’t resist the constant tug between Michael as eccentric boy genius on the one hand; a naive child on the other, and/or emerging “shape shifter” who is evolving into a ruthless and master manipulator of the media and his own image (never quite reconciling how someone supposedly so naive and emotionally stunted could accomplish such a feat). Again, it’s not a matter of denying that all of these conflicting elements are an integral essence of who Michael was, to greater or lesser degrees. But it has more to do with the particularly disturbing angle that these interpretations take. For example, instead of looking at the shape shifting element of Thriller as an example of Michael’s evolving artistry, it is treated merely as the prelude to his personal downfall, as he becomes ever more the clever showman who can shape shift between man and beast; between human and monster. Granted, this could be a fascinating discussion on one level, but here it is so very obvious that this is not going to lead to any kind of serious analysis of either Michael’s art or image, but as I stated, merely as a prelude to the possible sinistry that may have lurked just beneath the childlike exterior. In other words, the discussion of Thriller is cleverly disguised merely as a way of preparing viewers for the predictable controversy that will follow. As this segment comes to its close, our Martin Bashir soundalike assures us that Thriller, Michael’s greatest commercial success, will also be the very thing that destroys him. It’s a catchy bait line, but a flawed one. Michael wasn’t destroyed by Thriller; that is equivalent to saying he was destroyed by his own art. This becomes yet another cleverly disguised way of saying that Michael Jackson was ultimately responsible for the tragic downward spiral of his own life. Sure. It all begins and ends with the success that he himself willingly created. Again, I don’t think the filmmakers are denying that he was victimized time and again by manipulators and backstabbers, but at least part of the modus operandi seems to be in pointing out that all of the evil around him can somehow be traced back to Michael himself as the ultimate maestro standing at the nexus of his own self destruction.
Indeed, we no sooner get into the next ten minutes and already this theory is being born out. After having run through the impressive matriculation of Michael’s musical and professional life, we are reminded by our ominous “Batshit” sounding narrator that “while his mastery of pop muic and performance was divine, his mastery of himself was far more troubled.” I did enjoy hearing Vincent Paterson’s analysis of the Billie Jean video, but again, the narration intercepts with very puzzling and cryptic comments. If, for example, it can be acknowledged that “Billie Jean” is allowing us a glimpse into the “inner complexities” of Michael’s world, how can we on the other hand dismiss this great piece of complex work as coming from someone without a stable grip on the complexities of the adult world or adult relationships? Again, there is no real attempt to connect any of these dots; everything is simply thrown out for the viewer to make sense of as they see fit. Anyway, at this point I’m going to skip through a lot for the sake of time, as most of this segment simply recounts how the Motown 25 performance came about and its aftermath, all of it familiar territory for any Michael Jackson fan (nothing really bad here, but nothing new, either).
The segment begins on a high note. Michael has been fully vindicated for the Off the Wall snub, winning a total of eight Grammys for Thriller including Album of the Year. This time, he had created something so phenomenal that it simply couldn’t be ignored by the industry. But as any fan knows too well, Michael Jackson’s life was one of incredible peaks and unfathomable lows. During this same period comes the infamous Pepsi commercial accident that will affect the quality of the rest of his life. This incident is often portrayed as a kind of defining moment in Michael’s life, a clean division between the exuberant, clean cut youth and the “tortured” adult who would become dependent on painkillers and the desire for anything to numb the physical and emotional pain. In terms of story and narrative, it marks the perfect dramatic catalyst, and it serves that function no less here. In truth, it is actually one of the more compelling moments in the documentary and is handled at least somewhat tastefully. For the casual viewer who may not know very much about the details of the accident or its horrendous aftermath for Michael; the series of painful surgeries; the balloon implants placed into his head, the disfiguring third degree scars, this segment is at least informative and factual. Of course, it also becomes another excuse to harp on the increasing “disconnect” between Michael the private person and Michael Jackson, the image, with much being made over his request to be photographed even on the stretcher with his white glove on.
The only difference is that I think this is a segment where the discussion is at least somewhat warranted. Clearly, this incident was a prime example of Michael’s obsession with image, and it was clear that the line between his public and private persona was becoming increasingly blurred. I don’t fault the filmmakers for desiring to explore this territory, but I think part of the problem here (which is true for any MJ documentary and not entirely anyone’s fault) is that no justice can really be done to such a very complex topic within the confines of an hour and a half, and certainly not when dished out as merely ten second sound bites. As has so often held true, the very scope of Michael Jackson’s life and complexities makes any project like this doomed to a certain amount of failure from the outset. Just as with so many other projects, both better and worse than this one, there simply isn’t enough room or space in which to cram both all of the events of Michael’s life and career and to delve into any kind of detailed psychoanalysis that would provide any kind of satisfactory closure to these kinds of questions (indeed, as is so often the case with most Michael Jackson documentaries, it simply becomes a convoluted mess that only succeeds in raising far more questions about the man and the artist than it can answer). Anyway, the film wastes little time in establishing the obvious connection: The accident leads to painkillers; painkillers lead to addiction; it all starts a chain reaction of destruction that will take several decades to reach its ultimate, tragic resolution. And again, the objective is one disturbingly bent on painting Michael as the one in control of his own demise. Sure, he was a victim of a horrific accident, the filmmakers seem to be telling us, but he also made a series of deliberate choices, beginning with the choice to swallow those pills. It is those deliberate choices, they want us to know, that will slowly “destroy” him, just as he was “destroyed” by the success he himself created with his own music.
To compound the poor attempt at psychoanalysis, the discussion of the burn surgeries (which is at least fair and accurate) leads into, and quickly deteriorates into, a discussion of cosmetic surgery. Yep, you had to know they were going to “go there” as well, and the discussion is lamely predictable. Our creepy “Batshit” narrator states, without the batting of an equivocal eye, that plastic surgery becomes for Michael a kind of “self harm.” It’s the same old bs where insecurity and body dysmorphic disorder blurs the fine line with the obsession for some perceived perfection. Honestly, I am weary with the subject as most fans are, but if we just have to go there, it would certainly be far more innovative and enlightening to entertain some other possible theories other than the usual “he hated his looks/wanted to change his race, or as is stated here, “an external manifestation of the confusion he was feeling about who he truly was.” For example, I would love to see a project that would be daring enough to take on the topic of how Michael used appearance, in the same way that David Bowie and countless other artists have used evolving looks, to create their artistic personas and alter egos (I’m convinced that Michael’s roster of evolving looks owed as much to his artistic aesthetics as to any perceived insecurities). What if it stemmed, not from deliberate self confusion, but a purposeful desire to confuse his audience? Equally fascinating would be a discussion of the disconnect between the media perception of a “freak” vs a fandom who never stopped desiring him as a sexual object (however, in this case, at least, we already know that any serious discussion of Michael as an object of sexual desire is not going to be entertained, anyway). It’s not that the discussions of insecurity and obsession for perfection have no validity, but my point is just that there are so many more interesting places that they could go if they’re going to bring up the topic of Michael’s appearance and cosmetic surgery, but admittedly, perhaps, these are discussions beyond the project’s scope. So all we’re left with is the usual banal explanations and surface discussions.
