Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Cinema: Michael Jackson's 'This Is It'

Not everyone gets eighties pop, just like not everyone gets Andy Warhol. Used to judging the heirs to Picasso on the production of paintings or the new Bob Dylan on the degree to which they write songs like the old Bob Dylan, naysayers declare the likes of Michael Jackson to be unworthy of their attention and return to their personal canon of the great artists, the classic songs.

The pop process is all about the creation of the pop persona. What the pop persona creates as saleable products are of secondary consequence: records, films, fashions, books and tours for the masses; collectible relics for the connoisseur. The pop artist should aspire to be Midas: in his or her imperial period, everything they touch will turn to gold, and they will seem golden to us.

That is the triumph. It is now a familiar story. Then comes the tragedy. When the lustre fades, the pop artist is stuck forever in the guise of his own creation, forgets his origins as the creator, and in so doing Frankenstein becomes his own monster. Enter Michael Jackson, king of the pop artists and the most fascinating icon of the last quarter of the twentieth century who dragged his bones into this one before giving up the ghost.

I had not previously bought into Michael Jackson - none of his diminishing fortune was filched from my pockets - but I have long been fascinated by both him as his own creation and how we view that creation through that hall of mirrors that is our 24-7 media. If I had plotted his end, would you have bought my book? It was almost too perfect - that final image of the man stripped of his gilded uniform, denuded of his wig, wiped clean of makeup, swimming with pharmaceuticals and prickled with needle holes. He overdosed not on the some Jesus juice that made him feel more alive, but that mother's milk that gave him the perfect sleep of death.

Admiring the chutzpah of his corporate masters - who churned new product of all kinds so soon after his death, before he was even buried, and called each a tribute - I went along to bear witness in the chapel of the cinema, that place where heretics go to play. Just as Roman Catholics dismember the bodies of their saints over time - sending a head here, an arm there - so the pop artist is destined to become more productive in death than he was in life as his acts of self-creation acquire the power of immortality.

But 'This Is It' is not a typical post-death product: to realise anything on their investment in a show that was rehearsed but never performed, their only option was to release a performance compiled from rehearsals. In doing so, they leave a door ajar on how Michael Jackson the pop artist worked - how he went about creating his pop persona.

The rehearsal footage is intimate by necessity: it's primary purpose was to assist Michael Jackson and his creative team in realising their vision for a show that was to be played out fifty times in the O2 Arena in London. The Millennium Dome was the perfect choice, as it came to symbolise the failures of the previous era, rather than becoming an inspiration to the new century. When the HIStory album was released, a giant statue of the pop king was floated past its future construction site.

Now the same footage is put to alternate use as the primary product: the putting together of the show becomes the show itself. The camera is just too in his face for the conspiracy theory of body doubles to be plausible. Old audio may have been dropped into the mix, but there is no mistaking the body that sometimes sketches out a performance with moves and vocal ticks, sometimes responds to even the smallest audience by letting himself go, taking us with him into Neverland.

Would the show have gone on? They seem ready for the crowd. Is Michael a dead man walking? At times he looks flimsy as an x-ray but when he dances he is never frail and when he sings his voice seems to have lost none of its range or power to project. Is it drugs that get him up onto the stage and drugs that put him down again? Anyone who saw the bizarre 'press conference' that launched the enterprise on TV would feel safe in concluding so, and there are moments when his enthusiasm appears enhanced, but he is sound of mind and absolutely focused on every element of the production.

Yes, Michael is the man in charge. This is no doubt the image the editors wished to create, but nevertheless had to have raw material to create it from. He was able to communicate every musician's part with his voice as if he had long ago mastered each of their instruments. He instructs dancers half his age at how to move with more poise and use their energy to greater effect. The details of costume and visuals are clearly important to him. In this way - his way - he shows himself to have been perhaps the greatest showman of our times - even in rehearsal, your eyes can't leave him alone.

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