The Offbeat Marquee #6: MJ’s Marquee

The Offbeat Marquee is the theater that will show just about anything. Columnist Jacob Calta unearths everything from forgotten Hollywood dramas to underground animation to the many oddball genre films from around the world.

This sixth installment explores chapters in the legacy of one of the world’s most renowned entertainers, Michael Joseph Jackson. For over four decades, Jackson sang and danced his way into the radios, stereo systems, television screens, and indeed into the theaters of the world. Today, Calta takes a look at some of the many audiovisual landmarks in the King of Pop’s filmography.

Introduction

In one of our meetings for A Fistful of Film, I was discussing the idea of talking about Michael Jackson and his filmic work. Not cameos like in Men in Black II, but his music videos and that glorious ball of “WTF” that is Moonwalker. There was something fellow writer Saoirse Selway said that, while at first seems obvious, hadn’t fully sunken in until recently. 

“There will never be someone with quite the same pull as Michael Jackson.”

That really is the case. He’s been under the direction of filmmaking titans like Sidney Lumet, John Landis, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, John Singleton, David Fincher, and Spike Lee. He’s worked with veteran music video directors like Bob Giraldi, Steve Barron, Wayne Isham, and Mark Romanek, photographers like Nick Brandt and Herb Ritts. Hell, the dude had a teaser for the Dangerous album made by none other than David Lynch.

I’m being for real here.

No, really, it exists.

Family members such as nephew Taj Jackson have noted the King of Pop’s love of cinema and filmmaking. Beyond his adoration of Hollywood musicals like West Side Story and The Band Wagon, he was fascinated by the filmmaking process, and ultimately wound up co-directing two videos, Blood on the Dance Floor with his choreographer Vincent Paterson, and Why for his nephews’ boy band 3T with veteran music video director Ralph Ziman.

So, what’s the game plan for discussing all this? Simple. Each section will feature a link to a place where you can watch the production in question, with the best prints that can be found online. And I’m going for some of the big stuff. Shit so theatrical, a couple of them actually made it to theaters.

Thriller (1983)

And you can’t get much bigger than the most celebrated and heralded music video of all time. Thriller’s legend status was assured by it’s “perfect storm” qualities. Even with the Twilight Zone tragedy on his record, John Landis still was a bankable director with several hits under his belt, with Trading Places that very same year proving a massive hit with audiences and critics. And it was his beloved horror comedy, An American Werewolf in London, and Rick Baker’s stunning makeup effects work, that landed Landis (and Baker) their gig. And honestly, the rest is kind of history.

It was one of the most expensive videos for its time, with a budget of at least $500,000, if not, over $1,000,000. The short film’s structure, blending a playful homage to I Was a Teenage Werewolf (set to music by Elmer Bernstein left over from American Werewolf) into a metanarrative of Jackson and his date, former Playboy Playmate Ola Ray, is one of many fun elements that help to build to the campy whole. Aside from the theater scenes, the restructuring of the song has always fascinated me. Verse after verse of MJ messing with Ray build into the rap by horror icon Vincent Price, which in turn gives way to the now celebrated dance sequence and that iconic chorus. It’s a genius way of building tension as the suspense comes from both the rising of the dead from their graves, and you waiting for what essentially becomes the greatest title drop in the history of the music video.

I will also confess to this scaring the living shit out of me as a wee one. When the TV channel Fuse marathoned his videos, it was the only one that had me out of the room in a split second. The one time I did come out of my bedroom to see it, I was greeted by that legendary slow zoom in on Jackson with his werewolf contacts and Vincent Price’s tremendous cackle. That’s some serious kinder trauma for a kid who was anything but a horror fan at the time. 

Captain EO (1986)

Now allow me to list some of the talent involved in this short, literal space opera:

George Lucas (Executive Producer & Co-writer), Francis Ford Coppola (Director & Co-writer), Vittorio Storaro (Lighting & Photography Consultant), Industrial Light & Magic (Visual Effects), Rick Baker (Special Effects), Walter Murch (Co-editor), James Horner (Original Score), Anjelica Huston (“The Supreme Leader”), Dick Shawn (“Commander Bog”), & Michael Jackson (“Captain EO,” Singer-Songwriter, Choreographer).

These talents were all assembled for a 4D attraction at various Disneyland theme parks which remained in service for a decade after its debut in 1986.