Maybe one day someone will be innovative and far sighted enough to take on those discussions in a film project. But that time hasn’t come yet, least of all here. Besides, it’s pretty difficult to take any discussion of Michael’s cosmetic surgery seriously when the best they can do is compare a youthful photo of the real Michael Jackson to a close-up of the garishly made-up face of Earnest Valentino! Duh, of course the comparisons are going to look a million miles apart when one is a pic of the real Michael Jackson, pre-vitiligo, and the other is a Michael Jackson impersonator in very bad makeup! Oh, but it gets even better. Next, we cut back to Mark Lester stating assertively that Michael was trying to reconstruct his face to become the Disney version of Peter Pan. (Huge eye roll moment). To further compound the potential confusion of casual viewers, the only mention of vitiligo is a brief clip of Michael’s response to Oprah Winfrey, but the only thing offered in the way of follow up commentary is that Michael “became defensive” at no longer being able to play on his terms” (whatever that is supposed to mean). It’s left to Jennifer Batten to even bring up the topic of artist reinvention and its necessity in the pop music world, but her comments are then edited to segue directly into a scene that depicts a very devious Michael as “play[ing] with the press” by intentionally manipulating the Elephant Man and hyperbaric chamber stories. They state, in fact, that Michael intentionally spread these rumors, as if the tabloid media itself played no hand whatsoever. The clip ends with our “Batshit” narrator stating that it was more “schoolboy prank than sinister manipulation” but then lingers on a close-up of Earnest Valentino grinning deviously. So now another seed has been planted. The media’s crucifixion of Michael Jackson stemmed from his own cunning, and he was at least as much to blame as the tabloids themselves. What the film fails to address, however, is just why and how the media came gunning for him with such relentless ferocity from that point forward. Even for a celebrity who courted publicity, I think few would argue that what was done to Jackson was beyond the pale, and the media’s refusal to take an iota of responsibility in that crucifixion, as evidenced here, remains an unforgivable blot. This is not just a theory of the document’s intent. They state it explicitly: “As Michael watched his carefully created image disintegrate, he struggled to understand that it was he who had facilitated it.” (It’s worth mentioning that this quote is inserted over an image from the Earth Song video, thus taking one of Michael’s most powerful political statements out of context and manipulating it into a mere image of a man sorrowful over the loss of his image).
This segment picks up with the move to Neverland. Here, again, the narrative is more predictable cliche’ about Michael’s need to escape and recreate the childhood he never had. We know this was at least part of the MO behind what Michael created at Neverland, but Michael’s home was so much more than that. It was an oasis of serenity in a chaotic world; 2700 sprawling acres built on Native American sacred land; a place for inspiration and meditation. They do acknowledge that Michael’s goal was to make the place a haven for sick children, but the primary narrative of this segment is that of an overgrown, spoiled kid who, because he now apparently had no one to tell him “no,” could indulge in any kind of excess he craved. Not only is the tone here irritatingly patronizing (assuming that a thirty-year-old man somehow still needs a daddy figure in his life to tell him “no”) but also is much too open ended in allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the exact kind of debauchery that this unrestrained excess and access to children could include (understand they are not explicitly implying guilt, but nor is there any given reason for viewers’ minds to not automatically jump to those conclusions). All this does, essentially, is to set the stage for another favorite media cliche’-the unrestrained child/man, freely indulging his whims and desires, who wants to surround himself with kids and have endless sleepovers. Again, the one spot of salvation is Jennifer Batten’s commentary. She states that Michael was an avid reader who took joy in teaching the children and introducing them to the wonders of the world. Thanks to her, there is at least some balance to the commentary but given the overall impression that the segment creates, I’m not sure it is enough. This leads us into the introduction to Jordan Chandler, and from here it goes from bad to worse.
Jordan Chandler is portrayed as if he were simply one of many random kids allowed to “sleep over” at Neverland. No mention is made of the circumstances under which they met, or of Michael’s association with Jordan’s parents (perhaps they assumed these details were irrelevant; however, they are anything but). I understand there is only so much that can be crammed into a 94-minute documentary, and they can’t be expected to go into minute detail about everything, but to cut corners with something this important to Michael’s story is unforgivable, especially if the main point is supposed to be an expose’ of how Michael Jackson was destroyed by betrayal.
But again, the purpose here is definitely not in “proving” or “disproving” guilt, and that remains one of the most troubling aspects of even the most well intentioned projects. We can say that the worst of the lot simply presumes guilt, but even the more sympathetic projects are more than content to simply leave the viewer to draw their own conclusions, without elaborating on any of the hardcore evidence that actually supports his innocence. What’s worse, they often use heavy handed innuendo and editing to make the possibility of guilt seem more likely (in reality, these kinds of scenes are meant to serve as titillation, but the damage they do is just as much as if they came out and proclaimed straight up guilt). This film is no exception. A particularly disturbing reenactment has Michael and Jordan playing games in the bedroom, indulging in a pillow fight, etc and finally deciding it’s time for bed, we see the adult Michael slowly and ominously closing the bedroom door. It doesn’t take adding two and two to assume what most viewers would make of that scene, no matter how much the commentators wax about him simply wanting to be a big kid. That has always been, and remains, the weakest defense imaginable. There is only a brief reenactment of Evan Chandler confronting Michael, and as usual in every film that only does a half ass job of reporting on the Chandler case, poor Evan Chandler is simply portrayed as a concerned father, understandably upset and outraged over what he suspects is going on with his son. Predictably, there is no mention of Evan’s extortion attempt; no mention of his infamous recording to Barry Schwartz in which he as good as confessed how he was setting Michael up; no mention of what a psychotic personality Chandler actually was; no mention that Jordan Chandler’s description of Michael’s genitals proved false; no mention that the financial settlement did not preclude a criminal trial from taking place; not even an explanation for why Michael agreed to settle in the first place.
Why Don’t We Get Evan Chandler-Concerned Father-Stating These Words?
With all of this information simply left hanging, casual viewers are no more educated on the circumstances of the Chandler allegations than they would have been before, other than perhaps knowing the names of the parties involved. If before I would have given the film at least a C-for effort, here it fails completely. And I’ll just say for the record that the one thing we don’t need at this point are more projects like this that are simply going to further muddy those waters. The segment ends with Evan determinedly whisking Jordan away from Neverland while a pathetically dejected looking Michael pleads, “Don’t go; please don’t go.” (Chalk up one more huge eye rolling moment). So let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture here. Supposedly again this is a project about Michael being betrayed over and over, but what we actually see depicted here (as is done repeatedly throughout the film) is that it is really Michael’s own eccentric behavior that has led to his loss and desertion. Other parties, including the Chandlers, are simply helpless bystanders caught up in the vortex of Michael’s own tragically scarred psyche. It’s a pattern that doesn’t stop here.
This segment picks up with marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, and is predictably awful but with one saving grace: At least the romance and marriage is treated as being genuine. In some ways, that is probably a huge leap from what we might have gotten ten years ago from a project like this. But I had to laugh when our “Batshit” narrator in his heavy handed delivery announced, somberly as a church service, that this was perhaps Michael’s “one shot” to have “a real lover.” There is a somewhat sweet courtship reenactment but for anyone who has seen the just as awful otherMan in the Mirror flick, it is a scene that could have come just as easily from it. Of course, there is no hint of the MJ that Lisa Marie actually described as having been attracted to-the guy who flirted voraciously, who talked dirty over shots of Crown Royal and impressed her with his “real guy” normalcy. Instead, this is the same whispery man/child who waxes poetic about her smile over a romantic dinner, but at least the scene does culminate in a kiss, insinuating that-gasp!-Michael is actually going to make love to a woman.
