When You Wish upon a Star
Joie: So, Willa, I was cruising through YouTube, as I sometimes do, and I came across some video footage that I hadn’t seen in a while. And it was so completely adorable it just made me smile. Then it made me laugh. And before I knew it, it actually had me in tears. But, while they were tears of sorrow for the amazing man that we lost, they were also tears of joy and wonder that we even had him at all. Tears of gratitude that he walked this earth and we were allowed to witness the simple love and happiness he brought with him.
The video that brought on these feelings is an old clip of a Disney special, televised for Disneyland’s 25th Anniversary:
In the clip, a very young Michael Jackson sings a Disney medley that includes “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Ease On Down the Road.” The special was filmed in 1980, at a time when Michael had the world on a string, so to speak. He had just made his feature film debut in The Wiz, he and his brothers were enjoying success with the Triumph album, and he himself was riding the crest of solo superstardom with Off the Wall. So to see him slow down and take part in a celebration for the happiest place on earth was really a special treat. And I think it says a lot about how much Disney meant to him that he would take the time to celebrate with them.
Willa: It is fun to watch this clip and see him so young and exuberant. But I’m surprised that he’s singing “Ease on Down the Road” during a Disney celebration. The Wiz wasn’t a Disney film, was it? It reminds me of when he sang “Billie Jean,” a song he recorded for Epic, during a Motown celebration. I get the impression he didn’t like being told what he could and couldn’t sing! But regardless of who owns the rights to what, I love hearing him sing those songs.
Joie: Well, like I said, it was a time when the name Michael Jackson carried a whole lot of weight in the music and entertainment industries. He could really do no wrong in the early 1980s so, if he said he wanted to sing a certain song, I don’t think there were going to be too many people who were going to try to tell him no.
But getting back to the clip itself, you know I just think there’s something so innocent and sweet about it. When I watch it, I get extremely nostalgic for a time that will never come again. It takes me back to my childhood in a way. Back to a time when there were no problems and the world made sense. Everything in life was easy, and Michael Jackson was your friend. Not the enemy. It’s a period of history (my history anyway) that I will always cherish and look back on with great fondness.
You know, Willa … I can vividly remember sitting down in front of the television set with my family and watching that entire special when it originally aired back in 1980.
Willa: That’s funny, Joie. I keep forgetting you’re a lot younger than I am! I was in college in 1980 with no television set, so I didn’t see that special and I’ve never seen this clip before.
Joie: Oh, my gosh! Really? You’ve never seen it before now? Oh, well now I’m really curious … what do you think of it? Does it evoke any certain feelings for you?
Willa: It does, a lot of feelings. Even though I don’t have the specific memories you have of watching it when it first came out, it still takes me back in time – but more back to his past than mine. Like you I love seeing him so young and happy, and it just fills me with dread to think about what lies ahead. It’s very bittersweet watching this knowing what he was going to have to face in the years to come. It’s kind of like seeing a snapshot of a happy family taken before a tragedy strikes. You look at those smiling faces and wish you could just go back in time somehow and change a few little incidents so things turned out differently. Like if Michael Jackson’s van hadn’t broken down that day, he wouldn’t have met Jordan Chandler or Evan Chandler.
Joie: Oh, I know what you mean. And it’s odd to think about, isn’t it? You know, we have all watched some movie or TV show where the premise is that the hero goes back in time – maybe for a few days, or maybe even for an hour – and attempts to change the past in order to change the future. It makes for great entertainment. But it really does make you think. What if we really could go back and change just one thing? Just one moment in time. That one incident – his van breaking down on Wilshire Blvd. that day – changed the trajectory of his entire life. And unfortunately, not for the better.
Willa: That’s true, though in some ways those terrible experiences pushed him to develop some of his greatest, most important art. So I wonder sometimes – if he had a chance to go back and change that one little thing, so his van didn’t break down that day and the allegations never happened, would he? Or did he learn some things through those horrible experiences that he needed to know? I wonder about that a lot, actually….
Another thing that strikes me watching this Disney clip is that he seems kind of self-conscious in a way we don’t usually see in him, except in interviews. Usually when he’s performing, he’s so absorbed in the moment he doesn’t seem embarrassed or self-conscious at all. But then he’s usually performing on stage for a big audience that’s feeding him a lot of energy, or he’s in a studio interacting with other actors, or he’s singing quietly to himself, like in Stranger in Moscow. But in this clip, he’s performing for a big audience, but they’re all out in TV land. They aren’t there with him. The only people there watching, presumably, are the camera crew, and they’re busy filming and doing their jobs – they aren’t giving him the energy he needs to get in the zone. So part of me wishes this had been set up a little differently, like with a live audience or something, so he felt more comfortable.
