The new book that dazzled me the most this past year, and that I loved the most, was The Essays of Leonard Michaels. The essays range from meditations on literature (Shakespeare), religion (Bible stories), language (metaphor, psychobabble), painting (Edward Hopper) and film (Gilda, Hollywood screenwriting) to personal matters, but as the author says, with him everything he writes is personal.
The pieces about his mother and father, various teacher mentors and the Yiddish language are some of the greatest essays I know; they will break your heart and excite your thinking at the same time. Michaels had a trenchant, elegantly forceful style that cut to the bone; what impresses me the most, as a fellow essayist, is that he always tried to get to the bottom of what he knew and understand. He had a brilliant mind and, unlike the tough guy streetwise swagger adopted in some of his early stories, here he stands unashamedly before us as a cultivated intellectual, a man who lived through and in language. He was especially sensitive to certain mature, subtle, courtly distinctions in word usage and manners that are passing out of existence, to our loss. We think of Michaels as a cutting edge modernist, but this collection reveals how deep was his appreciative grasp of older traditions. He expressed gratitude again and again in these essays for all those he learned from; and gratitude is what I feel for all we can learn from him.
I’m not sure what made me so certain I wanted to see Michael Jackson’s This Is It. It wasn’t the reviews, I hadn’t read any. In fact, I knew absolutely nothing about it, except for the trailer that came on in the middle of the baseball game and made my eyes grow wide and something tingle in my rear-brain. (I’m not even much of a cinema-goer these days, Netflix is more my speed.) And it wasn’t that I considered myself a “fan” exactly. Over the last decade, like most on-lookers, I’ve cringed at news of Jackson’s bizarre personal life and shuddered at the barrage of tabloid visuals chronicling his macabre cosmetological quests and seeming death-by-emaciation.
But there I was, at Magic Johnson Theaters in Harlem, on a Friday night. I dragged a semi-willing friend, paid for his ticket. “The early show,” he’d said, dreading the crowds that I (not-quite-consciously) was seeking. “Fine,” I said, a concession. The audience for the 5:30 show was sparse. Older people and younger people mostly; a scattering of children.
I don’t think I have ever in my life left a movie theater and immediately called someone to say, “You have to see this,” which is exactly what I did once the credits finished rolling. (Okay, in fact, I sent a text – mesmerizing…nourishing…body and soul – but only because I was embarrassed in front of my friend.) My friend did not share my enthusiasm. Shoddy filmmaking, sub-quality sound, packaged product, blah blah blah. (He’s a media guy, of course). I was incredulous, aghast, I wanted to throttle him. The last time I got this emotional over a movie was… never.
Reading a few reviews afterward, I gathered that critics who were lukewarm cited the same “rough” feel of the film. Indeed, it is a patchwork; highlights from Jackson’s more than 100 hours of taped rehearsals for the 50-concert comeback tour that he and director Kenny Ortega were preparing for when Jackson died in June. The footage, intended for Jackson’s personal archives, never aimed for movie-quality. But herein lay my incredulity; what could be more compelling than film footage of the King of Pop so clearly not meant for our eyes?
I was nine years old when Thriller came out; it stayed on the charts for two years. So Michael hit me at the heart of my tweens, back when there was no such consumer category, technically speaking, and yet I can’t imagine why not. I was the youngest of three girls, and so in a sense I was nine, eleven, and thirteen all at once. (Imagine if Titanic had come out in 1982; instead of moon walking, I suppose we would have learned to hock loogies, stand on our tippie-tippie toes, and sketch nudes.) But then, watching This Is It, it all came back to me — the trauma, the apparently repressed memory: my sisters trotting off to the Thriller tour concert at RFK Stadium with their friends (Jill and Lisa, also sisters, their age), waving their glitter-gloved hands at me. I’d been deemed too young.
Regardless. For two years, we played and replayed our Thriller LP and 45-singles. When Michael performed or when his videos premiered, we were glued to the TV, we had never seen anything like him before. No one had. He didn’t just dance, it seemed as if he was inventing the human body. I am no Joan Acocella, I don’t mean to make grand statements that make dance aficionados and scholars of Fred Astaire, Baryshnikov, and Nijinski scoff. But, Christ Almighty.
We were budding adolescents, we hated and feared our bodies, we were figuring out so many dark and exhilarating and terrifying things about these fleshy vehicles that were taking on a life of their own; and here came Michael. He made the jiggling and slithering of our bodies cool, and creative, and communal, and fun. As we left childhood behind (or it left us behind), our bodies’ shapes and sizes—the ways in which we were able to adjust and make ourselves appealing (to ourselves, to others) or not—would begin to separate us, create cruel physiocracies. But back then, for a time, a short time with eternal qualities, Michael brought us together, he synchronized us.
We shimmied our shoulders and clapped our hands over our heads; we wore black loafers and white socks and kick-twisted our right legs like karate chops; we threw our arms out in front of us, limp and aggressive at once, revving invisible motorcycle handles. Right arm left leg, left arm right leg. Pull and pelvis, pull and pelvis. We practiced practiced practiced. Like infants, we discovered our limbs anew. We fully inhabited our bodies, un-self-consciously; perhaps for the last time.
We sang, hooted, and hiccupped. Later (because we discovered Off the Wall and The Jackson Five later), we wept because she was out of our lives, and we recruited the neighbor kids so that we could, in rapid-fire succession, spin around on the balls of our feets and bow down while we rolled our fists.
Even the boys loved Michael; even the boys. It wasn’t “gay” to love Michael. To us, he was beyond sexuality, he was, in a way, the answer to sexuality before we could even articulate the questions. His whisper-high voice and crotch thrusting was unquestionably, miraculously, of a piece.