But from here it spirals downhill. They keep saying that Michael was insistent on having a family with Lisa (which is true) but the disintegration of the marriage quickly becomes a one-sided affair. It is Michael’s manipulative, demanding ego that comes between them; it is Michael who humiliates poor, poor Lisa time and again; it is Michael who insists on “seeing other kids behind Lisa’s back” and, finally, it is Lisa who walks out simply because she can’t take anymore; that Michael is “too much to handle” and should never be a parent because “he needs a parent himself.” Again, this is an insult to every fan who knows anything about that marriage. Yes, it was stormy and yes, both parties were at fault. But why lay all the blame for its failure squarely at Michael’s feet? What about Lisa lying about the birth control pills? (Talk about betrayal!). What about the four-year affair they carried on after the marriage, as she pursued him relentlessly for a reconciliation? (None of this is speculation, since Lisa confirmed it in her last Oprah interview, but instead of using that interview, they instead dredge up that horrific 2005 Oprah interview also featuring Priscilla Presley; the one I like to call the “bitch fest”). The major difference between the two is that the 2005 interview came fresh out of the anger, hurt and frustration of the relationship, whereas the 2010 interview came out of a place of maturity and intense reflection on what her feelings for Michael actually were. I’m sure the filmmakers were aware of this later interview, but purposely chose to ignore it because the 2005 interview more closely fit their agenda.
Anyway, the entire mess ends predictably with Lisa storming out and a dejected, pathetic Michael sitting on the stairs begging, “Please don’t go.” Once again, the message is loud and clear: Michael’s own irresponsible behavior has cost him his “one shot” at true love and a real family.
As you can no doubt guess, it doesn’t get any better from here. Considering how much of Michael’s epic story we still have to cover (marriage to Debbie Rowe; the births of the children; Invincible; the feud with Sony; Martin Bashir; Gavin Arvizo; the Trial of the Century; exile; return; AEG and This Is It; Conrad Murray and death) the film passes over all of it relatively quickly and with very little depth, much less any pause for real consideration about the forces coming together that would be the true cause of his “downfall.” In fact, by this point, huge chunks of Michael Jackson’s story remain untold. All of the albums he has recorded since Thriller have been pretty much ignored (even Bad only gets a passing nod; as for Dangerous, HIStory, Blood on the Dance Floor and Invincible they might as well have never existed!). Major accomplishments and career coups, such as the 1993 Superbowl performance, are completely ignored. They state that Michael was too naive to “sense danger,” insinuating the betrayal of Martin Bashir with the Living With Michael Jackson documentary, and yet never mention the underhanded tactics Bashir used to get the results he wanted with that documentary (and again, considering that a goodly percentage of this film is comprised of Bashir’s footage, one can understand why he is given a free pass here). The entire Gavin Arvizo allegation and trial is passed over far too quickly, and with all the same problematic flaws as the handling of the Chandler allegations. Curiously, no mention is made of Tom Sneddon and his relentless vendetta. As usual, all parties as well as all factual circumstances of the cases are handled with kid gloves, and no real accusing finger is pointed at anyone save Michael Jackson himself (who isn’t acting maliciously, let’s be reminded; he simply can’t help the fact that he is damaged goods).
Essentially, viewers are getting the bare bone facts but little else; if anything, the film is more than content to merely summarize events. But this is nothing that any informed viewer couldn’t get by simply going to Michael Jackson’s Wikipedia, and the commentators, for all good intentions, simply can’t compensate for the lack of real informative material. It’s a given that Michael’s physical and mental health was worn down by the trial. We get that. But what viewers really need to know-and perhaps want to know-is just how and why Michael was found “Not Guilty” on all counts. Once again, there is no attempt made to delve into any real evidence. Either the viewer accepts that Michael was innocent, or continues to believe he was a guilty man who “got off” due to his celebrity status. There is no reason given here for any on the fence viewer to change their mind.
The entire series of events leading up to This Is It and June 25th, 2009 are barely scraped, with Conrad Murray becoming almost a side player. Much more emphasis is naturally placed on Michael’s own “addiction” to sedatives to drown his own troubles. In one of the most unforgivably egregious errors of the entire film, the infamous audio tape of a drugged Michael slurring to Conrad Murray about how “I hurt”-the audio tape secretly recorded by Conrad Murray in one of the ultimate acts of betrayal, and played at trial as evidence against Murray-is said to be a phone conversation with Murray. This is the kind of unethical error that is unforgivable for a documentary because it is (whether intentionally or not) distorting truth. To state that this was a phone conversation between Michael and Murray detracts from the actual fact that this was a doctor secretly recording his oblivious patient, thus violating the rights of his patient in the most vile manner possible, and for no obvious purpose other than perhaps future blackmail or to strike a deal with tabloids. Again, for a documentary that proposes as its main agenda how Michael was repeatedly betrayed by the people around him, you don’t get a more golden opportunity to prove it than with that incident, and yet they completely miss the boat on that one, alleviating Murray from all culpability by passing it off as merely an innocent phone conversation that Michael initiated by phoning Murray up. And, of course, this factual error covers yet another of Murray’s violations, by totally ignoring that the very reason Michael was in such a state was due to having already received a massive dose of Propofol at Murray’s own hands! No, by this logic, it makes it sound like poor, poor Michael simply drugged himself up on some sedatives and then decided it was a good time to ring up his friend Conrad Murray and “spill” about his life.
In One Of The Most Egregious Factual Errors Of All, They State That This Recording of Michael Was A Phone Conversation Between Himself and Conrad Murray, Implying That Michael Phoned Murray In A Drugged State. No Mention Is Made Of The Fact That This Was A Conversation Conducted In Person, In Which Murray Unethically, Secretly Recorded His Patient-After Administering The Drugs Himself!
Oh gosh, I could go on but at this point the film simply unravels to its predictable and disastrous end. Michael dies. Granted, the final shot which is of the actual memorial and features Paris’s now famous and emotional speech is touching, and it does succeed in bringing the narrative satisfactorily full circle-the man who never had a childhood and so desperately wanted to give back a childhood to others has had that legacy cemented by his tearful, grieving daughter who proclaims him “the best daddy you could ever imagine.” Here I won’t fault the well intended sentiment, but for a documentary, it still leaves too many troubling holes unfilled.No mention is made, by the way, of anything that came of Conrad Murray afterward, not even the fact that he was convicted of manslaughter. It is as if with the end of Michael’s existence simply comes the culmination of his own, tragic story, brought on mostly by his own damaged sense of entitlement and the usual cliches’ about the burdens of fame. In looking back over the whole of this documentary, what’s left out is every bit as interesting-and puzzling-as what is left in. Michael’s great artistry and impact on music is discussed, but not with any real sense of depth or new insight (it simply isn’t that type of documentary). His sex symbol status is simply ignored. Some of the most major accomplishments of his career, such as the purchase and ownership of the Sony/ATV catalog, rendering him one of the most powerful figures in the music industry, is curiously ignored as well. Was such a glaring omission due to time constraints, or could it have more to do with the fact that this wouldn’t jibe with the image they were determined to project of Michael Jackson as a naive and childish man who would never be able to make such a savvy business move? (Also curiously, the fact that this catalog ownership became the proverbial albatross around his neck, one that exacerbated his fears of betrayal from those around him as well as providing ample motivation for many of those betrayals,is simply omitted as well).
