“An American Dream Come True”: Transformation, Pursuit, and Control in Michael Jackson’s ‘Moonwalker’

Features / July 10, 2018

GRASSO: When you first suggested we look at Moonwalker (which I literally knew nothing about at the time), I figured it would be a fairly anodyne collection of Michael Jackson music videos. Do you remember back when artists would release their last couple of albums’ music videos on a single, hour-long VHS? Those were great times. Moonwalker? Not great times.

A disorienting, disturbing journey through the life and psyche of Michael Jackson circa the Bad album, Moonwalker is a Boschian portrait of a man slowly losing his mind. And yet, on this first watch, I found it almost compulsively watchable. Every new segment revealed some new, eerie offense against aesthetics and taste. It’s not quite tragic enough (and a bit too sincere) to be camp, but at the same time, it’s near horrifying in its naked display of Jackson’s egoism and mania.

God, where do we even begin? I suppose it’s best to approach the segments in order. And whoa, does this thing begin with a bang: “Man In The Mirror,” performed at Wembley Stadium in 1987 at the height of Jacksonmania (at least in Europe). The editors intercut images of the militaristically-clad MJ with newsreel footage of Gandhi and Martin Luther King (as well as more contemporary-to-1988 footage of… starving African children?). Now this is the kind of nutball megalomania I came here for! And here’s the thing: “Man In The Mirror,” mawkish lyrics aside? It’s a gorgeous, shimmering piece of music! But at the same time, I have to watch MJ and his messiah complex laid bare. When does a man become too big for the world around him? When does it become apparent that the System can and will turn a child performer into a monster? I think you can peg it to this first five minutes of Moonwalker.

We then lead into a career retrospective, and it’s a little easier (and more authentically fun) to watch. But there’s still a weird sort of visual uncannyness to this segment; chalk it up to the animation method (also used in the video for “Leave Me Alone” by Jim Blashfield), a choppy mix of camera pans over objects from Jackson’s career and film footage covering the Jackson 5 all the way to Bad. And heavy-handed symbolism abounds, like seeing a Pinocchio doll on MJ’s makeup table (is Michael a real boy, or just a puppet?). The images of MJ with his famous friends (one awkward shot of him with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas had me on the floor), make you think this career montage was Jackson’s way of pulling an Ozymandias: “look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

But then suddenly there’s a snippet of the pair of superb videos from Off The Wall: “Rock With You” and “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” and you’re returned to normality… for only a moment. Because each song is interrupted by and overlaid with video effects that take away the startling rawness of each of those original performances, and you just think to yourself: hmm, this remixed, sanitized version of MJ’s life is fed by the same impulse that made a man want to change his face, his race, and his public image; to go back in time and change a painful past. Suddenly, George Lucas’s presence in that photo makes a lot of sense.

ANCKORN: It would be a few years before Michael Jackson began intentionally styling himself as “The King of Pop,” but in 1988 there would be few who would argue with the title. Intended as a retrospective of the singer’s career and to showcase his 1987 album, Bad, Moonwalker also acted as a mission statement for one of the music industry’s most talented and most talked-about crown heads.

The first segment is both the most interesting, and a cloying taste of what is to come, spooned into our unwilling mouths. We’re treated to a quick-fire fusillade of images and clips of the child prodigy performing with the Jackson 5 (An American Dream come true!), interspersed with fevered cult-like images of adoring fans and critical tabloid headlines of the type that earned him the presumably not intentional moniker, “Wacko Jacko” (we’ll come back to this assertion). It’s in the very first segment too that the film begins to display its major weakness—excess.

michael jackson moonwalker dancing machineMany pop stars have built careers on excess, and I’m normally not one to fault it, but with the spectacle that is 1980s Michael Jackson (or indeed 1970s MJ), do we really need the bells and whistles of what passed for cutting edge video editing techniques? A sequence of the Jacksons performing is obstructed almost entirely by a silver robot, complete with robo-tits and robo-heels, just in case the song lyric “She’s a dancing machine” was too incomprehensible. In Moonwalker, excess is a problem, because it’s both frustrating and unnecessary in the case of someone as eminently watchable as Jackson.

