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Summer Rewind 2013, Week 5: Moonwalker

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on November 28, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

The Moon is Walking

Willa: You know, Joie, we’ve been chatting for over a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker, Michael Jackson’s only full-length film, which is kind of shocking.

Joie: It is shocking, isn’t it? And it never even crossed our minds until fairly recently.

Willa: Well, actually, it’s been in the back of my mind for a while now, just bubbling away, but it just never felt quite ready somehow.

Joie: I think we were sort of dancing around it because we just weren’t sure which way to come at it, you know?

Willa: You could be right. There’s so much to talk about, it’s kind of overwhelming! But this week I was hoping we could begin looking at Moonwalker, and I think a good place to start is its structure.

When Moonwalker first came out it was generally well received, but it was criticized for not having a central plot running through the entire movie. The primary criticism was that it felt like a bunch of videos stuck together, rather than a feature-length film. And it’s true that Moonwalker is structured as a series of short segments. In other words, it’s more like a book of poems than a novel, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a cohesive structure. For example, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of poems, but it still has a highly complex structure, and so does Moonwalker. However, like Leaves of Grass it’s structured thematically, rather than relying on a central plot.

Joie: That’s an interesting analogy, Willa – comparing Moonwalker to Leaves of Grass in terms of structure.

Willa: Well, I just think it’s odd that critics seem to assume every feature-length film has to be structured like a novel. There are a lot of different ways to express ideas and emotions through film – like Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass. It doesn’t have a plot or characters or dialogue, but it still communicates a powerful message – and it does so using a structure that’s appropriate to the ideas and emotions it’s trying to convey.

A useful way to approach this, I think, and begin thinking about the structure of Moonwalker in a different way – not as “lacking” a plot but as striving for something different – is to compare it with The Band Wagon, a 1953 film Michael Jackson loved starring Fred Astaire and directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli’s father). The Band Wagon does have something of a plot, which in a fascinating loop-de-loop way is the story of its own creation, but that plot is really just a device for showcasing the talents of the main character, Tony Hunter. As one of the on-screen playwrights describes it, it has “just enough plot to make him do lots of gay and varied numbers.” Structurally, The Band Wagon is primarily a series of shorts that are related thematically, just like Moonwalker. And in fact, Moonwalker can be interpreted as an artistic response to The Band Wagon, with the individual segments correlating in interesting ways.

Joie: I know you talk a lot about The Band Wagon in your book, Willa, and I found it all very fascinating. But I’ve never actually seen the whole movie. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it but, I’ve never sat and watched the entire film from start to finish.

Willa: Oh Joie, you’ve gotta see it! You know, I hadn’t seen it either before I started working on the book, but I was having a really hard time figuring out what was going on in Smooth Criminal. It’s like I could feel all these contradictory emotions I couldn’t explain and couldn’t understand. So I went looking for clues in The Band Wagon since it was a major inspiration for Smooth Criminal, and that sent me back to Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury. And really, looking at those three together as a progression opened up Smooth Criminal for me in ways I never could have predicted. I see it in a completely different way now that simply wasn’t available to me before.

So you simply have to see The Band Wagon, Joie. It’s really fun – I think you’ll eat it up – and I bet you’ll see lots of connections to Moonwalker. There are so many fun little references like costumes and props and dance moves, and the two films are structured in similar ways as well.

The Band Wagon opens at an auction of some of “Tony Hunter’s Personal Effects, as Used in His Starring Roles.” His iconic cane, top hat, and white gloves (two, not one) are up for sale, but no one is bidding. At his peak, Hunter had a string of hit Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, but he hasn’t had a hit in years and the public has lost interest in him. We then meet Hunter himself as he overhears passengers on a train talk about how “he was good 12 or 15 years ago, but the columnists … say he’s through.”

Finally he arrives in New York, and he’s pleasantly surprised when a flock of reporters gathers in the train station to ask him questions. However, they abandon him as soon as their real target, Ava Gardner, appears. Hunter then breaks into a sad rendition of “By Myself” as he walks quietly through the train station.

The repeated message of these opening scenes is that Hunter was once harassed by his celebrity – by the crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame – but ironically, now he’s tormented by their absence. It’s a sure sign that his career is in serious decline, for one thing, and he knows it – and so do the fans and reporters.