We were not there when Jack Kennedy was elected, or when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. We were not there when Rosa Parks refused to stand up or when Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. We were not there for Elvis Presley, or James Brown, or The Beatles. We were not there for Stonewall or Roe v. Wade. We were not there for much, because we came of age in the ‘80s. But we were there, we were all there, for Michael Jackson.
“I’ll be there,” he sang, and as kids we waved our arms like we never did in church. But would he? Would Jackson be all there in This Is It? I braced myself, as many viewers did, for God knows what.
At first, the shaky-grainy cam frustratingly keeps us from making determinations about just how decrepit and grotesque he’s become. We are aware of our own morbid urge to ogle him; we want to know, we want to see, if the circus-show is on. We enter his and Ortega’s world fully expecting to remain the subject to Jackson’s object; we are the upstanding humans, he is the ravaged creature. Then, in one rehearsal segment, he is gloveless and without the bandages we’ve often seen mysteriously flagging his fingertips; he gestures dramatically, the camera shot is straight on, we see his hands. His hands, his real flesh and substance, the flesh, yes, of a 50-year-old man. He is thick-fingered—a contrast to his pencil-stick legs—nails slightly long. From that moment on, for me, Jackson begins to inhabit the screen.
The collage-edited rehearsal footage is the meat of the film, the marvel and privilege of seeing Jackson in action—hands-on with musicians, dancers, and back-up vocalists, all marveling at the privilege as well. Ortega succeeds in showing us that MJ is and always was a man who, as one of the musicians puts it, “knows his music,” and for whom, as Ortega himself puts it, “everything is larger than life.” He comes across as a perfectionist of both artistry and kindness. “It’s not right, but that’s OK,” he says. “It’s all for love.” Then, “Just get it there.” Fascinating especially is seeing his creative intuition, both exacting and ethereal, at work: “Let it sizzle,” he says, or “It has to bathe in the moonlight.” His music director asks him to let him know if the arrangement needs more “booty.” “That’s funny,” Jackson says, to which the music director replies, “Yeah, but you know exactly what I mean.” In a rehearsal for a particularly fun black-and-white Hollywood homage set to “Smooth Criminal”– featuring Jackson in a white pinstripe suit and spliced into interactions with Rita Hayworth (from Gilda) and Humphrey Bogart—Ortega and Jackson discuss cues, i.e. Jackson wanting to revise the timing for his entry. But how will he know to begin, Ortega asks, without the music to cue him; to which Jackson replies, thoughtful but confident, “I’ll just have to feel that.”
The rehearsals draw heavily from MJ’s older hits, notably from Thriller, which satisfies most of the fans; but we also get a Jackson Five segment, and later hits like “They Don’t Care About Us ” “Man in The Mirror,” and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” He sings each song as if it’s new, as if he’s listening for its (re)birth right then in the moment; and yet still aware, distinctly, of the fans. “I want it to sound like how they hear it,” he says. “If it works on the album, that’s how I want it.”
The choreography belongs of course to MJ, and in no other realm is it clearer who’s in charge. Before the final round of dance auditions, Ortega tells prospects that “dancers in a Michael Jackson show are an extension of Michael Jackson.” Writes David Edelstein in his review: “And they do seem projections of his will: He dictates every beat to his dancers, musicians and crew.” We recognize the dance moves, and we can’t believe how good they (still) are. His dancers, half his age at least, seem to bring the muscular pump of hip-hop with them into their movement (how could they not), but it’s still MJ’s crackle and pop that electrifies the stage.
For decades, we’ve seen dancers imitate the moves that have become as familiar as any ballroom standard; but when Michael does them—yes, 50 years old, and fallen from grace, so they’ve told us—we are reminded of the crucial, dare I say spiritual difference between imitation and original. When Michael Jackson is center stage, his “extensions” following his lead, it’s not merely entertainment, or even art; it’s phenomenon. Watching him move again, all these years later – with such precision, and emanating the thrusting, gyrating “goo” and “ooze” exhorted upon the auditioning dancers – is like the very confirmation of one’s true sight; we were there, we were not deluded, we were not imagining things. The emperor’s clothes are real and they are fabulous. It’s all deeply, healingly of a piece, witch-hunting sexuality police be damned. This is Michael Jackson.
And this, I suppose, is the takeaway. Michael Jackson was real until the day of his death, despite the media’s honing in on drug dosages and Neverland. For all the emotional and psychological damage he may have suffered and projected, something in him remained whole, thriving, larger than life. Something elemental and tangible, evidenced in his creative process, his movement, even his temperament—all of which is on display in This is It in a way (we ambivalently recognize) most of us may never have been able to witness had Jackson lived to make his comeback.
It’s not that the data disappears in a poof. The day after I saw This Is It, I read through a detailed MJ bio at MTV.com that enumerated the blow-by-blow of his maudlin man-child exploits, perplexing creative detours (those final minutes of the “Black or White” video indeed disturbing), and somewhat creepy Messiah complex. I took it all in, weighing it together with what I had just seen and experienced (and remembered), and was certainly tempted to go the route of cynicism and disappointment: corporate packaging for mass consumption, MJ just another artist qua commodity, even/especially in death. Silly schoolgirl me, eating it all up, like so many mindless consumers the debt-ridden Jackson Estate must be counting on.
Indeed, if This Is It were a film that Jackson himself had creatively controlled, that cynic’s myth—of irredeemable darkness and degeneracy—may well have supplanted the original myth of genius. In this sense, Jackson was possibly his own worst enemy, feeding media distortions with prismatic fun-house refractions he couldn’t somehow escape or manage. But This Is It, ultimately more honest in its accidental conception than any hyper-crafted concert movie could have been, makes a welcome argument of which Jackson himself may have approved: trust your instinct, trust your sight… let it all bathe in the moonlight.