Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)

Part I. 2009

AUDIO/VISUAL I

THE BLACK-AND-WHITE FILM SHOT IN DETROIT, Michigan, in 1968, recorded Michael Jackson, his four brothers, and their backup musicians performing in a rehearsal studio. Bobby Taylor, their first Motown mentor, organized the shoot to showcase his young discoveries for an absent Berry Gordy. It was Michael’s de facto first music video.

No sequined glove. No lighting cues. No preening. No bombast. Just a surreal display of James Brown- and Jackie Wilson-styled singing and dancing by a pint-sized dynamo for whom visual presentation would be as important as audio.

Once signed to Motown and moved west, first to the Hollywood Hills and then to their own Encino compound, the Jacksons had their image expertly crafted by Motown executive Suzanne de Passe and other Motown staffers. Gordy would say: “We didn’t have to make them into kids from down the street. They were those kids.”

The Jackson kids were unusually well dressed. Their immaculately maintained Afros signaled black pride. The color and texture palate of their clothing was hip psychedelic (fringe jackets, suede vests, embroidered bell-bottoms), with a few streetwise touches, such as applejack caps.

As kids in Brooklyn, my friends and I kept up with the Jacksons’ adventures and style via Right On! magazine. In the vast library of pop periodicals that have chronicled the life of Michael Jackson, there should be a special place of honor reserved for Right On! As the name suggests, Right On! was a product of the 1970s. It was not a black nationalist publication full of propaganda and pathos, but rather a pulpy pub that celebrated the newly emerging black teen pop culture. It was the Tiger Beat of the bushy Afro, bell-bottomed, body poppin’, Soul Train-watching generation. The black teen as a particular consumer target market was a fresh idea in the post-civil rights era, an idea intimately tied to Motown’s marketing of the Jackson 5.

With breathless, high-energy prose and colorful covers that promised exclusives, Right On! existed to provide adolescents like my sister and me with every officially sanctioned detail of the Jackson 5’s life. This wasn’t Jet or Ebony, written for and by righteous adults proud of every step of black progress. It was written for kids who’d experienced the civil rights struggle through television and newspaper headlines. We were gonna have more fun than our parents, and the J5, in multicolored gear, was a symbol of a more carefree vision of black life.

The Big Three networks’ prime-time variety shows were still America’s way of seeing new talent when the Jackson 5 debuted and the boys from Gary made the rounds. Ed Sullivan’s introduction of them on one of his legendary CBS Sunday night broadcasts was so important to the Jackson family that snippets from it were used during the 1981 tour to introduce a Motown medley. Soul Train, Don Cornelius’s syndicated dance show, a Saturday morning staple on stations around the nation, had the Jackson 5 and later the Jacksons on many times. You can watch the boys grow up via YouTube clips from all these shows.

I think the visual triumph of this period was the Saturday morning cartoon series that Motown sold to ABC. The twenty-three-show series ran from September 1971 to September 1973, and although it didn’t feature the Jacksons’ actual voices, it did use their photos in the opening credits and showcased two songs per episode. Berry Gordy, acting as their manager, catalyzed many stories in his efforts to publicize the group. When I think of this series, the word “normal” comes to mind. Having black kids (alongside Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert) on television on Saturday mornings helped to make black people less exotic to white peers. The hijinks of the Jackson 5 were no different from those of Josie and the Pussycats or Alvin and the Chipmunks. The cartoons weren’t profound, but they had an impact. The cartoons, just as much as the songs, helped invest my generation in Michael, so that when he went solo, many white folks, as well as black, had spent part of their childhood connected to him.

MICHAEL APPEARED IN ONLY ONE Hollywood-financed movie during his fifty years—The Wiz in 1978 (unless we count the 1980s Disney theme park ride/video Captain EO). As a young wannabe African American actor in the 1970s and 1980s, Michael wasn’t cast in more films for the same reasons his peers weren’t—his skin color. In that era there was only one black movie star at a time: Sidney Poitier had given way to Richard Pryor, who gave way to Eddie Murphy. The absence of roles for brown young men like Michael Jackson wasn’t unusual.

Over time, as Michael’s looks evolved, either because of vitiligo, calculated skin lighting, and/or cosmetic surgery, it became increasingly hard to imagine Michael in very many roles despite his massive celebrity. If a Steven Spielberg mentioned a possible role for Michael, it was usually as a character in Peter Pan or some other piece that would place him outside workaday reality. He was a real person, yet no filmmaker could figure out how he’d play one on screen.