The other main theme of Moonwalker also reveals itself in the opening segment, and it’s one only wholly apparent with hindsight—the poignancy of raw natural talent ultimately destroyed by the burning of its own ferocious light.

The Moonwalker walks on an unseen precipice in this film. At the very height of his powers, already dogged by scandal, but still keeping his balance. The next few decades would be a reign of increasing darkness for the self-styled King. It’s hard now not to see the segment sentimentally panning over Jackson’s own collected memorabilia without thinking of the video of the police raid at Neverland. As a whole, Moonwalker feels more like an epitaph than a celebration, or perhaps it’s just the guilty teenage part of me that finally abandoned Michael for an ill-advised goth phase, which I expect to grow out of any day now.

GRASSO: So here’s the thing about the next segment, titled “Badder“: I actually faintly remember this one from MTV in 1988, but it’s so mixed up with the other parody video of “Bad” from that time, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song “Fat,” that now I forever have all three versions overlaid in my memory! But yeah, the all-kid version of “Bad,” like the extremely ill-advised 1976 film Bugsy Malone, where kid actors Scott Baio and Jodie Foster played the major figures in 1920s Chicago gangsterland, ups the ante on the uncannyness. I will give the performer playing the child version of Michael Jackson (Brandon Quintin Adams, whom we’ll see later in the “Smooth Criminal” segment) a lot of credit; he’s a great dancer and has a lot of charisma, but the overall effect of this segment is super creepy, given future revelations and accusations against MJ.

But then shit gets absolutely bonkers with the next segment, titled “Speed Demon.” In it, the adult MJ suddenly emerges from the “Badder” video to a throng of… giant-headed tourists on a backlot tour? The reason for the giant heads soon becomes nightmarishly apparent, as we are about to be treated to a tour-de-force of the sine qua non form of late ’80s artistic expression: claymation. Specifically, it’s the work of California Raisins creator Will Vinton, who will in this segment turn MJ into a bunny rabbit (obviously inspired by old Looney Tunes cartoons), chased by paparazzi and fans in an apparent homage to A Hard Day’s Night. Honestly, nothing could have prepared me for the various clay grotesqueries in this section. Catch the utterly nonsensical, non-sequitur cameos from clay versions of motorscooter-riding Guinness Book mainstays the McGuire Twins and late-’80s pop culture icons like Pee-wee Herman and Domino’s Pizza spokesgremlin The Noid, and marvel at the fact that this unsettling mix of live-action and animation came out the same year the cutting-edge Who Framed Roger Rabbit set an entirely new standard of technical excellence in the field.

It’s fair to say I was thoroughly shook during this segment. On one level, it’s disturbing purely on an aesthetic level. I suppose as modern viewers in 2018 we don’t expect the tactile, low-tech messiness of claymation in media put out by major stars like Michael Jackson. Of course, the homage here, both in the form of the studio backlot hijinks and the dance routines with animated figures, is to old MGM hoofers like Gene Kelly (whose dance duet with Jerry Mouse in 1944’s Anchors Aweigh is legend at this point, itself was an inspiration for the aforementioned Roger Rabbit). But there are these little touches, idiosyncratic visual references, beyond the weirdness of the giant heads, and I have to wonder if MJ insisted on including them. For instance, it’s worth noticing that there’s a short interlude where a dictatorial claymation movie director (looking a bit like a demonic Steven Spielberg) is revealed to be a reptilian alien monster of some kind. Between the visual signifiers, the overall mood of pursuit and persecution in this segment, and Michael’s later flirtations with public antisemitism in the context of his suffering at the hands of the industry, one has to wonder if some kind of secret, unsavory message is being put across.

