Mad, bad & dangerous. Some of the kinder things said about late King of Pop Michael Jackson since the allegations levelled against him & his subsequent death by drug overdose. As an artist, though, there was a time when he was virtually unassailable at the top of the charts. And a look through his output reveals a high productivity when it came to film work too.
Beginning with 1978's The Wiz, an all-black cast remake of The Wizard Of Oz in which he played the scarecrow & contributed to the soundtrack...
Jackson was dedicated to the role, and watched videotapes of gazelles, cheetahs, and panthers in order to learn graceful movements for his part. The Wiz gave him something of a desire to work more in film, as well as marking his first collaboration with music producer Quincey Jones, the man who would later produce three hit albums for Jackson; Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad. And when it came to Thriller, Jackson bought the world of movie making to the world of pop with an groundbreaking music video to accompany the title track.
The 1982 video was directed by John Landis, fresh from An American Werewolf In London, and was released just as the relatively new MTV was enjoying a massive surge in popularity. The short film featured in heavy rotation and changed the perception of music video forever. Jackson would later recall that,
"My idea was to make this short film with conversation ... in the beginning - I like having a beginning and a middle and an ending, which would follow a story. I'm very much involved in complete making and creating of the piece. It has to be, you know, my soul. Usually, you know, it's an interpretation of the music.Speaking to the Telegraph, its director perhaps understated things.
It was a delicate thing to work on because I remember my original approach was, 'How do you make zombies and monsters dance without it being comical?' So I said, 'We have to do just the right kind of movement so it doesn't become something that you laugh at.'
But it just has to take it to another level. So I got in a room with [choreographer] Michael Peters, and he and I together kind of imagined how these zombies move by making faces in the mirror. I used to come to rehearsal sometimes with monster makeup on, and I loved doing that."
"All that happened was that Michael called me up after watching American Werewolf. So I went to see him with Rick Baker, who had done the special effects make-up on that film, and we took along a big book of monsters for him to look at. He hadn't seen many horror films: he was scared of that stuff.
After The Blues Brothers, I wanted to do a good musical number with real dancers and shoot it correctly. And I tried to exploit Michael's celebrity to reinvent the theatrical short. That's why it's 14 minutes: it's a two-reeler, the same length as a Laurel and Hardy short or a Bugs Bunny cartoon."
That same year Jackson would record an audiobook of ET, which saw release after Christmas, to avoid competition with Thriller. It also served as a soundtrack of sorts, with Jackson feeling a kinship with the alien!
"He's in a strange place and wants to be accepted—which is a situation that I have found myself in many times when travelling from city to city all over the world. He's most comfortable with children, and I have a great love for kids.In 1986, Jackson would be instrumental in Disney's Captain EO attraction, part of its theme parks for ten years from 1986-96, returning temporarily as a tribute following his sad demise.
He gives love and wants love in return, which is me. And he has that super power which lets him lift off and fly whenever he wants to get away from things on Earth, and I can identify with that. He and I are alike in many ways."
The following year he would attempt to top Thriller, in both sales and ambition, with Bad, and once again he produced a short film for the title track. This time with director Martin Scorsese behind the camera, and a young Wesley Snipes as co-star...
1988 would see him straddle the worlds of music & film again with Moonwalker. Rather than featuring one continuous narrative, the film is a collection of short films about Jackson, several of which are long-form music videos from Jackson's Bad album. The film is named after the dance technique known as the moonwalk, which Jackson was known for performing in the 1980s.
Incidentally, the name of the dance move was dubbed by the media, not by Jackson himself; however, he did choose the title of the film himself...
By 1997 he was in familiar territory once more with Ghosts, co-written by one Stephen King. His memories as recorded in Entertainment Weekly prove vivid!
"One day during preproduction, I was in on a conference call about the choreography, and Michael fell asleep. On another occasion, he called my wife, wanting the phone number for wherever I was that day.
She gave it to him. Michael called back five minutes later, on the verge of tears. He hadn’t had a pencil, he said, so he’d tried to write the number on the carpet with his finger, and he couldn’t read it. My wife gave him the number again. Michael thanked her profusely…but never called me.
The video contains some of the best, most inspired dancing of Jackson’s career. If you look at it, I think you’ll see why Fred Astaire (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OeQ39Ad9vFA) called Jackson ‘a helluva mover.’ You’ll also see Jackson’s sadness and almost painful desire to please. Yes, I am strange, his eyes say, but I am doing the best I can, and I want to make you happy. Is that so bad?
This is a sadness that’s all too common in people who possess talent in amounts so great it has become a burden instead of a blessing. Despite being extraordinarily beautiful (although he had probably already begun the elective surgeries that would ruin those amazing looks), Jackson was painfully shy, and difficult (sometimes impossible) to talk to, but watching that old video still makes me happy…and no, that’s not bad."
The most poignant film document of him, though, has to be 2009's This Is It, intended to showcase a triumphant comeback but curtailed by his death before what was planned to be the longest residency at the 02 Arena could kick off.
Attending the press release, shortly before Jackson's death, The Daily Mail described the event,
"There was no moonwalk yesterday, no dancing, not even the wiggle of a surgically enhanced hip. Instead, Jackson made it clear that his forthcoming tour would be the last time he'd perform in London.
'This really is it,' he said. 'When I say this is it, it really means this is it.' And just in case anyone failed to pick up on the message, he added: 'This is the final curtain call.'
Quite whether that was worth a five hour wait in the refrigerator temperatures of the 02 Arena was the subject of much discussion afterwards among those who had so loyally endured the queueing marathon.
What was billed as a press conference turned out to be four minutes that failed to change the world. But, don't worry. There will doubtless be masses of hyped up non-events like this one throughout what is certain to become the Summer of Jacko."
A Summer of Jacko that sadly never came.