— by SCOTT SWAN —
For most of my life, I’ve been a Michael Jackson fan. I first heard about the talented entertainer when I was 10. A friend from church gave me “Off The Wall” for my birthday, the LP that is. I played the crap out of that record, despite the fact that I knew very little about MJ as an artist. “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” “Rock With You,” “Off The Wall,” “Girlfriend,” “Burn This Disco Out” … I must have played those tracks a thousand times each. I was a Michael Jackson fan before “Thriller.”
When I was about 13, I would go to the mall at least a few times every week so I could watch and re-watch the music video “Thriller” and “The Making of Thriller” documentary. A store at the mall had the videotape on constant loop and it never failed to attract a crowd. This was before every household had a VCR, at least in my area. There was a bin of “Thriller” and “Off The Wall” cassettes right there below the TV display. They even had a few 8-tracks for sale as well. Yes, I am old … but I was there, damn it, and I will never forget the colossal impact “Thriller” had on the world.
Flash forward about eight years. I’m now living in Los Angeles and it’s 1991. I’m working at a video store in Sherman Oaks. We deal with a fairly large industry-oriented clientele, so it’s never a big deal when a film director or a movie star or somebody related to the entertainment industry walks through the door. Well, one night as we’re closing, I’m behind the counter, I kneel down to do something, and when I stand back, who do I discover is in the store and standing right in front of me? Michael. Whoa. He’s dressed in a red shirt, black pants, white socks, penny loafer shoes and trademark Fedora. He couldn’t have been any more the classic image of Michael Jackson if he tried. Needless to say, my heart skipped a beat and for a moment I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or insane.
Michael shopped for about an hour, spent a large amount of money, then stayed for another hour plus just chatting with my co-workers and I. The store was closed, so it was only about three or four of us there. Michael seemed really relaxed and friendly. We talked about movies mostly, including Steven Speilberg’s “Hook,” which at that time was shooting on the Sony lot. I asked Michael if he had been to see the sets, knowing his love for the source material and his friendship with the director, but he shook his head and answered “no.” I thought this was odd because even I had walked around the Neverland sets. Over the years, people ask me if he acted strange when I met him, and I always say he seemed like a pretty normal, friendly guy to me.
A couple days later, Michael returned to the store, and again he stayed afterwards to talk. This time, he stayed about two hours, as I recall, and he was even looser and more casual. Because he seemed so relaxed, I asked him to autograph a copy of “Moonwalker,” the laserdisc, and he agreed without hesitation. He even personalized the autograph for me, which to this day is framed on my office wall. After our second chat, Michael walked out the door, climbed into his van (he was out and about completely on his own), and drove off down Ventura Blvd. That’s the last I saw of him. The fondest aspect of my brief encounter with him is the fact that I got to meet Michael before the scandal, before the downfall. This, in my opinion, was the Michael from “Thriller,” the “original” Michael, and although I didn’t know it at the time, his days were numbered.
Flash forward again, this time to 2009. Michael Jackson announces 50 shows for his final concert performances. “This is it,” he proclaims. “This is really it. The final curtain call.” This is a theme Michael was attracted to years earlier for The Jacksons 1984 Victory Tour. The brothers thought of the tour as a new beginning, while Michael envisioned it as the end of the road. In fact, he even wanted to call that tour “The Final Curtain,” which everybody else deemed too gloomy. So this is a tone Michael has obviously been wanting set for some time.
My immediate reaction to the announcement was one of well-earned skepticism. “He won’t do it,” I said with absolute certainty. “He’s just not up to it physically.” I still vividly remember the disappointment of an HBO concert planned in the mid-1990s Jackson pulled out of at the last minute. There was great fanfare on the network and in magazine ads leading up to the event. Then, all of a sudden, nothing. Jackson claimed health reasons for not being able to do the show and that was that. No concert, no further word about it. It was specifically because of this incident that I knew Michael would not go through with these new shows. I said, “If he couldn’t do one show 10 years ago, he certainly can’t do 50 now. Mark my words, he will find some way to get out of it.”
Sadly, I had no idea how right I would turn out to be.
On June 25th, in the late morning, I first got word something was terribly wrong when a Twitter friend wrote, “Looks like Michael Jackson is trying to upstage Farrah.” I suddenly got a very bad feeling. I was writing a screenplay with a friend of mine who is a well-known actor. I turned to him and said, “Something has happened to Michael Jackson.” We turned on the news, early reports were vague, but the outlook was grim from the get-go, and it kept getting worse by the minute. TMZ was the first to actually report the “King” was no more. I turned to my friend and said, “I think he’s dead.” Not long after that, all the major news sources confirmed it. My friend, shaken and in disbelief said, “I met him, in the ’80s, on the set of a movie I did. He came by, met all the actors. I have a photo with him.” We were both deeply affected by the sudden event, but I hated to admit, “It’s a great shock, but hardly much of a surprise.”
“This Is It,” the movie, is a collection of moments from the rehearsals for Jackson’s ill-fated final concerts. It’s a document, but not so much a documentary. I went into it hoping for a documentary, something that would explore sides of Jackson — the artist and the human being — that we’ve never seen. Evidently, that’s not the goal director and Jackson collaborator Kenny Ortega had in mind. It seems all he wants to accomplish with this film is to guard the image of his fallen friend and focus almost exclusively on the creation of the show. And if that is his intent, then he has succeeded. But that’s not what I wanted from the movie, and perhaps that’s my problem, not Ortega’s.
“This Is It” doesn’t even deal with Jackson’s unexpected demise, not even slightly, which I feel is a tremendous failure. As a result, there’s no sense of closure, no catharsis, no weight to what should be an extremely emotional experience. I love documentaries that kick you in the nuts, so to speak. Ortega could have made a film that humanized Michael Jackson to a degree few people have had the privilege to glimpse. I want to see the Jackson he knew. He could have shown the night before the icon passed, the last moments of him before he retired for the evening, the last time the cast and crew will ever see their star in the flesh again. He could have shown the next day, the shock and grief of those who had their hearts and souls invested in the show. But there’s none of that, no release, no impact at all. It’s like attending a funeral without a corpse, to put it as insensitively as possible. Some will say, “You’ve got it all wrong, it’s not about that, it’s a celebration.” And I don’t wish to argue with them if that’s what they take from the experience. It’s just not what I expected: A movie that delivers what the title promises: “This Is It,” folks.
I love MJ’s music and it’s an understatement that he was an important pop culture figure of my youth, which is why I guess I expected more from this movie. I enjoyed watching Michael dance and sing on the big screen, something I thought we’d never see again, but it’s unfortunately not nearly enough in the wake of this superstar’s tragic passing to satisfy me.
— “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” is out today on DVD and blu-ray. —
Special thanks to Drew McWeeny at Hitfix.com.
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Follow Scott Swan on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scottobiswan.