ANCKORN: Where’s Michael Jackson? Is Michael Jackson going to be in this Michael Jackson movie? I guess the “Badder” segment is inspired by Bugsy Malone, but (a) Bugsy Malone was both creepy and terrible, and (b) where’s Michael Jackson? I feel a certain amount of sympathy for the claymation grotesques furiously chasing MJ around the studio backlot. Rock stars do seem perversely obliged to make movies, and in some cases their lack of acting skills would require this hideous fluff, but Michael stole the show from Diana Freaking Ross in The Wiz! He portrayed a somewhat credible man-sexually-attracted-to-adult-females in multiple music videos. He’s not exactly Olivier, but he can act, and he’s magnetically watchable even when his chops flop. There’s just no excuse for putting a little kid dressed as bondage Michael Jackson in the “Badder” video section. No one wants this. Except possibly Michael Jackson, who thought this would be funny and entertaining instead of a baffling waste of everyone’s precious time? It’s interesting and a little sad that someone’s vanity project would contain so little of themselves. He’s either balls-out Jesus, or the Invisible Man. Maybe we can blame the tail-end of the Fame phenomenon. Dance kids were still a huge trend, although at least Fame had the grumpy ginger doctor from ER weeping.

I also found it interesting that when MJ finally loses the mob with his cunning rabbit disguise (the rabbit is named Spike? Sorry, Michael, you cannot force me to care about the rabbit. No one cares about the rabbit. Sing “Billie Jean” or something), he whistles to attract their attention, performs a little MJ dance move, and starts the chase again! Is it confused and contrived, or a very dry, wry acknowledgment that the main perpetrator of the “I’m so weird—LOOK AT ME, DAMMIT” packaging of the star is Michael’s own camp?

His weirdness and the rumors surrounding him are both denied and decried, but repeatedly referenced and reinforced. The “wanted for questioning” mugshot poster that appears behind the child dancers may seem unfortunate in light of the events of his later career, and yet I can’t help but feel it would still have been there even if he’d had some way of divining the future. He was a canny man who knew how to work his image.

The repeated theme of transformation in this film (and others—“Thriller” and “Black or White”) can’t be a mistake either. Is it a joke? Is the joke on us or him? Can we watch Purple Rain instead? Marilyn Manson referenced Willy Wonka’s chocolate river tunnel (there is no non-suggestive way to write that, sorry) in his “Dope Hat” music video. But the entirety of Moonwalker is like a non-stop nauseating carnival ride that you can’t get off. Marilyn Manson wishes he was this weird.

Speaking of Willy Wonka carnival rides…

GRASSO: I admit, I feel a bit more on solid ground with the video for “Leave Me Alone.” It was in heavy rotation on MTV back in the day, received a Grammy for Best Music Video in 1990, and was nominated for 6 MTV Video Music Awards (losing all six, remarkably, but then the tide was starting to turn against Michael on MTV as the ’80s became the ’90s). So this video’s particular brand of weirdness is burned a bit deeper into my brain. On rewatch, it’s really remarkable how much latitude MJ allowed director Jim Blashfield in exploring all the tabloid rumors swirling around Jackson at this point in his career. All the urban legends are here: Michael’s hyperbaric chamber, Michael’s purchase of the Elephant Man’s bones, Michael’s shrine to Liz Taylor, Michael’s chimp companion Bubbles. All of it made literal and visual, all staring the viewer right in the face. The lyrics are given a literal workout too, with besuited canines “doggin’ me around,” acting as the faceless front of the music industry and gossip mags, pursuing and constantly surveilling Michael. (Again, let’s remember Jackson’s use of the alien monster/Jewish caricature in the “Speed Demon” segment and the historical antisemitic association of Jews with animals.)

It’s notable that most of the narrative sections of Moonwalker feature a victim (usually Michael himself) being pursued and/or captured: the “Speed Demon” segment, “Leave Me Alone,” and the “Smooth Criminal” short film that we’ll talk about in a bit. The fans, the photogs, the music business: they all seek to capture MJ’s image and body; it’s no surprise that in his synchronized dance with the Elephant Man’s bones, Michael wears a ball and chain (this image is also on the cover of the “Leave Me Alone” single). And, as you mention, during much of the video Michael is locked into a carnival ride’s car, until the car turns into a rocketship allowing him to blast out of this twisted amusement park—made out of Michael’s own giant body! Tiny Michael and Giant Michael are both liberated by the end of the video, leaving viewers in 1988 puzzled and maybe a little bit worried.