And no, I’m not going to discuss the plot because you do not roll up to this for the plot. The songs, including future Bad cut “Another Part of Me,” are catchy as all hell, the world built is one easy to get into, and there’s just so much damn fun to be had. Experiencing this with in-theater effects must have been amazing back in the day. What you have to keep in mind is a simple principle: this was a piece of work designed to concentrate two major pop culture forces of the 1980s into one major-ass attraction. Michael Jackson and Star Wars. To that end, Mission Accomplished.

Bad (1987)

Written by Richard Price, shot by Michael Chapman, cut by Thelma Schoonmaker, directed by New York’s own Martin Scorsese, and famously providing a spotlight for a then-unknown Wesley Snipes, the video proves one of his most enduring. The beauty of the film lies in its mirroring of Jackson’s dichotomy between his boisterous stage presence and his shier, quiet nature often seen in interviews.

Its monochrome social realism is the home of “Darryl,” a timid young man back from a private school, returning to find his street gang pals haven’t changed one bit, but himself dealing with the turmoil of how much he’s changed. When the colorized electro-funk fantasia fires up, we are presented with a contemporized West Side Story, where MJ comes out of his shell to face Snipes. The cherry on top of it all comes at the end. After a James Brown-styled breakdown and reconciliation between Snipes and Jackson, the film returns to a black-and-white photographic style, leaving Darryl alone in the subway station where the action has taken place.

The Bad era was a time of change for Jackson in terms of image and music, and it was a hell of a power move to bring in one of the most incredible voices in cinema of our times, especially in the wake of the controversy over his work on The Last Temptation of Christ. It also cements the skill of Jackson as an actor. Like, he’s no Frank Sinatra, but he is still blessed with a powerful gaze, charisma, and is able to convey an interior conflict fairly well. But above all, the Bad short stands as a testament to the man’s drive to up the ante, especially granted the obscenely cinematic direction Jackson sought to take his work.

Moonwalker (1988)

Oh. My. God.

Where do we begin with this one? All I knew of Moonwalker was from people just talking about it and growing up with some of the videos that were taken from it. (Oh hi “Smooth Criminal.”) After having seen it, I can safely say that, “yes, this is insane.”

But it is kind of my jam.

From Jim Blashfield’s award-winning, kaleidoscopic pop art for “Leave Me Alone” to the claymated absurdism the late Will Vinton imbues “Speed Demon,” what starts out as a promo reel for Bad becomes this electrifying MTV fantasia that kind of sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. Though I personally felt the retrospective segment went on for a wee bit too long, it does help to put things in perspective, to see him grow up in the Jackson 5 and blossom into the commanding solo artist the world fell in love with. I also adore the choice to begin the sequence with one of his solo Motown songs, “Music & Me,” a most beautiful cut from that early era of soulful crooning.

Pacing problems aside, the film keeps you engaged solely through how both his music and the wild imagery compliment one another. Especially with the legendarily insane “Smooth Criminal” sequence that sees pages taken out of everyone’s books, ranging from Spielbergian schmaltz to homages to noir classic The Third Man and the well-documented influence of “The Girl Hunt Ballet” from one of the King of Pop’s favorite films, The Band Wagon. Bonus points for a strong score by Bruce Broughton.

Also, where the hell else am I going to see Joe Pesci play Nancy Reagan’s worst nightmare: a boisterous, maniacal villain hellbent on getting the children of the world hooked on drugs?

That’s what I thought.

Who Is It (1993)

Now, of all the videos Jackson made for Dangerous, from John Landis’s wild Black or White to John Singleton’s Egyptian fantasy Remember the Time to the smoking hot New Jack courtship of In the Closet, why this one, the last, to spotlight?

Simple. It’s the lone time Michael Jackson ever teamed up with David Fincher. And it was a match made in heaven.

Shot in glorious CinemaScope, the narrative spun is like a tragedian version of one of the Bad album leftovers, “Streetwalker.” Mike’s in love with a call girl, a chameleon of a woman who uses various identities for various clients. Jackson discovers one of her name cards, mistaking it for the name of another lover. The song expresses his feelings of frustration and paranoia, while the visuals show her slipping in and out of identities.

