Monday, November 16, 2009

"This Is It!"

So I went to see the Michael Jackson movie "This is It!". I had prepared myself for a schmaltzy memorial with a lot of family and personal history containing bits and pieces of music videos, and a few 'behind the scenes' glimpses. It wasn't like that at all. The film was a documentary of the preparations for Michael Jackson's comeback show that he called 'This Is It!'. "This Is It!" because, as far as he was concerned, that show was going to be it for him. After a world tour he figured to have enough money to pay off the money he owed and retire to a quiet lifestyle out of the public eye. Or, at least, as far out of the public eye as Michael Jackson would be able to get.

I didn't grow up with Michael Jackson, I'm more of a Beach Boys, 'Louie Louie', and Supremes/Temptations guy. Michael hit the video world about the time that my children were growing up, so he filled our television with hit video after hit video as fast as MTV could post them. Putting aside his proclivity for crotch grabbing, Michael was an amazing talent. His songwriting, singing, and performance skills were light years above his contemporaries. What I didn't realize was the true depth of his ability. Like most people I just assumed that behind the scenes were musical directors, choreographers, and a myriad of other coaches saying, "Michael sing this", "Michael do these steps", "Michael make these movements." It seemed reasonable that there were lighting consultants, special effects managers, audio experts, and a flock of other specialists who expanded a basic idea into a super-show. During the movie I learned that it was not that way.

Michael Jackson had morphed from a music star into a freak show, hounded day and night by a starving media who used any opportunity to expose his bizarre and yes, possibly criminal behavior. His Maker can be the judge of that. The media dragged his life in color photos into the sleazy tabloids so that the more curious among us could get their regular dose of strangeness. And the band played on...for years.

Your most humble and obedient servant, in his younger years, was guilty of being a musician, comic, dancer and, on a few especially forgettable occasions, singer. Those misspent but intensely enjoyable years taught me many hard truths that performers go to great lengths to disguise. Basically, that performing in public is a LOT of hard work, and the effort that goes into presenting even the simplest of shows would surprise and amaze the average audience member. Any show requires planning, skill, knowledge and perspiration before the talent can be showcased. The greater the 'wow factor' of the show, the more intense the requirement for precise organization and professional skills.

The Michael Jackson movie followed the development of "This Is It!" from the auditions of the singers and dancers through the assembly of the show and the endless rehearsals. More than just 'singin' & dancin'', the show was filled with hydraulics, pyrotechnics, computer-generated effects, specialized lighting, make-up, costumes, and mechanical systems. As it opened up, I found myself mentally wondering, "Who dreams up this stuff?". It wasn't long before I learned that Michael Jackson had dreamed up that stuff.

Yes, it amazed me too. The thought that a strange character who walked around wearing a mask and sheltering beneath an umbrella actually had the ability to create a Disney scale stage show was difficult for me to swallow. But that is how it was. The music was his and he knew exactly how he wanted it to sound. He knew what key, what volume, and what tempo he wanted. He knew every move the dancers were to make and when they should make it. He dictated when the stages, the lifts, and the rope hoists were to activate. He specified the special effects and supervised their timing. He called the lights and knew when anything was out of place. And, as if that wasn't enough, he sang every note and danced every energetic number with a 50 year old body and voice that had been away from it for many years. The much younger chorus dancers and back-up singers would stand in awe of this legendary man as he worked his magic tirelessly for hour after hour. They were inspired by his presence and stood open-mouthed and applauding as he finished each number. If you haven't guessed by now, they weren't the only ones in awe of Michael Jackson's abilities, I plead guilty also.

I always considered the 'Jackson Five' to be a 'kid band' who had no business out there competing with those of us adults who were struggling to keep the dream alive with four nights a week on stage at the Holiday Inn. Kid bands were cute and all, but they just didn't have the 'gravitas' of us 'true professionals'.

Even when Michael exploded into the music world with 'Thriller', I was still sure that he was just the front man for a giant organization who simply plugged him into position and told him what to do. How amazingly wrong I was. In reality he was a monster talent, a giant showman with capabilities that average people could never fathom. What an immense loss of talent this world has suffered.

"This Is It!" had completed production and was scheduled for dress rehearsals and the grand opening in London. It was a little over two weeks from the opening when Michael Jackson suddenly died. Months of rehearsals, millions of dollars, and the dreams of dozens of performers evaporated, the victim of a handful of mixed prescription drugs. And the world was robbed of what might have been one of the greatest stage shows of all time. Michael Jackson's wondrous legacy vaporized in an instant leaving behind the scarred images of "Wacko Jacko". His death is far more of a loss than most people will ever know. RIP "MJ".