Joie: That’s interesting, Willa. Especially when contrasted with the opening scenes from Moonwalker. The movie opens, of course, with concert footage of Michael performing “Man in the Mirror.” And those concert shots are interspersed with famous, and infamous, shots throughout history with lots of politicians and humanitarians and starving children and such. And we also see lots of shots of fans in the audience screaming and fainting and going nuts as they watch him up on stage.

And then, when the song comes to a close, we suddenly hear various audio clips of scenes throughout his lifetime: being introduced with his brothers as the Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan show, a song being announced on the radio, building a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor in his home, being admitted to the hospital when his hair caught fire on the set of the Pepsi commercial, Thriller being listed as the biggest-selling album of all time, becoming the first artist to generate six number one singles off one album. We even hear President Ronald Reagan’s voice commending him on his great success.

And we hear all of this as a camera pans around what is presumably a dressing room or a bedroom and we see sparkly costumes, the sequined glove, old home photos and such sitting next to Grammy Awards and MTV Awards, and pictures of him with Diana Ross and Quincy Jones. Even an adorable shot of baby Michael sitting on a couch, and the intended message is clear – this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known. In fact, the very next song we hear is “Music and Me,” a poignant reminder that Michael Jackson and music have indeed been together a very long time.

Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about that quite that way before. I was aware of the focus on his celebrity, but didn’t think about the fact that it spanned so much of his life, beginning in childhood – that “this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known,” as you said.

Joie: It is interesting, isn’t it? It’s almost the exact opposite situation from the one Tony Hunter finds himself in on that train. Michael’s career, though it began a very long time ago, is still in full swing and he’s still harassed with the ‘crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame,’ as you said earlier.

Willa: That’s true. So he’s in a very different stage of his career than Tony Hunter, and while The Band Wagon shows us the problems an artist faces when his career is in decline, Moonwalker shows us there are problems when he’s at his peak as well. He explores that more fully in the Speed Demon and Leave Me Alone segments that follow the opening section. We talked about both of those in September – specifically how he’s exploring the complicated issue of fame, and how that’s been a wonderful opportunity for him but a difficult burden as well.

And I’m very interested in what you just said about the opening montage of “famous, and infamous, shots throughout history,” as you put it. By beginning that way, Moonwalker places art in a very different context than The Band Wagon does. It’s implying that this isn’t just about Michael Jackson as a person, entertainer, and cultural icon. There are other issues at stake – issues of global importance that can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Joie: That’s very true, Willa. And I think perhaps the message here is that music can have a real impact on those issues of global importance. Or maybe that the artist making the music – since he is so connected to his audience – has the power to impact those global issues. Using the power of art as a means of social change.

Willa: I agree, and of course we know he felt very strongly about the power of art to not only bring people together, but also challenge our perceptions and beliefs and lead us to see things in a different way. So in this section, he’s really raising some important philosophical questions about the function of art. And there’s a direct correlation to that in The Band Wagon also – for example, in its signature number, “That’s Entertainment”:

As we can see very clearly in this clip, the primary issue is high art versus popular art, and as Nina pointed out in a comment a few weeks ago, there were specific historical, cultural, and even political reasons for why that was such an important topic back then:

Film scholar Rick Altman, who wrote a very helpful book (“The American Film Musical”), … writes that one of the social functions of musicals is to articulate some ways by which millions of Americans, many of whom were European immigrants in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – when the genre was in its heyday – could know themselves AS Americans, and establish a sense of national identity and solidarity. So a number of binary oppositions are set up in the narrative, in order to achieve this. In the “show musical” (a major subgenre), the opposition between “high” and “low” culture is often key to the whole story. Films like “The Band Wagon” set up a contrast – and competition – between forms that emanate from the European classical tradition (like ballet, modern “art” dance, symphony orchestra, string quartet, etc.) vs. things like American popular forms like swing, jazz, pop, and show tunes themselves! In this way, “The Band Wagon” (and even more, “Singin’ in the Rain”) become a kind of advertisement for Hollywood and American show business itself. Of course, good ol’ American knowhow wins out at the end….

So as Nina points out, the “key to the whole story” of The Band Wagon – and many other musicals of that era – is this competition between (American) popular entertainment and (European) high art. Of course, this disconnect between pop art and high art is something Michael Jackson faced as well. His work was misinterpreted and horribly undervalued by critics, I think, because it was seen as “just” entertainment, so they failed to see the artistry of his work.

Joie: I love that comment from Nina!

Willa: Isn’t it great?

