Reflecting On This Is It
And A Lifetime Of Memories
Whether he cares to admit to it or not, at the age of nine, my middle brother wanted to be Michael Jackson. Like so many others, he tried to master the moonwalk. He enjoyed randomly bursting out into high-pitch singing. In fact, there is a video of him doing a pretty good MJ impersonation.
Though it had been out since October of 1978, Michael Jackson’s movie, The Wiz (The Wizard of Oz set in an Oz resembling a pre-Disney New York City with an entirely African American cast and a soundtrack straight out of Motown), didn’t enter my life and become a favorite until nearly ten years later. When I first saw this film, I was four and utterly enthralled with Jackson’s Scarecrow. He was silly and fun and had killer dance moves with equally amazing vocal styling. Being that I was young, I was unaware that MJ had done anything more than this movie. With this in mind, you can imagine how surprised I was when I entered the living room one day to find my brothers watching the Bad music video.
Like many mothers of the late eighties/early nineties, my mother believed that watching MTV was akin to clubbing a baby seal to death. Fearing for our impressionable minds, she forbade our watching of this station unless we knew for sure that a Michael Jackson video would be on. Her reasoning was that since she and my aunt had grown up watching The Jackson Five and no harm had befallen them the same protection would surround my brothers and I in our watching of Jackson. As this was before reality television and specials documenting the lives of over-privileged teen girls, you stood a good chance of actually seeing music videos on MTV. Because Michael Jackson was at the height of his career, his videos received constant airplay. Whether it was Bad, Smooth Criminal or Leave Me Alone, I anticipated the next playing of his videos where I would dance and pretend to be him. Just as he had become a part of my mother’s young adult memories so had he become a part of my childhood ones.
At this early age, I was lucky to have seen the documentaries on the making of his music video, Thriller, and his movie, Captain EO. While both were fascinating, in hindsight, the one on Thriller knocked my socks off. You see while both specials showed the viewers how the technical tricks were done, Thriller went a step further. Not only did you see Michael Jackson and his dancers rehearsing, but you also got to see them being made into ghouls and learn how much planning went into making the costumes, make-up profiles and sets just right. Up until that point, the Thriller video gave me nightmares and my brothers more ammo to use when they wanted to scare me. After getting to see how it was done and, more importantly, to find out that the ghouls were just performers, I was able to sleep better at night. Thanks to this special, I’ve known for the bulk of my life how to do some neat stage makeup. While it only comes in handy around Halloween or when I’m playing a gruesome character in a play, I still believe this early knowledge to have been an unknowing gift from Michael Jackson and the talented tech people he had on staff.
Also relevant to my story is a family trip to a local (now defunct) amusement park. Though I’m sure copyright laws were broken somewhere along the line, as one of their many souvenirs, the park offered an audio cassette of animated chipmunks singing Michael Jackson’s hits. Being that I was bewitched by Jackson’s talent, I had to have that tape. True it was no replacement for the King of Pop, but I have to admit that it wasn’t half bad. The singers sounded like Alvin and Chipmunks and could have passed as their distant cousins. The album art was designed to look like every Jackson album cover rolled into one. Even though I was young, I knew this cassette wasn’t completely kosher and wondered if Michael Jackson and the estate of Alvin’s creator, Ross Bagdasarian, knew about it. Nevertheless, I played it daily until it broke and loved every squeaky note.
Around the time that Jackson’s song, You Are Not Alone, was released in 1995, my ambitious oldest brother left to do a summer program at a college a few hours away from home. For the first time ever, he was away from my other brother and me for a time longer than a day. As we were a nearly inseparable trio, this separation hit us hard. In order to cope with the distance, my middle brother had us listen to the song nightly. In retrospect, it may have proven to make things harder. Yet, at the time, it made us feel closer. That summer I meant to write to Michael Jackson to thank him for writing that song, but I never got around to it. I wish I had.
With so little time having passed between June 25th and now, I know it’s not surprising for me to say that I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when news broke that Michael Jackson had passed away. Still, I know I will never forget that moment. It was an unfair surprise and it hit me hard. At first, I tried to brush it off, but, within minutes, I was sobbing. His passing was not only an ending of his life, but also a turning of a personal page that I had been struggling for years to keep from turning. Michael Jackson had died and so had the four year old who had boogied down to Smooth Criminal with her big brothers before they had become too cool for such nonsense. I knew there was no going back from this point and it overwhelmed me with sadness. Viewing his public funeral, I kept wondering how his family could keep it together when I felt so lost inside. Did they know something the rest of us mourners didn’t know? Was their dear brother, father and son going to dance onstage and apologize for playing a joke on the world? As silly as it sounds, a part of me still wishes that he would. People like Michael Jackson don’t die suddenly of causes unknown.
I debated going to see This Is It. For one thing, I worried that the director, Kenny Ortega, would make this movie about Michael Jackson’s death and not about his songs. For another, realizing that this is the last new production the world will see from Jackson, I didn’t know if I was ready to bid farewell to such an important player from my childhood. Lastly, I didn’t want to risk seeing an ill, diminished Jackson. However, my fears were in vane. Ortega has produced a movie befitting the King of Pop.
In case you are wondering how this movie came to be, I will tell you. While preparing for his farewell London concert series, Michael Jackson requested that the show’s rehearsals be filmed for his personal archives and for portions to be included in the concert. When Jackson died just days prior to the first concert, AEG Live (the producers) and the Jackson family were left with this rehearsal footage and the question of what to do with it. After much legal debate, it was agreed that it would be a shame for Jackson’s work to have been for naught and it was decided that some of the footage would be fashioned together to make a special engagement movie to be named after Jackson’s concert series, This Is It.
Despite my aforementioned misgivings, I decided to see This Is It because I knew I was putting off the inevitable. Knowing how much I loved his work, I knew I would catch this movie either before the run was through or the day it came out for rent. Even so, I’m glad I didn’t put my viewing off any longer. Though I don’t know if this was Jackson’s or Ortega’s idea, the movie begins with Jackson’s principle dancers being interviewed about their prior dance experience, what inspired them to audition for his show and how Jackson’s work had changed their lives. At first, I believed this to be a bit tacky and gave me the feeling that it was added after his death. However, watching Jackson interact with these young dancers, I no longer cared about when the beginning footage was shot. From the first rehearsal on, it is evident that the teacher felt genuine respect and love for his pupils and they for their teacher. When Jackson repeatedly says that the show is done for “love” or “l-o-v-e”, as cheesy as it may sound to a cynic such as myself, you believe it. Watching this film, you are reminded of Jackson’s abundant talent and have no choice, but to wonder about how amazing this concert might have been had Jackson been allowed a little more time on Earth. Judging from the rehearsal, this show was going to be the show of the century. With only Thriller in mind, using gadgets and technology unavailable in the 1980s, it is clear that concertgoers were going to be given every pence of their money’s worth. What a brilliant and imaginative man was lost that day! I recommend you see this movie while it is in theaters. I doubt your television screen (regardless of how high tech it is) would do this film justice.
Undoubtedly, Michael Jackson will never truly die. He will live on indefinitely in this film and in every musical venture he ever undertook. Yet, the fact that he is no longer physically among us is hard to take. I wish I had written to thank him for his music when I had felt the urge. With all of the comfort that his one song allowed me and the creativity and passion he sparked in me when I was so young, he certainly was deserving of my thanks. One day, I hope to show my children his work. Until then, I will attempt to nurture the child within me who fell down backwards every time she tried to do the moonwalk.
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