And as you mention, the idea of transformation is on display as well, both in “Leave Me Alone” and in Moonwalker‘s “feature presentation,” the short film built around Michael’s performance of the single “Smooth Criminal” from Bad. In this film, three young street urchins (one of whom is played by Beatles scion Sean Lennon, another by the Young MJ from the “Badder” video, and the third, Kellie Parker, gets to be both a strong protagonist as well as a damsel in distress over the course of the narrative) are on the lookout for their friend Michael, whom we see in a flashback hanging out with the children in an idyllic Eden. Michael’s wardrobe in this flashback is openly evocative of the cardigan and sneaker set of one Fred Rogers, a non-threatening figure to children if there ever was one.

If there was ever a portion of Moonwalker that embodies Michael’s protean set of identities, it’s “Smooth Criminal.” Over the course of this short film, he’s a Mr. Rogers-esque protector of children, a smooth streetwise gangster, a necromancer summoning the ghosts of an entire 1930s dance club, an anti-fascist freedom fighter, a drug war warrior, an actual no-fooling automobile, and eventually a cyborg that turns into a giant mecha that in turn changes into a spaceship. (Let’s leave aside the fact that Michael is followed by two boys and a girl exactly like none other than Peter Pan.) Where is Michael Jackson, you ask? He is everywhere; he is everything and everybody. He contains multitudes.

I haven’t even mentioned Joe Pesci’s turn as the heavy in “Smooth Criminal”; he was in the middle of his own career trough between Raging Bull and Goodfellas, but I have to wonder aloud, is his over-the-top cackling villain in Moonwalker actually the work that brought Pesci back to mainstream glory, an Oscar victory, and parts in family-friendly movies like the Home Alone series and My Cousin Vinny? Does Pesci actually owe his 1990s success to this piece of trash?

joe pesci mr big moonwalker 1988.pngANCKORN: To be honest, I was too transfixed by Pesci’s phallic hairstyle and towering Cuban heels to ponder anything else. I hope he got paid a lot of money for this, in a big black leather bag with JOE’S SHITTY MOVIE MONEY written in the side, in keeping with the subtlety levels present in Moonwalker.

The third segment swerves straight into Spielberg with its schmaltzy orchestration and dreamlike wholesomeness-in-peril. Just in case anyone wasn’t confused enough, we enter the story mid-narrative with the three adorable (I really mean “deeply annoying”) moppets watching Michael Jackson get gunned down in front of an apartment building. Is it just me who thinks having little Sean Lennon’s first scene in the film be watching a celebrity father figure gunned down in front of an apartment building a touch insensitive? His feelings towards the singer these days seem decidedly mixed.

This section raises more questions than it answers. Why is there a spider-themed drug den under Michael Jackson’s garden? Why is Joe Pesci giving away free drugs to kids? Can I have some? Did I already have some? Was this Japanese DVD soaked in contact-activated hallucinogens at the shadowy spider-themed Amazon HQ? Are you sure we can’t watch Purple Rain? I promise not to fast-forward the bits where Prince Has Emotions.

At least Michael Jackson’s actually in this bit, which is a bonus. It’s a double plus bonus if you really enjoy watching Michael Jackson running around an unconvincing cobblestone square being menaced by a kickline of leather daddies. He runs fast and well, with economy and style—I’ll give him that—but there’s A LOT of running, and the “Badder” section was also a lot of running. I think he turns into a car next. There’s much driving—it’s like running, but faster, and Michael Jackson doesn’t have to be on set for it. Maybe that’s it? But we turned up for this movie, so the least Michael could do is haul himself out of the old hyperbaric chamber for ten minutes.

We then arrive (AT LAST) at Club 1930. We know it’s Club 1930, as the moppets announce it several times, whilst lingering beneath the sign that reads “Club 1930.” When MJ turns up and enters—surprise! It’s just like a club… from the 1950s! I kid; it’s a great homage to Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (with a hint of Gene Kelly and a hatful of Fosse) that only a churl could dislike.