What little we are left with has unfortunately become an all too familiar and, as I’ve already stated, well worn narrative, and I’m sure that some readers by now are still questioning as to why this particular documentary has been worth such a detailed analysis. Mainly, it is because I think it bears questioning as to why the media is so persistent on selling this very particular and limited narrative of Michael Jackson and his story to the public; why the particular insistence on selling, over and over, the version of an emasculated man/child who never grew up, who remained emotionally stunted (to the point that even his most monumental artistic accomplishments are usually more credited to his “mentors” like Quincy Jones and Berry Gordy) and why the perpetual insistence on continuously casting his story as simply one more celebrity tragedy? As I will stress again, I do not deny for a moment that Michael Jackson had a tragic life. This was a guy abused in childhood, who never knew a normal existence. Did that leave its scars? Of course it did! Did that impact his adult perceptions of the world? Of course it did, but I would daresay probably to no less or greater extent than any adult who has had to compensate for a lost childhood. The excesses of Michael’s life, for what they were, were no greater or less than many young musicians who suddenly find themselves awash in fame and riches at an age before they are truly capable of responsibility (insert here most any rock and roll or hip hop artist you can think of who became enormously wealthy before the age of 25). Michael inherited all of the same problems that all child stars inherit to some degree; he grappled with all of the same excesses and temptations that all musicians must, at some point, grapple with. As I am writing this, the tragic news of Chris Cornell’s recent passing is still headline news, and I see much of the same media strategy being played out: At first they mourn and honor; then comes the tearing down. Somehow, there is always a way to place the blame squarely on the performer’s shoulders, with no thought to the enormous internal and external pressures that these people actually face on a daily basis (I am still, as of this writing, grappling with the shock of having just seen Chris Cornell perform only days before his death, and how fine and in good spirits he seemed).
But to paint Michael Jackson’s life, over and over again, as nothing more than a modern tragedy, is a huge disservice. It is a disservice to the life he actually lived. It is a disservice to the enormous contributions he made, both to music and to the world through his enormous humanitarian efforts (which, to no surprise, are also omitted completely from this film). Usually there is almost always at least some lip service given to how Michael’s wealth and fame made him a target for greed, but inevitably, as happens here and so often in all other projects, the real culprit always comes back to the “man in the mirror” and that apparent seed of self destruction that was planted long ago in Gary, Indiana when a talented but strong-willed little boy was first struck by an angry, demanding father.
The problem is that this narrative, one so loved and cherished by the media because it makes good copy, is not the end all of the story. But it’s a narrative that alleviates a lot of responsibility from other parties. The media gets a reprieve because, after all, Michael was the one manipulating them, and should have known better. The Chandlers, Arvizos, Tom Sneddon, etc all get reprieves because, after all, well, if Michael had been acting like a grown-up instead of having sleep overs with kids, then by golly, none of this would have happened. Conrad Murray gets a reprieve because, well, clearly Michael was a drug addict who voluntarily put himself in that position.
And for those who will come back saying I am merely excusing Michael’s behaviors and trying to shift all the blame onto other parties and factors, that isn’t true, either. But there is nothing wrong with advocating for balance, fairness, and most importantly, accuracy. A documentary can manipulate just as easily by the facts they choose to omit or ignore as by what they choose to include, and from the start, the agenda of this particular project is all too clear. For whatever reasons, it continues to be of vital importance to certain parties that Michael’s story is portrayed in as simplistic a manner as possible, keeping him ultimately just the way they want him-emasculated, weak, non-threatening to white male superiority, immature and ever the victim. This continues to be a matter of concern, especially with so many upcoming MJ projects slated including the upcoming Lifetime film Searching For Neverland, which I will also be reviewing after its Monday night airing. Navi, the other famous MJ tribute artist appearing in that flick, has already issued a public statement condemning Valentino’s participation in this project, but it remains to be seen whether his own project is going to be any better (I can only say for now that the previews seem decent, but we’ll know more come Monday night). Clearly, these misrepresentations are continuing for a reason. Partly (perhaps even mostly) it is laziness. It’s easier to present an already pre-packaged stereotype than to err on the side of new insight or to research source material that might actually challenge some of these notions. For better or worse, most of the public thinks they know by now what Michael Jackson was like. They envision the soft-spoken man/child who never really grew up, or they have bought into the more sinister “Wacko Jacko” representations. From media perceptions, they have bought into the cliche’ of a talented but flawed and tragic figure, charmingly eccentric but ultimately out of touch with reality-“textbook weird,” as Sean Lennon recently stated. What most fail to realize is that this figure, too, is a myth, one that has been every bit as carefully crafted by the media as Michael, in turn, helped create it. Unfortunately, no documentary or film project, yet, has been daring enough to challenge these perceptions or to penetrate the myth. And now, with Michael gone, it has become easier than ever to simply further cement the same old misperceptions, rather than challenging them. And sadly, most filmmakers remain more obsessed with either salacious innuendo or in perpetuating the myth they have themselves partially created.
Another problematic factor is simply the sheer scope of Michael’s life. To fully do justice to any aspect of it almost requires a full documentary unto itself. To really understand the forces that went down, one needs an entire documentary just on the Chandler allegations alone; one needs an entire documentary on the Arvizo trial; we need an entire documentary on the events leading up to June 25th and their aftermath. And, needless to say, we need at least the scope of a full documentary to truly appreciate what Michael accomplished as a musician, dancer, humanitarian and philanthropist. This documentary is plagued by the very thing that has hampered so many projects-too much story to tell, and too little time and space to tell any of it adequately.
That’s the forgivable part. But what is harder to forgive is the agenda, ultimately, to portray Michael once again as simply the naive yet manipulative master orchestrator of his own self destruction. To do so is still only telling half his story. Perhaps one day there will be a filmmaker brave enough to take on the real Michael Jackson, to lift him beyond the burden of victimhood and caricature and to tell his real story, with no holds barred. Until then, the best bet may be to simply stick with those documentaries that focus on what Michael Jackson did best-his music.
In the time since I was last able to post, two controversial issues have rocked the MJ fandom and have ensured that the name Michael Jackson remains a hot commodity in the headlines. I am referring to the outrage that erupted over SkyArt’s “Urban Myths” and the casting of the very white Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson, the resultant cancellation of that project (only to be replaced within 24 hours by news of another MJ film project–the Lifetime project entitled “Searching For Neverland”) and, finally, Paris Jackson’s explosive Rolling Stone interview which was released January 24. The title of that interview, fittingly enough, was “Life After Neverland.” Both events have also ushered in their share of controversy, with race being a common thread that linked much of the controversy over both.
Look, I KNOW this is what they were going for…but that didn’t make this ridiculous casting disaster anymore palatable!
When rightful public and social media protests led to the cancellation of the “Urban Myths” episode, there was an immediate backlash from those who decried “censorship” and were incensed that politically correct protests over casting a white actor to play a black icon could lead to the cancellation of a project-especially a project that, presumably, had already been filmed and was set to air. The funny thing is that, as I read through many of the comments, I got the distinct feeling that most of these people probably didn’t even really care that much about this silly TV episode, and that probably most of the ones raising the biggest hoot over it wouldn’t have even tuned in to watch it, anyway. But as usual, everyone has an opinion if the subject happens to involve the name Michael Jackson. I also got the distinct feeling that their protests and supposed “outrage” wouldn’t have been half so vehement had the focus been any other famous black entertainer besides Michael Jackson. In fact, they probably would have sided with the protesters. But apparently, because Michael Jackson’s physical appearance did become “white” (actually devoid of pigment) in his last two decades, many apparently felt that made it “okay” to cast a white man to play him. To be fair, the entire “Urban Myths” series is intended as a comedic parody of the celebrities it portrays, and Michael Jackson is not the only celebrity being held up for spoofing in the series. Many well respected icons such as Bob Dylan are also getting the treatment in this series, and there does not seem to be any campaigns afoot to halt their episodes. Moreover, there is a pretty clear disclaimer that these tales are, in fact, urban myths that are not supposed to be taken as factual (hence the show’s subtitle of “True-ISH stories”). However, there are much more complex issues at stake that made the Jackson themed episode especially tasteless. If fans and family had been angry before at the knowledge of Joseph Fiennes’s casting, it was as nothing compared to the outrage that hit when the promotional trailer for the episode was released. The clip featured what promised to be a buffoonish parody of Michael Jackson as some sort of real life mix between The Mad Hatter and Willie Wonka who, while on a fictional trip to escape 9/11, apparently makes random stops to romp through the woods exploring nature.