I wish I knew who the cinematographer was on this, because Fincher pulls together a short of tremendous gloss and Gothicism in a way I had not expected from him. The whole short feels haunted by specters of doomed relationships, which might explain the faces that emerge from surfaces every now and then. Slick, modern production design, the soft-focus style, and the ghostly aura of the song itself pull together to conjure up this intoxicating atmosphere. There is no other way to describe Who Is It than breathtaking, and it easily stands alongside MJ’s more beloved videos.

Scream (1995)

It’s a tragic coincidence that a short as steeped in turmoil narratively as Who Is It was released the same year Jackson found himself in the midst of devastating allegations of sexually abusing a child. The result of the media firestorm surrounding him thereafter was his retaliatory HIStory double album. While the first disc is chock full of classic cuts from his Epic years (pun slightly intended), the second marked a noticeably more enraged King of Pop. Sure, you had a softer smash hit like “You Are Not Alone,” but even the man’s humanitarian anthems became angrier. Like, listen to “Earth Song” near its end. It sounds like the man calling upon the wrath of God in comparison to stuff like “Heal the World” or “Man in the Mirror.”

Then came the vicious, barnstorming opening track (and subsequent video), Scream. Featuring a duet with sister and fellow music icon Janet Jackson, music video legend Mark Romanek led the charge in conceiving and directing the video, quite uncommon for an MJ production given he always had a hand in devising the video’s concept. The song itself is an aggressive lashing out at the tabloid press that dogpiled Jackson in 1993, and Romanek decided to take this raging cut into the cosmos, envisioning Michael and Janet on a spaceship completely removed from it all down on Earth.

The result is a black-and-white short festooned with stunning sets, captivating choreography, and a tremendous chemistry between the siblings. Few videos have ever held my attention quite like this one. The imagery signifies an escape from the words of rag papers you see at the grocery store, indulging in everything from video games to fine art, but lyrically, it is clear that the Jacksons are singing of Earthly matters. Also, fellow weebs will get a kick out of seeing cameos made by anime such as Akira, Zillion, and Vampire Hunter D. As far as critiques can go: sure, some of the CG is super 90s, but the video as a whole thrives off of its 90s vibes, so that bit of dating I can let slide.

Whatever you make of this creative period in Jackson’s life, you cannot deny that there is still a flaming hot passion to his work, and this video may be one of the finest expressions of that. Unfortunately, some of this venting would not be so effectively executed.

Ghosts (1996)

On his 1997 remix album, Blood on the Dance Floor: HIStory in the Mix, one thing noted as points both for and against the record’s original cuts are how blunt the songs are. The title track is a Dangerous-era outtake that slays, “Morphine” is a pile-driving address of drug use that is basically in reference to Jackson’s own struggles with painkiller addiction, “Superfly Sister” is a funky song about sex, and then we get to the last two cuts that, alongside HIStory’s “2 Bad,” would form the unholy trinity for Jackson’s 40-minute horror featurette.

Born out of a promo video helmed by Mick Garris for Addams Family Values, where Jackson and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were to pen what became “Is It Scary,” the film became Jackson’s own personal allegory for the isolation he felt while dealing with the tumultuous 1993 allegations. This appropriation happened after Garris went on to direct a miniseries of The Shining, and negotiations over Jackson’s involvement led to him leaving the project, which surprisingly had nothing to do with the allegations. Unfortunately, it is that very bluntness that some have praised Blood on the Dance Floor for that proves Ghosts‘s Achilles heel.

Directed by special effects wizard Stan Winston, and based on a narrative crafted by himself, Stephen King, Jackson, and Garris, the story surrounds Jackson’s “Maestro,” a supernaturally gifted man in a spooky mansion whose ghost stories and magic tricks draw the ire of the townspeople. The Mayor (played by Jackson under heavy makeup) plays the role of an ironically childish figure who seeks to evict the Maestro on the grounds that he is a “freak.” What the Maestro proposes is a scaring contest. The first man scared must leave. What follows is a giant-ass dance break with an assortment of ghouls, ghosts, and Winston creations.

Its flaws lie in its ham-fisted allegory, the runtime being a tad too long, and a frankly strange approach to blending the tracks with Nicholas Pike’s orchestral score and Jackson’s shouting, resulting in a confusing, polyrhythmic mess at times. 

It’s not all for nothing though.