Joie: It really does underscore the issue of high art vs. popular, or low, art. And you’re right. Michael Jackson faced this issue constantly during his career and his work was often criticized as being “just” entertainment, or too commercial, if you will. But in Moonwalker – and not just in that opening segment but, throughout the whole film really – he seems to be focusing on using his art to attempt to bring about that change he sings of in “Man in the Mirror.”

Willa: He really does – we see that from the opening shots of Moonwalker to the haunting rendition of “The Moon is Walking” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo during the closing credits. He’s much more interested in exploring the cultural functions of art, and how art can be used to effect deep cultural shifts in how we perceive and interact with one another. As you said so well, Joie, “Using the power of art as a means of social change.” We see that idea repeated throughout Moonwalker – for example in “Badder,” which is all about kids using the power of art to stand up to gangs.

Joie: That is a really interesting section of Moonwalker, Willa. That whole “Badder” section. I think most people really love that part because it’s so not what you expect when the camera pans up from the silver-tipped boots, all the way over the buckles and belts costume, up to the face. It’s a little bit of a shock seeing that cute little boy staring back at you. But the interesting part to me is that they then recreate the entire Bad video using this cast of amazing child dancers.

You know, I’ve always thought it was really cute and fun to watch. But, since talking to you, I have come to realize that almost every artistic thing Michael did, he did it for a specific reason. So that makes me wonder … what is really going on in this “Badder” section? What’s the message or the lesson here?

Willa: Well, that’s always a complicated question, but one way to approach it is by comparing it with what’s going on in The Band Wagon, because once again there’s a direct correlation. While the “Badder” section of Moonwalker has child actors dressed up as adults, and singing and dancing as adults, the “Triplets” number in The Band Wagon has adult actors dressed up as babies, singing and dancing as babies. But if we look at the lyrics, we see they aren’t really like babies at all:

We do everything alike
We look alike
We dress alike
We walk alike
We talk alike
And what is more
We hate each other very much
We hate our folks …
How I wish I had a gun
A wittle gun
It would be fun
To shoot the other two
And be only one

It’s a funny segment but surprisingly violent, and actually the humor comes from the irony of these little lisping toddlers (“A wittle gun”) harboring such bloody thoughts about their siblings. Here’s a video clip:

So “Triplets” takes a situation we tend to think of as very safe and domestic – three babies in highchairs – injects it with an unexpected note of violence, and explores the comic aspects of that. But of course, by the time Michael Jackson created Moonwalker, the world had changed. Many neighborhoods were erupting in gang violence, children were getting caught in the crossfire, and the idea of children thinking bloody thoughts wasn’t funny any more. So he’s approaching the issue of children and violence in a very different, and much more serious way.

Joie: I have to say, Willa, it is a little bit startling to me to watch that “Triplets” clip because the words of their little song are so very violent. It’s odd really, and I think that’s because of what you just said. The world was a very different place back when The Band Wagon was made and this kind of joke wasn’t looked at in the same way it is today. Very interesting.

Willa: It is, isn’t it? There’s a similar relation between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, which are the penultimate numbers of The Band Wagon and Moonwalker. “Girl Hunt Ballet” ends with Fred Astaire’s character shooting and killing the woman he said he wanted to care for and protect, which is pretty shocking. Here’s a video clip.

But what’s really shocking if you stop and think about it is that this number is a comedy – just like the murderous infants in “Triplets.” And again, Michael Jackson reworks that, making it darker, more serious, and more complicated by encouraging us to care about the murdered woman. As he asks over and over again, “Annie, are you ok?”

We could spend a month just talking about the many parallels and contrasts between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, but Nina shared a clip a few weeks ago that highlights some of those connections – not only to Smooth Criminal but also You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” And there’s a subtle reference in Billie Jean as well.

Joie: That is so interesting, Willa. You know, before we began talking, I never knew that Michael had taken so much inspiration from The Band Wagon before. In fact, I love old movies and musicals but, I never even paid much attention to all the similarities before you started pointing them out to me. And now that you have, it is just fascinating!

Willa: Isn’t it? It’s so amazing to me how he drew inspiration from so many sources – and not just in a superficial way, but in a way that makes you realize just how knowledgeable and engaged he was with all these different genres. Not long after he died, Kobe Bryant talked a number of times about how Michael Jackson turned him on to classics like Fred Astaire movies and other big Hollywood musicals. Here’s a clip from a press conference:

And when you really look at those movies and compare them to Michael Jackson’s work, you see how deeply they influenced him. Nina has commented about this a number of times – like here when comparing Say, Say, Say to Singing in the Rain.