Paris’s tweets were instrumental in the decision to pull the episode:
i’m so incredibly offended by it, as i’m sure plenty of people are as well, and it honestly makes me want to vomit.— Paris-Michael K. J. (@ParisJackson) January 11, 2017
@TheMJCast it angers me to see how obviously intentional it was for them to be this insulting, not just towards my father, but my godmother liz as well
The questionable casting decision of Fiennes aside, I don’t think the portrayal was intended to be disrespectful so much as it was simply doing what parodies do-that is, exaggerating certain characteristics of the subject for comedic effect. During this era, Michael often did come across as a kind of whimsical, sprite-like figure who espoused the wonders of nature and the importance of maintaining childlike innocence. At the same time, however, this was only one facet of what we know was a very complex artist and individual, and to reduce his entire persona to such a one note portrayal is both insulting and misleading (indeed, such portrayals largely remain the reason Jackson remains so misunderstood by the public at large). One only has to look at that atrocious Man in the Mirror TV movie from 2004 to realize how damaging such portrayals have been. At best, these portrayals give the impression of an innocent man/child. But they also reduce him to seemingly nothing more than a deluded-even mentally ill- individual out of touch with reality. I once had a conversation about Michael Jackson with a bus driver who said she had always loved his music but was convinced “that boy needed some therapy or something.” I asked what had led her to that conclusion. He “needed therapy” based on what criteria, exactly? I asked her if she had even read that much about him. “No,” she answered honestly, “but I saw that movie where he was just running and jumping around with that bunch of kids. It was bizarre.” Of course, she couldn’t remember what film she was referring to, but I knew instantly. She was talking about Man in the Mirror.
Well, here’s the thing: That movie, too, had some good intentions. If anything, the writers seemed convinced they were presenting a balanced portrayal of Michael that might lead to some casting of public doubt on his guilt as the Arvizo trial approached. At the same time, they seemed to think that the only way Michael could possibly be acquitted in the court of public opinion was by portraying him as a delusional and regressed man/child-the Peter Pan myth incarnate.
If a project ever got it right, they could certainly do much with the idea of an idealistic man who truly believed in the power of childlike innocence–one who nevertheless became crushed and ultimately destroyed by the realities of the corrupt adult world-but that project has yet to surface, and would certainly take a far better and more sensitive writer than any who have thus far turned their hand to a screenplay on Michael Jackson’s life. If such a project were ever to emerge, I would certainly be the first to applaud the courage of bringing it forth. But so far, the biggest challenge that has marred these otherwise well-intentioned projects is that it is difficult, at best, to offer a portrayal that balances that fine line between whimsy, childlike idealism and lunacy. Most films make the mistake of tipping that balance on the side of lunacy, rather than by taking a much needed cue from films like Finding Neverland.
But the truth of the matter is that no Michael Jackson film project is ever going to be totally free from controversy. From casting decisions, to the portrayal itself, to what elements of his life are explored and which are ignored, all will be decisions that are not going to please every critic and certainly not every fan. Even This Is It-a movie that starred the man himself-was not immune to controversy, but instead became one of the first truly polarizing projects to tear apart the fan community.
However, there are reasons why the kinds of portrayals such as what “Urban Myths” was planning are especially dangerous. I know that some will scoff and say, “Lighten up; it’s just a comedy” and I might agree-if this was some occasional, one-off deal or if it was anybody but Michael Jackson, an artist whose reputation has only begun to rehabilitate itself after decades of being dragged through the mud, an artist whose very humanity continues to be fogged by a public narrative forged on tabloid myths and comedy skits. As an artist myself, I appreciate the concept of parody and fully support the freedom of artistic expression. At the same time, as someone who admires Michael Jackson in all of his three dimensional complexity, I understandably have issues with the insistence on constantly casting him into the same cliched and worn-out mold, which only serve to reinforce misconceptions that many already hold (as Michael himself once said, if you repeat a lie long enough, it becomes the truth).
I applaud SkyArt’s decision to cancel the airing of the episode (although I suspect it will still surface in some form). But the upshot of the matter was that the decision to cancel the show led to a predictably severe backlash in which ill informed commenters, bloggers, and journalists felt compelled to put in their two cents’ worth of opinions about Michael Jackson and race. Out came the usual parade of cliches’: “He wasn’t black by 2001; he was white”; “Well, he wanted to be white, anyway” and on and on. Inevitably, such typical comments would often be framed by the even more typical question of white privilege: “What’s the big deal?” I remember getting so heated with one particular poster on SkyTV’s Twitter that I wrote, “Sure, and let’s bring back the days of minstrel shows, black face comedy and Italians in bad wigs playing Native Americans. I mean, what’s the big deal?”
However, I was quickly brought to an even more unsettling revelation. There was a time when such a response might have provoked a genuine, “Gee, I never thought about it like that.” But this is the era of Trump’s America, where all notions of what have been perceived as politically correct progress seem to be regressing. I am no longer convinced that I am dealing with individuals who are even remotely capable of feeling shamed by such statements.
Similarly, Paris’s statement in her Rolling Stone interview that she identifies herself as a black woman (let’s keep in mind she had a black father and was raised as a Jackson) unleashed another round of furor from this same faction. Within 24 hours of the interview going public, BET and Wendy Williams both made headlines with statements like, “Not everyone is on board with Paris identifying as black” as if it is really supposed to matter who is “on board” with it or not.
One would certainly think that someone like Wendy Williams-who herself has had to endure much controversy, gossip, and speculation about whether or not she is, in fact, trans gender-would be more sympathetic to Paris. And, look, I get what Williams was saying, that someone like Paris will never have to worry about the stigmas of racial profiling, but the same argument could be made for any biracial person who just happens to look more like their “light complexioned” side of the family. To single Paris out for this kind of treatment is not only unfair to her, it is a slap in the face to every person of mixed race ethnicity, especially those who choose to identify with the side they least physically resemble. I am mixed Native American and Irish ancestry. For all outward appearances, I look “white” but am proud to identify myself as Native American. Among my relatives, I have many dark skinned, black haired and brown eyed siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews who do show this lineage. But just because my genes determined that I would look more like my European ancestors does not change the fact that, on the inside, my blood is still more than half Cherokee. Yet I know how racial snobbery works. I have seen it and have myself been a target for it. For people like me, full blooded Natives will often point fingers and make the same argument: “Look at you. You can be Indian by choice. You have no idea what it’s like to have grown up on a reservation, to get the dirty looks and to be spit on when you go into town,” etc etc.” Part of me acknowledges they are right, of course. I don’t have to worry that I’m going to be pulled over and harassed by police because I fit some dark skinned profile or stereotype that they have of a person with brown or black skin. By the same token, however, it makes me resentful when I feel that my right to identify as I choose is being infringed upon by people who know nothing of my family history or my genetic makeup. Always, the first defensive thought that snaps into my mind (and which I often have to bite my tongue to refrain from saying) is that “We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if I had olive skin, black hair and brown eyes.”