I am that churl, however, as the sheer brilliance and talent of the “Smooth Criminal” number only highlights what this messy claymation turd of a movie could have been. Then the kids dance. I would need to purify myself in the waters of lake Minnetonka if I recorded my sentiments on that here, so I’ll refrain. This segment also contains a bit where MJ straight up murders a guy by pushing him through a wall. Could have saved us at least fifteen minutes of running if he’d pulled that trick out earlier.

 

 

Michael as automobile, mech, and UFO

The kickline of leather daddies reappear and kidnap the she-Moppet, and finally, finally we enter the final standoff in which Pesci slaps the kids around (we were all thinking it) and threatens them with more free drugs. Michael then transforms into a Mecha and a spaceship, probably violating the remaining ’80s franchise copyrights left unviolated by the G.I. Joe-esque machinations of Joe Pesci’s henchmen. Some Raiders of The Lost Ark storm clouds gather, and Michael finally defeats Joey “Dick Barnet” Pesci (his actual character name is Frank Lideo, a nod to Michael’s real-life on-again/off-again manager) with some rock and roll shrieking.

Then they go to a show! Michael Jackson is seemingly unaffected by the murder of the kickline of spider Toms of Finland—the mark of a true showman in the greatest American tradition of Old Hollywood (he probably mused to himself whilst eating a Fabergé egg in his bathtub made of ermine.) The dog turns up again (this all started because they were chasing a dog. The dog is long dead now, so probably a waste of time in retrospect) and the kiddies shake glow sticks as MJ performs a decidedly homoerotic version of “Come Together” with a pair of shirtless sweaty men and Jennifer Batten, who is perfect (I will not malign her in this ill-tempered screed).

The film ends with a performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo (maybe MJ was busy scrubbing Bubbles off the ermine) and behind-the-scenes footage of the dance sequences, and THIS IS WHAT THE WHOLE FILM SHOULD HAVE BEEN! Can you imagine? Just those perfect songs and the electrifying dance and little unscripted snippets between showing the choreography coming together, maybe Michael recording the songs. A truly original creative just creating. Fascinating, human, an actual testament to a great artist instead of a frenzied reflection in funhouse mirrors showing both too much and nothing at all.

And no kids dancing.

GRASSO: I’m going to remember the nearly 42 years of life before I watched Moonwalker with a fond and bemused nostalgia, a remembrance of the innocence of my life before I got to see Joe Pesci in a man-bun shamelessly chewing scenery and Michael Jackson as a sinister claymation rabbit. But this weird little artifact from the precise moment before Michael Jackson truly became an alien on earth is worthwhile for so many reasons, not the least of which was my amazing discovery that schlock director and L.A. man of mystery Tommy Wiseau‘s unique fashion sense is directly inspired by Moonwalker-era MJ! (Check out MJ’s multiple belts and billowing puffy shirts and imagine a thirty-something Wiseau watching this tape in Poland or France or New Orleans or wherever and having a sudden fashion epiphany.) The magic of Off The Wall and Thriller-era Michael was beginning to disappear and fade away in 1988 (few cuts from the Thriller era proper appear in the “Retrospective” video).

In its way, Moonwalker is a signpost, the expression of an artist trying to take back his career from managers and producers, both abusive and well-meaning. Along with transformation and pursuit, the other theme throughout this collection of films is control (ironic, considering sister Janet’s big break from two years prior). Michael seeks to break from the ties that bind him, the giant apparatus that’s (literally) grown around him, and the sinister figures—monsters, hounds, drug dealers, super-villains with lasers—that surround him. Into the 1990s, Michael’s seclusion, bizarre behavior, and involvement with children (as so innocently depicted throughout Moonwalker) crossed over into the possibly criminal. In Moonwalker, the warning signs of a truly paranoiac end are all there (even the drugs that eventually ended MJ’s life). I suppose we were all too busy being gobsmacked by the oddity of it all, by our desire to be entertained by that innocent moppet we’d first met a mere 15 years earlier, that we didn’t see it coming.

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