Joie: That’s an interesting observation, Willa. I hadn’t thought of that before. But you’re right, he does seem very self-conscious and inhibited here. Plus he’s dancing and interacting with a bunch of heavily costumed Disney characters, and that had to be at least a tiny bit awkward I would think.
Willa: That’s true! I hadn’t thought about that.
Joie: But it’s still a really sweet clip.
Willa: It is. You know, his performance is also in a very different style or genre than usual. He’s not in “rock star” mode, like in Dirty Diana or Give In to Me or Come Together. And he’s not doing James Brown soul moves, which were like second nature to him – he’d been doing James Brown’s spins and shuffles since he was 5 years old. And for the most part he’s not doing the Motown moves he perfected with the Jackson 5 either, through he does break into a few at the end of the clip.
Instead, this performance refers back to a much earlier time in musical theater – to the days of Ethel Merman, Al Jolson, and Jimmy Durante, when performers belted out songs with big, dramatic, very stylized hand gestures. Actually, you know what this performance reminds me of? The birthday tribute he did for Sammy Davis, Jr. Here’s a link:
Do you see what I’m saying about the style of his performance? To me, it feels kind of old fashioned in a way, just like the Disney clip. In both of these performances, he’s evoking a much earlier time in the history of musical performance – back to the 1930s. But then he ends the Sammy Davis, Jr., tribute with a crotch grab – a very stylized crotch grab. I don’t think Al Jolson ever did that!
Joie: No! I don’t think he ever did, Willa. I swear, you are too funny! But I agree with you about the style of this performance. It does harken back to a much earlier and simpler time. And I think that adds to the sense of innocence that I feel when I watch it. It’s also a very appropriate style of performance for Disney.
Willa: That’s true. It is.
Joie: And that may ultimately be why he chose to perform this number the way he did. After all, Disney is the happiest place on earth. A place for children of all ages, and one of Michael Jackson’s all time favorite things.
Willa: That’s true too – he spent a lot of time at Disneyland. And actually, it’s interesting to think about all the Disney connections – like, the very first song on the Jackson 5’s very first album is “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” the theme song to Disney’s Song of the South, which was later adopted as the theme song for the Wonderful World of Disney. I didn’t see the Disney special that has such happy memories for you, Joie, but I do remember watching the Wonderful World of Disney almost every Sunday night for years, and seeing the bluebird land on Uncle Remus’ shoulder as he sang that song. And then there’s Captain EO. I took my younger brother to see Captain EO at Walt Disney World not too long after it opened at Epcot Center. Did you get a chance to see it, Joie?
Joie: I did. That was an experience, actually seeing it at Disney, wasn’t it?
Willa: It was. In fact, I think that was the first 3D movie I’d ever seen because I can remember being blown away by the 3D effects. How about you? What do you remember?
Joie: Well, I saw it at Disney World, and I just remember being really caught up in all the excitement. You could feel it even as you were standing in that long, winding line waiting to get in. Everyone was just so excited and eager to see it. And I remember coming out of the venue and getting right back in line to wait almost an hour to see it again. And we weren’t the only ones doing that!
Willa: Did you really? That’s funny! My reactions were a little more mixed, actually. To be honest, I didn’t like the ending, and while I see it a little differently now, I still have reservations about it. I was an ardent young feminist in 1986 – still am, actually, though a bit grayer now – and it really bothered me that there’s this powerful, creative, active woman who’s portrayed as evil, and at the end she’s transformed into a completely silent, completely passive, statue of a woman who’s seen as good.
We see that same narrative structure so many times, especially in Disney movies. Like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there’s this powerful stepmother using all sorts of wildly creative magic, and we’re told she’s vain and evil – the prototypical Evil Stepmother. And of course, at the end of the story she’s displaced as queen and replaced by passive, helpless, domestic Snow White, and we’re told she’s good. And she is good – I like Snow White – but why does the powerful queen have to be evil? We see that same structure in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid – even 101 Dalmations, with vain and evil Cruela deVil trying to kill the puppies to make herself a fur coat.
But what’s most interesting to me now is that, in Captain EO, the “evil” characters – the queen and her henchmen – aren’t destroyed, as evil characters generally are. Instead, they’re transformed, and what brings about that transformation is art – specifically, music and dance. And that’s an idea we see over and over again in Michael Jackson’s work, from Beat It and Can You Feel It in his early years all the way through to probably its fullest expression in Ghosts. Over and over again, we see him telling us that art can lead us to see ourselves differently and bring about spiritual awakening and deep social change. And we see that to some degree in Captain EO as well. As Captain EO tells the queen, she’s “very beautiful within, but without the key to unlock it.” Music and dance provide that key, and transform the queen as well as her guards, changing them from soldiers into dancers.