I am stating this , of course, because it has direct correlation to what I see happening now. No one would be making those hateful comments to Paris if she had come out looking, I suppose, more like a Jackson and perhaps less like her white mother Debbie. But it goes even deeper than that. The real source of the outrage stems from something much deeper, uglier, and more psychologically complex, which is the deeply and culturally ingrained belief that Michael Jackson wanted to be white (not just that he had a skin disease) and that he somehow went out of his way to “purchase” white children that are not biologically his. This belief is now so persistent that no amount of evidence to the contrary, no statements from Michael Jackson or from his children themselves, can persuade them to any other view. I doubt at this point that even a confirmed DNA test would do much to change this view. I am firmly convinced now that people are going to continue to believe whatever they choose to believe about Michael Jackson or his children regardless of any evidence that might stand in direct contradiction to those beliefs.
In other words, there seems to be a deeply ingrained sense of justification on the public’s part that both Michael and his children are lying (or in denial or some extreme case of delusion) and therefore it is perfectly justifiable to hurl insults and to attempt a kind of “calling out” with every interview and every public statement uttered. One truly has to wonder why so many feel the need to be so seriously invested in this topic, and why race continues to be the public’s most ongoing concern when it comes to Michael Jackson’s children.
Nevertheless, I didn’t really start out here to make this a commentary on Michael, his children and race. It’s just that all of these recent events-and the public’s reactions to them-have served as eye openers in reminding me of just how hateful human nature can be, but I am referring to much more than just the usual barrage of hateful comments that pepper any article relating to Michael Jackson or his race or his children. What has struck me even more deeply this time is the absolute and delusional sense of entitlement that the media, the public-and yes, even some fans-have displayed in regard to the Jackson family, their race and even their genetics. The simple fact is that people somehow feel entitled to bully Michael’s children-and to continue to bully their father from the grave-out of some enraged sense of entitled belief that it is okay because “they aren’t really his biological children,” or “they aren’t really black” and because it has become all too easy now to pick apart anything they say as either a result of outright lying, or as a by product of some delusional upbringing. Sadly, if this only came from the media or the usual faction of MJ hater internet trolls, it would be easy enough to excuse. But now it seems to have even trickled down to the fandom, and over the last few years, I have seen an alarming and polarizing divisiveness growing over Michael’s children. It started back in 2012 when Paris first sounded the alarm on social media about her grandmother Katherine’s “kidnapping” by relatives, and since then has escalated as the children have matured and come into their own, all of which has included their fair share of controversial tweets and sometimes polarizing stances on controversial issues. For example, when Prince Jackson spoke out publicly in support of “All Lives Matter,” he was immediately attacked on social media by fans who called him “white” and said that he was not Michael’s son. I was aghast and appalled to see such hurtful comments being hurled at Michael’s son by his own supposed “fans.” It’s not that I think we have to agree with everything they say. What he said was certainly controversial, coming from the son of the man who gave us “They Don’t Care About Us” (but, also, let’s not forget his father was the same man who gave us “Heal the World”). I understand why “All Lives Matter” is an affront to “Black Lives Matter” but my point is that there are ways to disagree without resorting to personal attacks. Those fans who tweeted to Prince that he was “not his father’s son” bespoke of something truly evil that I fear lies simmering just beneath the surface of the fandom, and this is a genuine distrust/hatred of his children by some factions (due to nothing more than their light skinned appearance)which has only intensified since they have come of age, old enough to forage their own identities beyond their father’s and to state their own opinions. It reminds me of some of the uglier aspects that I see happening right now in our country, where certain segments feel they have squirmed too long under the yoke of political correctness, and now suddenly feel liberated to say exactly what they really felt all along. But to tell this young man that he is not his father’s biological son-something that at best remains only media speculation and has never been confirmed-is crossing a line that no journalist, hater, or fan has the right to cross.
But none of Michael’s children it seems, has both invited and been targeted by this polarization quite like Michael’s strong willed and often outspoken daughter Paris.
Paris’s interview with Rolling Stone was a brutal, no-holds-barred, painfully honest reflection of her life. It had the right title-“Leaving Neverland,” the perfect metaphor for growing up and leaving behind the life of innocence that she had there, with her father. Even though I have my own issues with Rolling Stone‘s refusal to truly give Michael Jackson his due as an artist (as well as their own generally white rock elitist attitude) this piece reminded me of why I have always loved Rolling Stone‘s interviews, from the time when I was a teenager and first set my sights on pop music journalism as one of my life’s callings. Like the best classic Rolling Stone interviews, it is not a piece confined by tight boundaries or restrictive content. It freely rambles at a leisurely pace, thoroughly pulling the reader into Paris’s world and the surreal life-part halcyon; part chaos-that has come with being a child of arguably the most famous icon in the world.
To those like Wendy Williams who questioned, what has Paris done to deserve a Rolling Stone cover and feature, I think it is a fair question to raise. I’m sure there are a million talented music artists who probably deserve that kind of recognition, and here is Paris Jackson whose only claim to fame is a famous name. But let’s face it, ever since that heartbreaking moment when she took the microphone at her father’s memorial and said, “Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine” both the media and the public have been fascinated by her. That fascination has never abated, and as we have watched her grow from that shy and geeky little girl to a beautiful and brazenly outspoken woman, it has only intensified. Among her father’s fans, she is often both applauded for her strong stances and, by turns, referred to as a “spoiled brat” and “poor example” when she refuses to tow a certain, expected line (which has ran the gamut of everything from her fashion choices to her public outspokenness on addiction, race, and other controversial issues).
As for why Paris chose to do the Rolling Stone issue, it’s obvious that she is looking to launch her own show business career. That should be no shocker. It’s what she has wanted ever since she was a small child. Even in an early home video, she can be heard telling her father, “I want to do what you do.”
Paris had set her sights on becoming an actress long before her father’s passing, and although her goals were disrupted in her early teens due to depression and-as we know now, addiction issues-she now seems to be back on track.
Okay, so that might explain the motivation behind doing the interview, but the next question is: Why is this even a polarizing issue? I don’t get the resentment over it. I could see if it had been a negative review full of trash talk about her father, but it isn’t that at all. In fact, she speaks of him as glowingly and lovingly as she always has. And yet, as I read many of the reactions to her interview on social media and fan sites, I was struck by the especial venom that many of these comments dripped with. There were fans who said she was lying (again, this is false entitlement) but lying about what, exactly? Again, the reason I found the comments so puzzling is because I had to wonder if, indeed, we had read the same interview. There were some who said that she cast doubt on Michael’s parenting. Again, I had to ask: Did we read the same interview? I went back over the entire thing with a fine-tooted comb, wondering what I must have possibly missed. And out of all of it, the only thing that could be construed as “bad parenting”-if we really want to split hairs over something like this-is that she says he “had kind of a potty mouth” and could curse “like a sailor.”