Michael’s other hurdle was his speaking voice. Most critics and audiences vastly underrate tone of voice in the movie star’s tool kit. A pleasing, rich voice that can convey a wide range of emotion is as essential on screen as big eyes or a strong chin. Michael’s light, airy voice, much more the voice of a child than of a man, would seriously limit his acting choices. One of the ironies of Michael’s career is that he had one of the greatest singing voices, capable of projecting complicated emotions, while his speaking voice made Hollywood view him (when it paid attention at all) as a perpetual adolescent. Yet despite Michael’s rare acting jobs, from that first audition tape in Detroit to the posthumous This Is It concert film, few entertainers have had such a detailed record of their performance life captured on film, video, and, finally, high definition.

As an adult, Michael later created his own minimovies, and he rarely settled for mundane depictions. He possessed a heightened view of himself, by turns whimsical, tortured, and, toward the end, megalomaniacal. These projections of Michael as a visual icon were a more direct portal into his dreams than even his music was.

Most of his TV appearances in the early to mid-1970s extended the strategy that Joe had begun back in Gary, playing heavily on the juxtaposition of Michael’s youth with his poise. Dressed in the layered gear that was hip circa the early 1970s, Michael’s look was compatible with that of music icons such as Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield. Though Michael was a child, his clothes said he was a peer of the R&B greats just as much as his voice did.

When Michael donned a tuxedo or some other outfit associated with mainstream show business, the effect was even more striking. There’s a wonderful clip of Michael, dressed in a dark suit and fedora and with a coat slung over his shoulder, singing a parody of “It Was a Very Good Year” by a street lamp. Michael’s Frank Sinatra-styled performance showed he was capable of mimicking all kinds of American stars, not just R&B idols.

In all of the performances during these years (Soul Train, Ed Sullivan Show, Goin’ Back to Indiana), Michael’s face was open and his delivery pure. Every word he sang was convincing (even when he might not have understood all the lyrics); the canned interview responses or the silly shirts he was dressed in did not diminish his accomplishment. As a child he was so eager to please, so sure that he could sell anything by committing to the material, that the often-corny vibe surrounding these performances had no effect on their power. He never gave a hint that he thought the material was beneath him (though he knew it was). If there was any arrogance in this young boy, it was in his unflinching belief that anything could be sold through the power of performance.

The most obvious example of this commitment was the twelve episodes of the Jackson family series that aired from June 16, 1976, to March 9, 1977. Michael, who celebrated his eighteenth birthday during the season, was saddled with carrying a show designed to sell the family as an act ready for a long, happy run at a Las Vegas casino/hotel. In 1974 the Jacksons had had a very successful stint in Vegas, setting box office records as they expanded the Jackson 5, bringing Randy, LaToya, and precocious Janet into the act. That venture had been Joe and Katherine’s initiative, done without Motown’s care and cooperation, a harbinger of the family’s break from the label in 1975.

In a sense, the CBS show was an extension of Joe’s original vision of the Jackson 5. He’d built an act that Motown took in, shined up, and developed. But now, away from Motown and totally under Joe’s control again (with his management partner Richard Aarons), the act was a full-family spectacle.

Michael didn’t like the show, and he was right to be unhappy. Despite his enthusiasm, and that of his siblings, the thirty-minute shows were painfully lame. Each show opened with an extended Vegas arrangement of a Jackson 5 or Jacksons hit. Midway through the song, the music dropped down and the brothers introduced themselves to the audience. Tito often made a labored joke about his brothers being his backup group. Then the Jackson Sisters (as they were billed) came out, and the opening song finished.

After a commercial break, Marty Cohen (the lackluster comedy team of Samuels and Cohen were series regulars) did a quick comic bit as a newsreader before the scene changed to a newsstand where the Jacksons were pouring through celebrity magazines to the consternation of the owner, played by Jim Samuels. A celebrity guest—Joey Bishop, McKenzie Phillips, Sonny Bono—joined the Jacksons to comment on the magazines’ fabricated reports of their lives (shades of “Leave Me Alone”). This was usually followed by a dance/comedy number, such as the Jackson family in 1950s greaser gear singing “Do the Fonz.”

The choice of guests on the show reflected CBS’s nervousness about the appeal of a prime-time show starring eight black siblings. So Tonight Show/variety TV hacks such as Joey Bishop, Tim Conway, Dom Deluise, and Sonny Bono were booked to reassure white viewers that nothing too radical (or racial) was going to happen in their living rooms. In twelve episodes, only three had black guests (Muhammad Ali, Tina Turner, Redd Foxx).

Other than being the lead singer of the group, Michael was unremarkable in the CBS show. He was one piece of a very mawkish package.