It’s those heels. Whether bouncing helium-light or darting about viper fast, flinging him up to balance on his toes or dragging him backwards, oil smooth, across the stage. Every flicker and spark of joy in Michael Jackson, every kick, every roll of his hips and shoulders, every champagne hiccup fizzing out of his throat; it all emanates from those impossible springs. And it is on these perpetual motion machines that we begin, strutting across a silent stage under a spotlight, exactly where they belong.
The tagline for Jackson’s 1988 film Moonwalker declares it to be “A Movie Like No Other!” Unlike most vague, seemingly unprovable taglines, this one is more or less spot on: you’d be hard pressed to find another movie as singular and straight up batshit crazy as this. It is part musical retrospective, part wide eyed adventure, part spectacular vanity project, part churlish swipe at his critics – and 100% nutso. It is, in effect, Michael Jackson in celluloid form.
The opening shows MJ performing Man in The Mirror live, with footage of starving children and consensus figures such as Mother Theresa and Ghandi edited in amidst the mass hysteria of an MJ concert.
The film then segues into a breathless montage of every hit song that Jackson had been involved with up until that point, both solo and with the Jackson 5. This section is inarguably fantastic and builds up a great well of goodwill that the film will sorely need later on.
Following this avalanche of brilliance comes Badder, the Bad clip re-done to with a bunch of little kids dancing around dressed as 80’s toughs – like a lot of the film, it seems to be an idea that got through because no one was there saying no – and a couple of music videos in Speed demon/Leave me alone. Then stuff gets weird.
Smooth Criminal can charitably be called the ‘narrative section’ of the film. It centres on the adventures of Michael and three adorable little street moppets (including Sean Lennon, one of the many high profile children Jackson would befriend). The gang have recently stumbled upon the underground drug production lair of up-turned ponytail wearer and tarantula enthusiast Frank Lideo (Joe Pesci). He is a complicated and nuanced villain whose plan involves “stopping children praying in schools” and “having every kid in the world taking drugs because of me.” Oh Frank, we may never truly grasp your dark heart.
Pesci squawks his way through the film like a ranting Tommy DeVito turned up to eleven (which is every bit as irritating as it sounds), as Lideo and his army of henchman hunt MJ through the Gotham-like city where the film takes place. Hampering Lideo’s quest to make the world a little less MichaelJacksonagical™ is that MJ has a ‘lucky star’ which appears whenever he needs it. You might assume a lucky star is a lazy deus ex machina that causes some fortuitous event and allows our protagonist to escape danger, but not in this case. In this case it’s literally a ‘power to do anything that’s convenient’ star.
After using his new found car-like ability to drive around really fast on four wheels to escape, Jackson returns to human form (or at least, you know, Michael Jackson form) and provides us with the most stirring and iconic moment of the film, the Smooth Criminal dance sequence, which it’s trademark anti-gravity lean.
From this point on the film drags towards a conclusion that would be predictable, if it wasn’t executed in such a shit-on-a-salad insane way. While the kids watch Michael tear it up, Katie, the young blond girl, is kidnapped by Lideo.
Upon infiltrating Lideo’s base, Jackson finds himself surrounded by henchmen, and faced with the prospect of Lideo injecting Katie with some non-descript but presumably nasty and not at all fun drugs. He is then turned, by another lucky star, into a robot.
So, being a wide-eyed, peace loving, child-like kind of guy, MJ gives Lideo a Chinese burn and rocket-man’s himself out of there with the kids in tow, right? Well, not exactly – he more just opens his jaws and yawns out a piercing scream until all the henchman’s heads explode. Why yes, it is pretty fucking nightmarish, now that you mention it. From there, Michael upgrades to a space ship, blows the holy living fuck out of Lideo and then disappears forever(.) or does he(?) no he doesn’t(,) he comes back pretty soon.
The film ends with a fairly moribund cover of ‘Come Together’ which doesn’t really add or detract anything from the film, but gives the fans what they probably still want at this point – more Michael Jackson performance footage.
Then the credits role (scored exquisitely by South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, incidentally) and we are left to reflect on the timeless messages of the film: Michael Jackson was fucking awesome, you shouldn’t inject kids with heroin without their express permission, and of course, that once you’ve been a car, a robot and Michael Jackson, the only place left to go is space ship.
What does it say about the artist?
For all it’s eccentricity, Moonwalker is far from incomprehensible. In fact I think it reveals far more than it intends too. Broadly we establish three key themes of the film (so far as Moonwalker can be said to have themes) in Man in the Mirror – Jackson’s Messianic effect on his fans – this is the first instance I know of where he pulls what can only be described as the ‘crucifixion pose’, a trait he would continue with – and his fuzzy, utopian idealism. Peace can be achieved, this segment tells us. The children can be saved. Michael Jackson can take us there.
This is undercut by Speed demon/Leave me alone, perhaps the saddest and most illuminating part of the film.
As light-hearted as it tries to be, the sequence comes across as deeply bitter and paranoid. Jackson was barely 30 when Moonwalker came out, but he was already an industry vet of 24 years. Given the scrutiny he was constantly under, is it any wonder that the fans in this section are stupid, grotesque and horrifying? Or that the paparazzi is portrayed as a great seething insect with cameras for eyes? All the love for humanity, the (I believe) deeply felt care for people that peppers the opening is conspicuously absent here. The ten minutes devoted to Speed demon and the following video, Leave me alone, (not coincidentally the two weakest songs in the film) are the bloated and sour low point of the movie.
In the Smooth Criminal section, we get our final theme – the sacred beauty of childhood (represented by his orphan chums), and the evil of that which threatens it (represented by Lideo and his Henchmen). This is not as uncomplicated as it sounds; there is a nasty, violent edge beneath it. Robot-Michael doesn’t just save the children, he uses his screams, his wordless, inexpressible rage, to kill those that would harm them.
So what Moonwalker tells us about Michael Jackson is nothing we haven’t known for a long time now. His gargantuan ego, his need for attention and his desire to spurn it, and his odd, possibly incriminating fetishising of, not so much children as childhood itself, are all present. As is, of course, his flair for the theatrical, and his planet sized talent.
Does it work?
I’m going to go with yes. Yes, it’s infected with self-aggrandisement, paranoia and self-pity. But it’s based on a story by Michael Jackson (or, if my theories are correct, based on some drawings by Michael Jackson when he was 8) so the fact that it contains MJ quite literally turning into a spaceship should surprise no one. But it’s also the work of a born entertainer, working at the peak of their powers, and a snapshot of the kind of star that (pop culture now being as fragmented and niche driven as it is) we will almost certainly never see again. And then of course, there’s the music and performance (always the saving grace of projects like this) which provides a reminder that a great many burdens and sins were carried by those magical heels.