To be honest, I, too, felt that the comment on Christopher Columbus-“he fucking slaughtered them”-sounded more like Paris than Michael talking, but I don’t doubt those were Michael’s sentiments and if he told the kids that, then so what? He told them the bloody truth. But this points to a bigger truth that seemed to color perceptions of the entire interview. Every time Paris is making a statement regarding a broader point of truth that she wanted to get across about her father’s values, or to exemplify the kind of person and parent he was, readers start splitting hairs over the way she expresses it, or the words with which the idea is framed, rather than the general truth about her father’s character that she is really trying to get across. Thus, there are readers who will overlook the fact that Michael was teaching his kids the true facts about history because-God forbid, we all know Michael didn’t curse like that! How dare she!
But it goes deeper. It turns out, the more I investigated, the more it seemed that a lot of people were jumping the gun about this interview based on-yes, poor reading comprehension skills, limited attention spans, and a willingness to start spreading rumors about the interview’s contents without even bothering to fact check what was actually said in the piece. First of all, we need to separate the truth of this interview’s contents vs. a lot of the bullshit that has been circulating around the internet.
To address one of the biggest false rumors to come out of this piece, Paris stated that she was “sexually assaulted” at age 14 by a “stranger.” I have since heard some circulating rumors that this individual may have, in fact, been someone known to the family but I cannot confirm that those reports are true. In any event, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that this was an awful, traumatic thing that this girl endured, and yet instead of having sympathy for her, I’ve seen many condemn her for speaking out about it. Why? Well, it seems that some ignorant reporter or someone skimming through the whole article too hurriedly to even be bothered with details-or perhaps simply as a result of willful malice- picked up on that detail and somehow twisted it into an accusation that Paris had stated her father had abused her. There was yet another variation on the bullshit twisting of this incident where some dim witted fan (yes, I said dim witted!) started an internet rumor that Paris claimed she was raped in front of her dad. Where that idea came from I have no earthly idea. From Mars, maybe?
First of all, anyone who has actually used two brain cells and invested fifteen minutes of time to actually read the article knows that is a piece of bullshit lie that is nowhere in the interview. Paris does state she was sexually assaulted, but at age fourteen, which would have placed the alleged incident as over three years after her father passed! Here is the actual passage, as quoted from the article. It is the only mention of sexual assault anywhere in the piece!
There was another trauma that she’s never mentioned in public. When she was 14, a much older “complete stranger” sexually assaulted her, she says. “I don’t wanna give too many details. But it was not a good experience at all, and it was really hard for me, and, at the time, I didn’t tell anybody.”
I saw some fans debating as to whether she may have been referring to the incident having taken place in front of her current boyfriend, Michael Snoddy. But again, this is a clearly a case of people jumping the gun about the interview’s contents without having actually read it, or apparently having read it so hurriedly that they couldn’t be bothered with details. Since she clearly states this happened when she was fourteen, it was long before Michael Snoddy was in her life. But more important to note, there is no mention of the name “Michael” anywhere in conjunction with the incident. I have pasted the passage verbatim exactly as it appeared in the article, and nowhere is the name “Michael” mentioned. She isn’t claiming she was assaulted by someone named “Michael,”; she isn’t claiming to have been assaulted in front of someone named “Michael” so why this has even been a topic for debate-either in the media or among the fandom- I frankly have no earthly idea.
Obviously, this confession, along with many others such as her issues with addiction, depression and mental illness, are not a reflection at all on Michael’s parenting, but rather, a brutally honest confession from his daughter about the traumas she has endured since his passing, mostly as a direct result of losing the only parent she knew and the only one who was able to give her any sense of stability or true guidance in her life. Anyone who chooses to read it otherwise is either seriously challenged in reading comprehension skills or choosing to be willfully selective about the bones they want to pick with Paris. Through it all, my impression between the lines was that of a lost child who is keenly aware that her path would have been much different if her father had lived, but it is the hand she was dealt and she has worked hard to overcome her demons. That is no one’s fault-either hers or her father’s. It is simply the reality of what she has grown up with as Michael Jackson’s daughter and as a child who lost a parent much too early.
Another controversial passage from the interview that seemed to become the topic of hot debate was whether Paris had referred to her father as “homophobic.” That debate stemmed from this passage:
She says Michael emphasized tolerance. “My dad raised me in a very open-minded house,” she says. “I was eight years old, in love with this female on the cover of a magazine. Instead of yelling at me, like most homophobic parents, he was making fun of me, like, ‘Oh, you got yourself a girlfriend.’
This was more a case of simple bad phrasing, but the actual meaning should be obvious. What is clearly meant by the statement is “unlike many parents who are homophobic” but again, we are splitting hairs since the passage makes it abundantly clear that Michael wasn’t outraged about this incident, but took it in good natured stride. Certainly a topic that remains hotly debated among many factions is that of Michael’s own sexuality, and among fans (most of whom do not question that Michael was straight), there is also ongoing debate as to just how tolerant vs. conservative his own views were. Personally, I believe Michael grew up with very conservative views but, obviously, those views would have ultimately been shaped, challenged, and altered by a life spent in the very liberal world of show business. Either way, that Michael was comfortable enough in his own views to tease his daughter about “having a girlfriend” simply means he wasn’t a parent who was going to get bent out of shape over something like that. Of course, there are also those who will come from the opposite end of the spectrum and say, “Look, he was encouraging his daughter to like women. What kind of parent does that?” so either way, someone is going to get their feathers ruffled. But again, a close reading of the passage reveals neither approbation or condemnation-Paris, at best, was probably only four to seven years old at the time-but like she said, it simply shows him as a tolerant parent and individual.
Yet another controversial bomb dropped in the article was Paris’s statement that she and the family believe that Michael was murdered. Well, at least for some in the media, this seemed to be a “shocking revelation” although I have no idea why. Michael’s death was ruled a homicide in 2009; was the subject of two highly publicized death trials, and has been the subject of ongoing speculation and conspiracy theories for years. So I’m not exactly sure why now, all of a sudden, the media is all over Paris and acting as if she’s dropped some shocking bomb over her dad’s death or acting as if they think she is sitting on some deep, hidden secret information that no one else knows. I know exactly what Paris was referring to and it is the same beliefs that many of us have held to since 2009. It continues to be a source of futility and frustration because many of us, just like Paris, know that Conrad Murray’s measly two year sentence wasn’t even partial justice, but whatever the case, it definitely is neither “news” nor, at this point, “shocking.” I think Paris puts these statements out there because she is still bothered that more hasn’t been done to bring real closure and justice to this case, yet every time she does, she is setting herself up as a target-sadly, from those who will insist she is delusional “just like the rest of the family” to even those fans who will resent her for keeping that pot stirred. Let’s not forget, the media has already made up its own narrative of how Michael Jackson died. It’s the tragic story of one more superstar who couldn’t handle the pressures of fame, and self destructed as a result. Anything that deviates from that narrative is going to be met with skepticism and ridicule. But since it does make good copy, the tabloids will naturally be all over Paris’s statement as if it is news all over again. Already Radar Online has used it to hatch a phony story about Michael’s body being exhumed for another autopsy-an article so shoddy they even quote FBI specialist Ted Gunderson-deceased since 2011-as if he has just issued a statement regarding the need to exhume Michael’s body! Yet nowhere in that article do they actually bother to connect the dots. No one is disputing the coroner’s ruling that Michael Jackson died from a propofol overdose. That isn’t the point; this isn’t about disputing what killed Michael Jackson. The point that remains is-who did it, how, and why? And was it a slow, methodical poisoning, or a decision made that night to finish him off? These are the kinds of questions that have to be raised. But to resume my original point, it is absolutely ludicrous that the media has swarmed all over Paris for this one comment, to the near exclusion of everything else in her interview (which, let’s not forget, is mostly about all that she has had to overcome, from suicide attempts to being a rape victim).
