Sunday, August 8, 2010

This is It: Some Final Thoughts on Michael Jackson

I recently caught up with Kenny Ortega's 2009 documentary Michael Jackson's This is It and thankfully it isn't an act of exploitation. Now I wouldn't put Ortega in the same league as Bob Fosse (Cabaret), but This is It certainly proves that great choreographers can sometimes make pretty good film directors. The movie documents Jackson's rehearsals and preparations for the comeback he was about to launch on July 13, 2009. When he died on June 25th, however, the only remnants of what might have been were captured by Ortega's film team shooting Jackson running through musical numbers, auditioning and directing the dancers, the conceptual stage design work, and some interviews with those who took part in the preparation for the show that never was.

What's particularly staggering - and thrilling - about this extremely entertaining picture is that it manages to both fundamentally shape the process of Jackson's art as well as demonstrate it. That is, we get to see Michael Jackson (who looks in peak form) working out the program as well as executing the numbers. This is It also reveals that the concerts were designed as a Michael Jackson musical primer that would cover his entire career dating back to the Jackson Five. Ortega stages the numbers as if he's imagining what they'd look like in their finished form. He thinks like a dancer so the images move fluidly with the music. (The footage was filmed at the Staples Center and Los Angeles Forum arenas in California.)

The footage is spellbinding whether Jackson is prancing like a cat on the prowl through "Wanna Be Startin' Something" in the opening number or transfixing in the stillness of the a capella version of "Human Nature." The song "Smooth Criminal" shows him inserted in footage from Gilda (1946) with Rita Hayworth singing "Put the Blame on Mame" just for him (where, shortly after, Bogart in The Big Sleep jealously hunts him down). Jackson's showmanship is seldom separated from the mythical baggage he created around him. But This is It is a strange piece of work because we watch it with the recognition that Jackson is now gone and the show - with its dynamism and its ostentatious peculiarities - exists now purely in our own head. Kenny Ortega (at least until the unbearably saccharine ending) manages to keep the picture dancing and our final look at Jackson, without argument, shows us why, as critic Charles Taylor said in Dissent, no performer before Jackson "ever appealed across racial, sexual, class, national boundaries to the extent that Michael Jackson did."

This is It sums up Jackson's life and work more profoundly than his memorial did. The Michael Jackson memorial unveiled more of the paradoxes of the man than they were memorializing. There were moments that were stirring (Jennifer Hudson’s powerhouse performance of “Will You Be There”), maudlin (Lionel Ritchie and Mariah Carey oozing banality), thoughtful (Barry Gordy and Smoky Robinson eloquently summing up Jackson’s artistic legacy), bombastic (Rev. Al Sharpton giving new meaning to being in denial), unassuming (John Mayer’s lovely instrumental version of “Human Nature”), too assuming (Usher ushering in the worst in sanctimony while gently touching Jackson’s coffin), doleful (Jermaine Jackson’s plaintive rendering of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”) and appalling (take your pick: the group sing of “We Are the World,” or the shameful exploitation of his young daughter’s grief at the end). I liked that the ceremony was rendered in the black gospel tradition that once again reminded us of Jackson’s roots. While Michael Jackson’s troubling life and predilections will never dissolve his artistic zeal or his place in American pop music, it will also never be inseparable from it. It’s no accident that people are reminded of Elvis when they talk of Jackson. (Of course, he also married Elvis’s daughter Lisa Marie which just adds another cornerstone to American Gothic.)

In 1954, when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation, I believe Elvis acted on that pledge when he recorded Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” and Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train.” He not only brought the spirit of black American music boldly into the white mainstream but, as he captured its sound and feeling, Elvis also made the music entirely his own. When Jackson broke in the late sixties with the Jackson Five, he was part of the Motown continuum of producing exciting black commercial pop. But when he went solo in the late seventies with the propulsive Off the Wall (1979) and in the eighties with Thriller (1982), Jackson fearlessly confronted white corporate rock (which didn’t exist in Elvis’s day) and took black soul and dance music and integrated it into mainstream rock. His artistic daring challenged MTV, the new video channel, who were ignoring black music, thus demanding that they play his videos. Of course, like Elvis, Jackson would also find fame at the cost of being consumed by it. The American artist often becomes cannibalized because of his distinctiveness. But while his uniqueness attracts us, we also wish to tame him and turn him into an object of worship, thus defeating his rebellion. So Elvis bloated himself (as did Brando) while Jackson re-made himself into a freak. (Unlike many others, though, I don’t believe Jackson was trying to turn white through his numerous plastic surgeries. If anything, he seemed to be transforming himself into a Kabuki version of Diana Ross – which suggests a whole other set of problems.)

Some of the best words on Jackson can be found in Mikal Gilmore’s wonderful book, Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll (Doubleday, 1998), which also includes perceptive essays on The Allman Brothers Band, Frank Sinatra, Prince and Lou Reed. He characterizes Jackson’s contribution to pop succinctly: “Michael Jackson…[is] an astonishing singer whose vocalizing is both a consummation of R&B history as well as a fresh new start…who embodies the whole spectrum of black dance style from Cab Calloway to James Brown and then some…Jackson is a half-mad and extraordinary talent in a nation that both sanctifies him and hates him for his prowess – and either response spells a difficult artistic future.” These are alone prescient observations – but he goes even further. “He lives in – as critic Dave Marsh once pointed out – a trap, and while much of it is of his own doing, no doubt some of it is of our making as well.” He then summarizes Jackson by quoting from poet William Carlos Williams who once said, “The pure products of America go crazy.” Critic Peter Guralnick often used those lines to define Elvis after his death. But the question that continues to be unanswered is who drove those pure products mad: their purity or our corruption of it? This is It only goes so far in coming to grips with that question. But what it does with zeal is give us the pure excitement of Michael Jackson's art.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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