Here at Junkfood Cinema, we don’t often get “heavy,” as the kids say. By the way, the kids who say that are now very old people. It’s not that we shy away from the more serious aspects of life, it’s just that jokes tend to be our bread and butter; cookie bread and handfuls of butter-creme frosting respectively. However, there are moments when filmic oddities, those written off by most, offer startling new context upon revisit that, though categorically unfunny, deserve contemplation. These moments canonize what it is we love about the discarded, the forgotten, and the schlocktastic. In the cast of this week’s entry, we elevate our trivial hobby to an issue of life and death.
In 1988, there arrived on this planet a strange spectacle. It was called Moonwalker, and it was a…film?…starring the most famous person on the planet. The late pop icon Michael Jackson headlined just his second feature-length movie–again using the word lightly– since 1978’s The Wiz. Moonwalker begins with concert footage of Jacko performing “Man in the Mirror.” It’s ironic that a song about redefining one’s identity opens a film with no discernible clue as to what it wants to be. What follows is a montage of clips from his music videos as well as fan-made visual interpretative flourishes. Some of these are impressive, if creepy (the claymation accompaniment to “ABC” reminding us that before The Jackson Five, Michael and his brothers were somehow The California Raisins), while others are awful, if embarrassing. From there, we are treated to a version of the “Bad” video except performed by a troupe of children. At this point, we’re basically watching the Michael Jackson channel on the YouTube that didn’t exist yet.
Mind you, no real movie has started yet, we’re still traversing what appears to be the longest pre-title/pre-exposition sequence in cinema. “Surely,” you think to yourself incorrectly, “something resembling a plot must be coming.” “Instead,” cackles the movie, “here are two more long form music videos!” Finally we arrive at what looks to be the “story;” Michael in a field playing soccer with some kids. It is incredibly inappropriate, because Michael keeps picking up the soccer ball with his hands. He then runs afoul of a gangster played by Joe Pesci (stunt casting), turns into a car, and then himself dresses as a gangster which leads into, for a change of pace, A MUSIC VIDEO! The finale involves, I wish I were making this up because if you haven’t seen Moonwalker then it totally sounds like I’m making this up, Michael turning into a spaceship, defeating evil, and then soaring away into the sky before returning to take children to a concert at which he performs a Beatles song. Credits. Questions.
Sybil didn’t have this many personalities. Released in few theaters, to what I assume were legions of fainting fans and their utterly stymied parents, and then ultimately wide-released on video, Moonwalker made a considerable amount of money despite not giving a good goddamn if you could follow it or not. Many people have theorized how the movie came together, and postulated any of a number of motives for what it felt it had to do to us. But upon recent revisit, the first since Jackson’s untimely death, the movie takes on a grave, portentous new meaning. In no way are we proposing that Jackson had foreknowledge of his own demise, but some of the connections to the downfall of The King of Pop are eerie to say the least, and the film’s frantic, scattered tone does have the feel of a soothsayer’s casting; Elephant Man’s bones hither and thither. In clear defiance of the spirit of Moonwalker, let me offer an explanation…
The opening of this film, with the snippets of music videos, amounts to a then oddly-timed retrospective of his career. Point of fact, it plays like an “in memoriam” reel. I would equate it to the Oscars, but were that the case, Michael would have had to forgetfully leave himself out of his own tribute. In any event, it already feels like we’re attending a funeral.
The pint-sized version of the “Bad” video ends with the kids walking through the mist which instantly transforms them into the grown-up versions of Jackson and his entourage. What’s strange about this is that years later, just before the molestation scandals began to arise, Michael spoke publicly about how lifelong performing and an abusive father had caused him to miss out on a childhood. Some argued this was the source of his odd kinship with children. Regardless of whether you subscribe to this notion, the walk through the fog is a literal representation of this lost childhood.