And, to some extent, I feel anger towards those who will devote more time to worrying over how she makes her father look in an interview-or the impression she is giving of him-than any actual concern for her as a person in her own right. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we know the reasons it bothers us every time one of Michael’s kids speaks out. What will he/she say, and will it make their father look bad or cast aspersion on him in some way? We have to somehow get past that. The usual claws are going to come out every time Michael’s kids are featured in any public light-positive or negative. We know the usual questions of, “Are those really his kids?” are going to come up; that stupid people are going to waste more time dissecting their skin tone and eye color than anything they have to say. I felt bad for Paris that she even had to feel the need to “go there” in her interview. She doesn’t owe the world an explanation for her genetic makeup; for her skin color or how she chooses to identify. As if I hadn’t been irked enough by so many of the rude and nonsensical comments I saw in the aftermath of this interview, it was even more appalling to see fans who were seriously discussing the question of why Michael’s kids didn’t just get a DNA test and publicly end all of the speculation?
First of all, Paris did claim at one point to have had a DNA test. She even posted it on her Twitter-“Where do you think my first haircut went?”-but for some reason (surprise, surprise!) the media chose to ignore it completely.Interesting, considering that we know the media is all over those kids’ twitter accounts like hawks! They sure didn’t waste any time pouncing on it when Prince made the statement about “the blood of the covenant” being “thicker than the water of the womb.” This was no surprise, since Prince’s comment appeared to confirm the media narrative, while Paris’s served as a direct contradiction. Apparently, however, Paris deleted the tweet soon afterward. I’m not sure why (perhaps on advice from the family or a publicist) but I do know she put it out there, however briefly. I had even screen capped her tweet (I still have it saved under the title “Paris DNA test”) but now if I try to upload it, I simply get an error message stating that the file cannot be opened. So I am sorry I can only state my word that I did see such a tweet from her, and I am sure there are some fans who will recall it because it was being discussed briefly on social media before it completely disappeared. But it is clear that her statements in the Rolling Stone interview continue to confirm that she apparently has every reason to believe she is a biological Jackson. Do I sometimes get weary with it all and wish the kids would just get a DNA test and put out an official statement? Yes. But as I stated previously, these days I am not so sure that even that would be enough to shut up the doubters. People would still insist on clinging to their own stubborn beliefs; they would say the tests are fake; the family is lying. Nothing would change.
As for the impression she portrays of her father in the interview, it is the same one we have always been privy to-a devoted father who loved his kids, and was the center of their world. The interview isn’t so much about that as it is about what happened to this young woman when that world was pulled out from under her. And yet, when incidents happen such as the inexcusable incident of Paris being jumped and cornered by paparazzi at at an airport only days after the interview hit, there were those who said “she brought it on herself” and “it’s not a good look” for Michael Jackson’s daughter to be running in an airport (yes, someone said that).
First of all, any viewing of that footage should be enough to make anyone who says she is “asking for it” to feel shame. Paris is clearly overwhelmed by this ambush (I agree with all those who asked: Where was security?) and cornered like an animal. Again, the media twisted the headlines to make it sound like she “freaked out” over being questioned about her father’s murder, when the reality of what the footage shows us is that she was CLEARLY “freaking out” over being ambushed and bombarded. By the point where she is running and crying is clearly when these reporters should have backed off. When I saw the footage, I immediately thought of Princess Diana and her own father, Michael. When Princess Diana died as a direct result of being chased by paparazzi, one media headline referred to her as a deer being hunted. Yet this is ample proof that the media never has, and never will, learn by its mistakes. When I saw this footage, the first thought that popped into my head was, “This is another suicide in the making.” I hope against hope that I am proven wrong, but in show business, I have seen these vicious cycles repeat themselves so often that nothing truly surprises me anymore. This is, in many ways, the culmination of the tragic cycle that began when Michael, a baby of five, was thrust into the spotlight far too young.
But there is another side of that tale that we must acknowledge, which is that Michael loved his life in the spotlight and, even if given a choice, probably wouldn’t have changed a thing. I always believed that Michael had a definite love/hate relationship with fame, and to those who question why Paris continues to court this kind of attention even while knowing the consequences, I think this is at least part of the key that we must understand. Prince has said that she is more like Michael than either himself or his brother, and I think this is one of the biggest traits she shares with him-the craving for adulation that drives her to the spotlight on the one hand, coupled with the fragility that makes her easily overwhelmed when it gets to be too much. And it may indeed be a fair criticism to say that Paris has brought some of the negative attention she receives on herself. After all, no one is forcing her to be on social media; no one (at least we can presume!) is forcing her to do interviews. But to argue that Michael’s children should stay silent or somehow make themselves invisible isn’t addressing the true, underlying problem. It needs to start with the sense of entitled bullying that gives others the right to presume that they somehow have more knowledge about what is “right,” what is “correct,” and what is “fact from fiction” in a celebrity’s life than they know themselves.
No doubt, Paris is taking on the role of celebrity with full knowledge of what that life entails. She grew up with it; she saw what it did to and for her father. But she is also an adult now and old enough to make her decisions. She is, after all, the product of a show business family and has grown up immersed in that world. It shouldn’t come as any shocker that she has grown up knowing fully well the inherent risks of celebrity, but also its rewards. As to whether she possesses any actual talent, that remains to be seen. She may well fall flat on her face. Then again, she could usher in the new generation of Jackson family superstars. We just don’t know, and it is too early to tell. But whatever happens, both her mistakes and her triumphs are going to play out on the world’s stage. At some point, those of us who are more invested in her father’s legacy than in hers’ will nevertheless have to learn to let go and let her make her own mistakes. Without those mistakes, she will never be able to flex her wings and grow, either as a human being or as an artist in her own right.
The interview’s publication has no doubt raised a lot of the old arguments as to whether “this is what Michael would have wanted” for his kids. Well, first of all, Michael never explicitly stated that he did not want his children to be in show business. I’m not sure where that myth comes from. In his autobiography Moonwalk Michael stated:
“A lot of celebrities say they don’t want their children to go into show business. I can understand their feelings, but I don’t agree with them. If I had a son or daughter, I’d say, ‘By all means, be my guest. Step right in there. If you want to do it, do it.”-Michael Jackson, excerpted from Moonwalk p. 282.
Ten years later, even after the birth of his first child, his views had not changed. This is what he told Barbara Walters in 1997:
It is true that Michael kept his children’s faces masked to protect them from the paparazzi (and from the threat of kidnapping, which I have heard-and frankly believe-was a much bigger concern for him) but even he knew there was going to come a time when the masks would have to come off. He couldn’t keep them hidden forever, and frankly, that was never his intent.
And since Paris’s interview has been released, it has raised another old, often beaten about issue that I think, finally, needs to be laid to rest. Once again, I heard all of the old arguments that “this is not what Michael would have wanted.” These kinds of arguments may have had validity when the children were younger and were being exposed to some often questionable decisions and publicity stunts. But I am not so sure these arguments hold the same validity now that Prince and Paris, at least, are adults and old enough to make their own decisions. Paris will soon be turning nineteen. At some point, it has to cease being about what Michael would have wanted, and has to become about what she wants for her life.
And we must face the hard truth that inevitably would have confronted Michael had he lived-that is, at some point, we have to know when to let go. Prince, Paris and Blanket have indeed had to learn to life in a “life after Neverland.” It hasn’t always been pretty, or easy, but I am still confident that these young people will never do their father anything less than proud.