Joie: That’s very insightful. I never would have made that comparison before.

Willa: Oh, I’ve learned a lot from Nina’s comments. You know, she’s a filmmaker and artist (she’s made some really interesting Michael Jackson collages) as well as a professor of film studies, and she just seems to have a wealth of knowledge about filmmaking and film history at her fingertips.

That brings us to the finale of each. The Band Wagon ends with an emotional reprise of “That’s Entertainment.” So the final message of The Band Wagon seems to be that Tony Hunter’s career may have been in decline, but he’s still a star, still a talented entertainer, loved and respected by his peers – and that includes his costar, a classically trained “high art” ballerina who has fallen in love with him. So on several different levels, the finale reinforces the message that entertainment, meaning popular art, reigns supreme over high art.

Joie: Well, the final message I get from Moonwalker is that popular art, and perhaps music in particular, is universal. It has the capacity to draw people together – people from all walks of life, all nationalities, all races, all ages, and all economic ends of the spectrum. And the final song I think illustrates that message well. It’s Michael’s rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” and it’s perfect. A rock song written by the incomparable Lennon and McCartney and sung to perfection by the biggest entertainer in the world, who just happens to be a Black man. Come together, indeed.

Willa: That’s interesting, Joie. The title kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Joie: You know, it really does. And so does the title “That’s Entertainment.”

Willa: That’s true! They both summarize the central theme of the film in the title of the last song. How interesting!

And then Moonwalker adds a little lagniappe by giving us Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “The Moon is Walking” during the final credits. I just love the mood of that song and the way they perform it, and I love the way the background images shift back and forth between scenes from Smooth Criminal and the singers of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in period costumes, as if they were part of Smooth Criminal as well. And I love the repeated refrain, “Come and see, the moon is dancing.” To me it feels like they’re testifying.

You know, Michael Jackson’s character is so connected to the moon in this film (after all, the title is Moonwalker) that, for me personally, that line feels like a testament to the power of art – his art. He probably didn’t mean it that way – he probably just liked the synchronicity of the words “Moonwalker” and “The Moon is Walking.” But that’s what I think of when I hear “Come along, my brother / Come along, my sister / Come and see, the moon is dancing.” They’re testifying to the power of his art.

Summer Rewind 2013, Week 1: Speed Demon

NOTE:  The following conversation was originally posted on September 19, 2012. To read the original post and comments, please click here.

Celebrating Bad: Speed Demon

Willa: So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.

It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where those two major themes intersect.

Joie: Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.

Willa: Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.

Joie: Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.

Willa: I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.

Joie: Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!

Willa: Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?

Joie: Yeah.

Willa: Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it: is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!

And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:

We’re sending out a major love
And this is our message to you
The planets are lining up
We’re bringing brighter days
They’re all in line waiting for you
Can’t you see?
You’re just another part of me

So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.

Joie: Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.

Willa: We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.

Joie: Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.

Willa: They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,

I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.

And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.

Joie: Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.

But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!

Willa: I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!

So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.

Joie: But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.

But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.

Willa: Well, think about those repeated lines from the police: “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.

You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).

So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.

Joie: Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.

Willa: That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.

But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.

Joie: Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!

Willa: That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.

But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.

And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.

Joie: I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”

Willa: I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.

And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.

Joie: That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.

Willa: Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.

If the Angels Came for Me, I’d Tell Them No

Willa:  Joie, a few weeks ago we were talking about “Best of Joy,” and you quoted some lines from Dylan Thomas:

Though lovers be lost, love shall not
And death shall have no dominion

I’ve been thinking about those lines ever since because we see this idea of “death shall have no dominion” a number of times in Michael Jackson’s work – perhaps most explicitly in “Heaven Can Wait,” but also when he seemingly dies but then returns in Moonwalker and Ghosts.

Joie:  That’s true, Willa. It is a theme that we see more than once from him – in both songs and short films.

Willa:  And not just from him, Joie, but many major artists, and I think it’s because death is probably the most difficult concept humans have to face. I read an article a long time ago where the author said he felt the real distinction between humans and other animals is the terrible knowledge that we’re all going to die. As he said, all animals die but humans are the only animals that know it. Or we assume we’re the only animals that know it. Elephants will sometimes visit the bones of their ancestors, and handle them in an almost reverent way. Does that mean they understand the concept of death? Do they know they’re going to die?