The “Speed Demon” video follows. Though the whacked claymation short film in which it is housed has a rather upbeat tone, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is a song about living fast and recklessly. The lyrics espouse, “gonna live each day and hour like for me there’s no tomorrow.” True, Jackson lived to be just under 51, but by that would hardly constitute a ripe old age.
The videos presented for both “Speed Demon” and “Leave Me Alone,” as well as the lyrics to the latter, harken to Jackson’s volatile relationship with the press. For years he felt like the media victimized him, lied about him, and ruthlessly invaded his privacy. The irony here is that in Moonwalker, “Leave Me Alone” is immediately followed by a scene in which Michael plays with a group of children in the park. If Michael thought the press hounded him before, he could not have imagined the microscope under which his life would be placed after the first charges of child molestation would be lobbied against him five years after Moonwalker’s release. In fact, the frequent controversies and court battles to follow in many ways set in motion the chaotic spiral that ended with Jacko’s death.
So we enter the climax of Moonwalker, or at least the part of the movie with even a whiff of narrative…that’s what climax means, right? To some degree, one could consider the entirety of the film a confused, meandering lead-in to the longest of long-form videos for “Smooth Criminal.” Though more than a few people meet their end in the ’30s-themed, Tommy-gun-toting video, it’s the song itself that raises hairs on the backs of necks when considered in context Jackson’s passing. It is a song about someone who is murdered, and about the discovery of the body. Jackson’s own body was discovered in his home by his personal physician. Given the circumstances that followed, the cause of death was actually determined to be homicide, and Jackson’s physician was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Suddenly the gravity-defying dancers aren’t the most surreal element of that video.
Just prior to arriving at club ’30s, Michael’s character transforms into an automobile to evade capture. Michael, who is essentially playing himself, transforms into a car, a robot, and then a spaceship at various points in the film. Though the assumption is that he’s an alien, or perhaps that the title of his years-earlier “Dancing Machine” was actually code for Decepticon, not a single shred of explanation is given as to where he came from or how he arrived on Earth. But consider this, Michael’s first transformation puts him into the form of a long, black car (much as one might describe a hearse) and then at the end he becomes a spacecraft that departs this world and is actually seen colliding with a meteor in the sky. Death and ascension imagery.
Or how about the fact that it is Michael’s battle with the villainous Mr. Big (Pesci) is what prompts him to depart our universe? Mr. Big is so cartoonishly drawn as a narcotics-pushing gangster that Jackson might as well have been called McGruff throughout this segment of the movie. Big is the embodiment of the country’s drug problem so ostensibly our hero is battling drug use in this scene. When Michael Jackson died, after the autopsy, it was revealed that what had killed him was a combination of anesthetics and anti-anxiety medications in his system. Therefore, when Michael Jackson departed this Earthly existence in 2009, it was also due to drugs.
Michael’s character does return to console his grieving orphan companions. Seriously, where did he get these kids? He decides the best activity for the children, after his again explanation-free return to life, is a concert at which he performs “Come Together.” Why a Beatles song? The movie has made it plenty clear to us by now that Michael has a litany of chart-topping songs to his credit, why not something from his own repertoire? In 1984, Jackson acquired the publishing rights to the majority of The Beatles catalog. This didn’t mean that he owned the songs outright, but he secured a substantial piece of the Fab Four’s legacy. “Come Together,” incidentally, is a song about a nameless pariah mocked by the singer. What’s ominous about this choice is that, after his death, Jackson’s legacy would be two-fold: his music and his notoriety.
Again, it is absurd to think that Jackson could have seen into his own future as Moonwalker was being assembled, and any one of these connections to his later life and death could easily be written off as coincidental. However, if you haven’t seen Moonwalker in quite some time, we invite you to give yourself the chills viewing it now that we live in a post-Jacko world. And to be fair, when it comes to forecasting Michael’s death, This Is It still totally has the edge.
Previously on Junkfood Cinema: The Empire Strikes Black: Imagining A Blaxploitation ‘Star Wars’