The strengths of Ghosts lie in the fact that Stan Winston dishes up some creative monstrosities, the title song (co-written by the great Teddy Riley) hits hard with its eerie, digital swing beat, and the choreography is some of Jackson’s most arresting and fun. Particularly when the Maestro possesses the Mayor, forcing the poor square to dance. It’s a neat little touch on Jackson’s part to make him do shit like shaking his ass and grabbing his crotch, the latter being a nod to the qualms taken with the provocative move. I have a feeling that somewhere, prudish moms from across the 80s and 90s shuddered a little. I also must confess that I kind of adore Jackson’s persona here. He’s got a playfulness and an energy to him that feels like a return to the cartoonish expressivity seen in Moonwalker.

The best way to view Ghosts is as some light Halloween viewing, a la Hocus Pocus. The after-school special proclivities aside, it proves a time capsule in MJ’s career where he simultaneously still had it in him to put on a hell of a show, but there is plenty of baggage along for the ride. Topped Thriller it didn’t, but it makes for a decent, if overdone companion.

You Rock My World (2001)

His notorious war with Sony in the early 2000s essentially sunk Jackson’s final studio album, but thankfully it didn’t touch its quality. Loaded with forward-thinking bangers and smooth slices of neo-soul, Invincible still lives up to its name when you look at the material alone. Of the two videos produced for the album, Paul Hunter’s You Rock My World earns our attention as being the last video starring Jackson released during his lifetime, given that Nick Brandt’s Cry deliberately omits Jackson’s appearance in the video, operating under the same logic employed for “Heal the World” and “Man in the Mirror,” that it is stronger without it.

An apparent blend of Bad-era shorts such as Smooth Criminal and The Way You Make Me Feel, MJ and real-life pal Chris Tucker are vying for a gal’s affection, ultimately winding up in a whole mess of trouble. Featuring a bevy of talent such as Michael Madsen, Billy Drago, an uncredited Janet Jackson in a dance break, and even an appearance by Marlon Brando as a mob boss, the video may prove the greatest testament to Selway’s statement. Even on his last album that got pimp-smacked by Sony, MJ was still able to show he could bust a hell of a move, sing a hell of a song, and gather a hell of a cast for what should’ve been a proper comeback off of the heels of the fiery HIStory albums.

Not much else to say other than the fact it is pretty well shot, a lot of fun (especially given the unhinged energy of Chris Tucker) and remains a milestone for many reasons. Jackson’s choreography is a little low-energy, and Nicholas Pike is stuck using a synthesized orchestra for the original score, but those are peanuts in comparison to the fun, trouble-making atmosphere of the short. I remember seeing this one as a kid on TV as well, and I feel it still holds up. Certainly not of the caliber of a lot that preceded it, but still worthy of being a part of the man’s filmography.

Also, beware of flying Chris Tucker puns at MJ’s expense. He always wanna be startin’ somethin’.

Conclusion

Not sure if there is any message I can proffer from this, but I do feel that there is plenty of value in revisiting Michael Jackson’s filmography. Jackson was a firm believer in the escapist power of cinema, hence his adoration of the work of Spielberg and Lucas, and throughout much of his short subjects and featurettes, that fantastical element of leaving the world behind is inherent in his work. Even the story of Bad is illuminated by a colorized escape where MJ confronts Snipes in a way that, frankly, shouldn’t work as well as it does. Even when the subtext is anything but subtle, such as in Ghosts, there is still a wonderful amount of fun had with the circus of specters the Maestro commands. And in a filmmaking climate where the escapist works of big studios are low on creativity, and some of the most energized filmmakers of our time are devoted to down-to-earth human drama (which isn’t a bad thing, just an observation), I feel the kind of unfettered absurdity and inexplicable magic of the King of Pop’s music videos is something film is in need of nowadays.

I’ll leave you with a quote from his 1988 autobiography Moonwalk:

“I also love to be in front of a 35 mm camera. I used to hear my brothers say, ‘I’ll be glad when this shoot is over,’ and I couldn’t understand why they weren’t enjoying it. I would be watching, trying to learn, seeing what the director was trying to get, what the light man was doing. I wanted to know where the light was coming from and why the director was doing a scene so many times. I enjoyed hearing about the changes being made in the script. It’s all part of what I consider my ongoing education in films. Pioneering new ideas is so exciting to me and the movie industry seems to be suffering right now from a dearth of ideas; so many people are doing the same things.” – Michael J. Jackson (1958 – 2009)

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