Joie:  You know, I am a firm believer that animals know a lot more than we as humans will ever comprehend. I believe that some are more intuitive than others – like the majestic elephant – and they know things and understand things about our world. Much more than humans will ever give them credit for.

Willa:  Oh I agree, and think it’s a huge mistake to assume that since we don’t know the depth of an animal’s thoughts and emotions, they don’t have profound thoughts and emotions. When one of my dogs died of bone cancer several years ago, the other went into deep mourning for a long time and never forgot his friend. If I mentioned his friend’s name in conversation, even years later, he’d look up and watch me very closely.

But the point I’m trying to make is that we all carry the terrible burden of knowing we’re going to die someday, and so are all the people we care about. And one function of art is to help us deal with our deepest emotions, like the fear of death and the grief of losing someone we love. Poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, musicians – artists in many different forms – have struggled for centuries to somehow come to grips with that terrible, terrible knowledge. How do you face life when you know you’re going to die? How do you let yourself love someone fully and deeply when you know they’re going to die? How do you have children when you know they will die someday and pass on this legacy of death? Does life become bitter for us, or does it seem all the more sweet and precious because of that constant threat of death?

Joie:  Wow. Those are heavy questions, Willa. But you’re right … artists have struggled with that knowledge for centuries and have used it to fuel some of the greatest artistic works of all time.

Willa:  They really have, and they’ve come up with a wide range of responses, though some are a lot more popular than others. For example, there’s the famous Thomas Herrick poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” where he advises “the Virgins” to go ahead and have a good time while they can:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

Herrick published this poem in the 1600s, and this “carpe diem” philosophy of “have fun now while you’re young and full of life” is expressed in poetry written more than 2,000 years ago. And it’s still very popular today – especially with musicians, it seems. You hear it on the radio all the time, like in the Kesha song with the repeated refrain, “Let’s make the most of the night / Like we’re gonna die young.”

Joie:  Ok, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It is a very popular topic with musicians. But getting back to your question of ‘does life become bitter for us or does it seem all the more sweet and precious’ because of this constant threat of death … I think the answer to that lies with the individual. Some people are inevitably going to lean toward the bitter option. But I like to think that, for most of us, we tend to embrace the latter idea of life becoming more sweet and precious because of this knowledge. And I think what you said about some artists’ responses being more popular than others reflects that.

Willa: Yes, but artists can also lead us to think about these ideas in new ways. Like I just heard a song on the radio called “Carry On,” and it had these lyrics:

So I met up with some friends at the edge of the night
At a bar off 75
And we talked and talked about how our parents will die
All our neighbors and wives
But I like to think I can cheat it all
To make up for the times I’ve been cheated on

So what the band, Fun, seems to be saying with these lyrics is that they want to believe they can “cheat” death and in that way compensate for times when they’ve felt “cheated on” by life. You know, I’ve never thought about things in quite that way before.

An even better example, I think, is Michael Jackson’s “Be Not Always.” It’s a song about war (“Mothers cry, babies die / Helplessly in arms / While rockets fly”) and racism (“How can we claim to stand for peace / When the races are in strife / Destroying life?”) and poverty (“To have nothing / To dream something / Then lose hoping …”). In other words, this song addresses some of our biggest societal problems – problems so big and so complicated we tend to think of them as eternal and unsolvable. But Michael Jackson is begging us to stop thinking that way. He’s telling us these problems don’t have to be eternal … and shame on us if they are:

Always
Be not always
But if always
Bow our heads in shame
Always
Please, be not always
‘Cause if always
Bow our heads in blame
‘Cause time has made promises
Just promises

This is the chorus, and he sings it twice with a slight variation between them. The first time he sings it, he ends with “Time has made promises / Just promises,” and to me, what he seems to be saying is that these problems are difficult but not everlasting. Time is what’s eternal, and “time has made promises” that we can solve these problems if we keep working at them. But as he goes on to say, time gives us “just promises.” Those promises won’t come true unless we work for them – and we must. In fact, we should “bow our heads in shame” if we don’t keep striving against them until we’ve solved them.

But then he sings the chorus a second time, and this time around he changes that final line. This time he sings, “Time has made promises / Death promises.” Joie, that line just gives me chills, but it’s also strangely inspiring. He’s revised what he told us before, and now his message is much darker. What he seems to be saying is that, really, the only thing Time promises us for certain is that we’re all going to die. Time makes “death promises.” And because of that – because Time will surely bring death to each of us someday – we need to strive with everything we have to preserve the preciousness of all life.