Joie: Wow, Willa! I knew that you had strong opinions on feminism, but I didn’t know that you felt so strongly about those fairy tales. I tend to straddle the fence on that particular argument. I can clearly see the feminist side of it, and it does concern me that those are the stories we’re expected to teach our little girls. But at the same time, I have always been a staunch and hopeless romantic. I love those fairy tales, and part of me truly loves the idea that “someday my prince will come,” and that happily ever afters are really out there.
Willa: Joie! You can be a feminist and still be a romantic! Why can’t there be a powerful queen in a Disney movie who’s portrayed as good? as powerfully, actively, creatively good? And why can’t a special someone fall in love with her because she’s so powerfully, actively good? What’s wrong with that story? And why doesn’t that story ever get told?
Joie: Because it’s a Disney movie that’s been dumbed down for small children, and whoever makes those decisions obviously believes that children wouldn’t understand good vs. evil unless you have those very clear lines drawn. But children are really smart – smarter than most adults give them credit for – and I think they could understand a powerful queen who’s portrayed as good.
But you also have to remember that most of those stories like Snow White and Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, they were all made at a time when the woman was expected to stay at home and be passive and domestic. That was good. Back then, a woman in a position of power and not being very domestic or maternal was seen as very, very bad. So they also reflect the time period they were created in.
But getting to what you said about the evil queen and her henchmen not being destroyed … this is very interesting to me. I never thought about it before but, you’re absolutely right. We do normally see the evil doers completely destroyed at the end of the story – whether it’s a fairy tale or an action movie we’re watching. But here, that’s not the case at all. The bad guys are instead transformed into good, caring people.
Willa: And that’s really important, I think. Sometimes those “evil” characters are killed in terrible ways. For example, in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales story of “Snow White” – one of the first published versions, if not the first – the evil queen is given a pair of glowing red iron shoes that have been heated in a fire, and she’s forced to dance in them until she dies. Isn’t that a horrible image – of someone forced to dance in red hot shoes until she dies? It kind of reminds me of “Slave to the Rhythm,” a little bit.
But the story ends very differently in Captain EO. Instead of the queen being killed and having Snow White take her place, she’s transformed into Snow White, meaning a Snow White sort of character.
Joie: Hmm. Interesting observation, Willa. I would never of thought of it in that way.
Willa: Well, it gets back to the idea of cultural narratives that we’ve talked about before. There are certain stories – like the story of the evil stepmother, a powerful evil woman – that get told over and over again. For example, there are more than 700 different versions of “Cinderella” from around the world, and they’ve been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries. And that’s not even counting all the other witches and mean queens and evil stepmothers in thousands of other stories, from Chinese folktales to Shakespeare to Cruela deVil. But they all share the same feature of a powerful, even magical, evil woman, and together those stories form a cultural narrative.
And then there are other stories that rarely if ever get told at all, like the story of the powerful, creative, magical good woman. That story is not part of our cultural heritage. In fact, it’s almost nonexistent. And that’s important because our cultural narratives hardwire our brains. They create our collective memory and cultural psychology, they shape our perceptions, and they form our beliefs. How we feel about women – motherly women, powerful women, intelligent women – reflects our cultural narratives.
Joie: Cultural narratives are a fascinating topic, Willa, and they play a very important role in all of our lives. As you said, they hardwire our brains. And the truly interesting thing to me is that most people have no clue that it’s even happening. We often hear the phrase, “well that’s just the way things are.” But most people don’t understand that things are the way they are because of those old cultural narratives. Very interesting.
Willa: It is very interesting, and very important too because we tend to believe things that fit our cultural narratives. For example, in 1993 a white man (Evan Chandler) falsely accused a black man (Michael Jackson) of committing a sex crime against a vulnerable white person (Jordan Chandler). And despite all the evidence, the police, the press, and the public tended to believe the white man and not believe the black man. There are a lot of reasons for why that happened, but I think the main reason is that it aligns with our cultural narratives – to the stories we as a culture have told ourselves for centuries.
And I believe Michael Jackson was engaged in a project to rewrite our cultural narratives, especially as they influence how we perceive race and gender and other differences between us. We see that again and again in his work – this insistence on telling stories from a very different perspective, often the perspective of those whose voices have been excluded. And we even see that happening a little bit in Captain EO, in how he transforms the powerful queen and her guards instead of destroying them.
Posted on October 10, 2013, in Michael Jackson and tagged Captain EO, Cinderella, Disney, Disney World, Disneyland 25th anniversary, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Michael Jackson, Snow White, The Wiz. Bookmark the permalink. 58 Comments.