Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: The Odd and Wonderful Movie Career of Michael Jackson

By  · Published on June 29th, 2009

While it may seem a little nonsensical at first for a movie site of all places to participate in giving the late King of Pop his due regard, it seems to me that on closer examination, the music and celebrity persona of Michael Jackson has played a significant but largely unexamined role in influencing cinematic expression.

Music Videos

Perhaps MJ’s most significant but largely indirect influence on filmmaking has to do with the popularization of the music video, and the MTV aesthetic associated with it. Music videos have become a way for directors with a unique visual approach to graduate to feature filmmaking, and such individuals often apply certain characteristics popularized and repeated in the music video medium to filmmaking, such as faster-paced editing or editing to music. But for this to happen, the music video had to become a popular art form in and of itself, with its own unique qualities and approach to generating meaning. Michael Jackson’s music videos were intrinsic to the popularization and standardization of this new marriage between sound and image. MTV did not invent the music video, of course, but, with the help of MJ, they certainly made this short-form entertainment a popular and mainstream way for promoting music and linking an artist’s sound to a visual signature. “Billie Jean” (Steve Barron 1983) is alleged to be the video that first brought MTV mainstream attention, not to mention the first video by a black artist to be broadcast on the channel. Jackson’s videos throughout his career were undeniably iconic and popular, and are often thought to be inseparable from the songs themselves. Several of his videos also pioneered groundbreaking special effects, like the morphing in “Black or White” (John Landis 1990) or the ambitious sci-fi mammoth of a video “Scream” (Mark Romanek 1995).

Not only did Jackson’s videos help pave the way for the popular music video aesthetic to translate to film (as the directors of “Billie Jean” and “Scream” later became feature filmmakers), he also did the reverse, recruiting notable film directors to put their indelible stamp on his music videos, and expanding the medium to become more cinematic. In his career, Jackson’s music was directed by established filmmakers including John Landis (“Thriller” (1983)), Martin Scorsese (“Bad” (1987)), John Singleton (“Remember the Time” (1992)), Spike Lee (“They Don’t Care About Us” (1996)), and special effects guru Stan Winston (“Ghosts” (1997)). Many of Jackson’s videos extended the medium into something resembling more of a short film, stratifying the music with dialogue and plot throughout. This practice was established with the infamous and groundbreaking 13-minute video for “Thriller” and continued with subsequent videos whose increasing length made them almost impossible to broadcast on the channel that Jackson helped make popular, like “Ghosts,” which clocks in at over thirty minutes. Further blurring the line between music video and short film, Jackson’s long-form videos often featured beginning and end credits and had cameos by well-known movie stars, a practice that has been imitated in many videos since, especially those accompanying hip-hop music (i.e., Jamie Foxx’s “Blame it on the Alcohol”).

Captain EO

But none of these videos could hold a candle to Jackson’s most incredible and impeccably cinematic short-form feature, the Francis Ford Coppola-directed and George Lucas-produced sci-fi adventure Captain EO (1986), a $30 million, seventeen-minute long music video/short film exhibited in 3D and produced exclusively for exhibition at Disney World’s Tomorrowland. Featuring the songs “We Are Here to Change the World” and “Another Part of Me,” Captain EO incorporated a recognizable Return of the Jedi-channeling Lucas aesthetic with the unique visual onslaught of Angelica Huston and co.’s villainous characters, resulting in an indulgent sci-fi vision that finds no parallel in other films directed by Coppola. I distinctly remember seeing this film as a six-year old at Disney World, and the engrossing 3D aesthetic (which incorporated lasers and smoke within the theater) coupled with the legitimate visionaries behind the camera made Captain EO far more than a theme park gimmick, but a immersive cinematic experience that appealed to every sense a film could approach, one memorable enough to hold in distinct memory eighteen years later.


But you can’t speak of MJ’s music’s marriage with the moving image without mentioning his only feature film, Moonwalker (1988). Made to be somewhere between the intention of a tie-in for the release of his album Bad and a direct challenge declaring that Jackson can hold his own against Prince’s far more famous film Purple Rain (1984), Moonwalker in many ways sums up Jackson perfectly in that it is both incredibly, sometimes inexplicably, odd and a joyful wonder of a film. Forgoing any cohesive semblance of a narrative, Moonwalker starts off with a mishmash of several live performances of “Man in the Mirror” before delving into a meandering free-form summary of Jackson’s career in a collage of old audio and video excerpts – including one novelty that overhears Ronald Reagan refer to Jackson’s success as emblematic of the American Dream – all while framed with a never-explained spaced-themed aura of fantasy. The film then abruptly switches to an alternative music video for “Bad” featuring only child actors, which in turn is interrupted and revealed to be a movie set until we finally see Jackson himself, who is then chased by fans around a movie studio in an alternate take on the critique of excessive fan culture expressed in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) that replaces hordes of obsessive, adoring fanatics with clay characters envisioned by the same guy who animated the 1980s California Raisins commercials.

If you think this movie sounds utterly bizarre, you are absolutely right, and from this moment on Moonwalker doesn’t show any semblance of a story until Joe Pesci shows up as an evil dude who tries, for no reason ever explained, to steal children that *ahem* must be saved by Michael Jackson. While the film did have a theatrical release, its mainstay was its repeated play on VH1 starting in the early 90s. This is where I first got exposure to the film, and watching it from the middle as opposed to from the beginning as viewing movies on television often entails, it was always frustrating but engaging trying to hold onto some aspect of the film’s trajectory in search of a narrative that would tie it all together, only to be met by its meandering weirdness. The end result of Moonwalker is less a promotional tool for a new Michael Jackson album then it is an odd but fitting summation for the King of Pop. Pursuing random tangents to illustrate the artist and refusing to be stamped down into something understandable and approachable, Moonwalker shows us a glimpse of the life and music of Michael Jackson, but never tries to penetrate a figure so large and influential that he’s basically impossible to encapsulate.

Moonwalker further clouds rather than clarifies any sense of who the Man in the Mirror is from the inside out, favoring instead a further embrace of our knowledge of him through his media image. One reason Jackson’s public image was so odd and permitted so many rampant rumors about him is that he never really allowed us the chance to understand his life, his work, or his decisions from his own subjective experience and view of the world, and once a figure becomes as large as he then it’s virtually impossible to do so. Jackson’s persona and his music were both larger than life, united as joyful and iconic but impenetrable emblems of popular culture. His music, like the man himself, was larger than life and could not fit within the confines of the music video, so it only came natural that Jackson’s ambition expanded the medium and, in the case of Captain EO’s 3D images spilling out in the audience, even became too big for the big screen. One reason Jackson’s death was such a shock to so many was because he was largely seen less as a human being and more like a cultural institution, a musician who seemed to have an impact on everyone’s life but who somehow kept himself at an odd distance. But Jackson’s mammoth media image was not accomplished with his music alone, but enabled through the visual iconography associated with it through his groundbreaking marriage of image and sound in music videos and film, an ever-exciting combination linking the pop song to the silver screen resulting in an experiential aesthetic that both music and movie culture is better off for having had.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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