Joie:  I see what you’re saying, Willa. But I have to be honest with you and admit that I really don’t care for that particular song. I understand the importance of the message behind it, but the song itself is so depressing and morbid in tone and feeling. And I understand why the critics at the time were really left scratching their heads when the Victory album came out. Their question was, what is this song of such gloom and doom doing on an album that is supposed to be a victorious celebration? It just didn’t fit, and I remember reading somewhere back then that the brothers weren’t very happy with Michael’s choice of song either.

But I’m getting slightly off topic here. You are right in your assertion that this song points out, rather bluntly, that the only thing Time really promises to us is death.

Willa:  But so does the Kesha song, and no one seems to think it’s morbid. And to me, if a song is going to remind me of my own mortality, I’d much rather it be a beautiful ballad like “Be Not Always” than a flippant pop song. And the Thomas Herrick / Kesha idea that we’re all going to die so we should just party like there’s no tomorrow quite frankly isn’t very inspiring to me. In fact, it makes life seem pretty pointless. To me, Michael Jackson’s approach in “Be Not Always” is much more uplifting. It makes me feel like I should try to live in a meaningful way precisely because life is so short and so precious.

And actually, in one of those funny little moments of synchronicity, our friend Lisha McDuff just sent me a wonderful 10-minute short film called The Empathic Civilization that touches on this very topic. It’s based on a speech by economist and writer Jeremy Rifkin. Here’s a link:

I love this film, and two things especially jump out at me. First, scientists in Italy have found that mammals are “soft wired” to feel empathy – especially humans and primates, probably elephants, and maybe dogs and dolphins. And secondly, that our empathetic development takes a huge leap forward – an “existential leap” – when we realize that we’re going to die someday, and so is every other living thing on this planet. It’s precisely that painful knowledge that leads us to care deeply for other people we may not even have met. And to me, this is exactly the idea Michael Jackson is getting at in “Be Not Always.”

Joie:  That is such an interesting video to watch, Willa. The animation really holds your attention and illustrates the “lesson” the narrator is giving.

But I disagree with your assertion that “Be Not Always” is more uplifting than Kesha’s “Die Young.” I’m not a fan of the song by any means but, all it’s really saying is ‘hey, let’s go out and have a good time tonight.’ “Be Not Always,” on the other hand is talking about some really heavy, overwhelmingly depressing subject matter. And his delivery of it, while poignant, heartbreaking and thought-provoking, is so raw. It’s almost too painful to listen to. For me, anyway. I’m sorry to be so negative here. You know that I can count the number of Michael Jackson songs that I really don’t like on one hand, but this song just happens to be one of them. In fact … I honestly can’t think of another one right now. This may actually be the only one.

Willa:  Wow, that’s interesting, Joie. We have such similar reactions to so many of Michael Jackson’s works, it always kind of shocks me when we see things differently. And I guess we see “Be Not Always” very differently. To me, it’s a lot like Stranger in Moscow, where he’s taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful and meaningful. I love it when he does that. To me, that’s Michael Jackson at his best.

Joie:  Well, I agree with that statement, Willa. That is Michael Jackson at his best. But I just don’t see that happening here. To me, “Be Not Always” just takes a painful situation and makes it more morbid. And I’ll admit that I’m probably just not “getting it,” but the message is totally lost on me because I can’t get past how depressing it is. And I know this is going to sound extremely shallow of me, but I can’t listen to a song that’s only going to depress me.

You know, we talked about “Little Susie” a few weeks ago, and to me that song is a great example of Michael taking a painful situation and turning it into something beautiful, as you said. And yet, even though the subject matter is sad and depressing, the lyrics are beautiful. The music itself is breathtaking. The song grabs a hold of me from the very beginning and draws me in, making me care about this poor, neglected, dead little girl.

“Be Not Always” doesn’t do that for me. Instead of being drawn in, I am repelled. There’s nothing for me to grab onto – the lyrics are distressing, the music is bleak, the mood is hopeless. At the end of the song I feel empty, not uplifted.

Willa:  Joie, I’m just astonished. To me, “Little Susie” is far more depressing than “Be Not Always.” And the melody and his voice are so beautiful, and so is the instrumentation – just a simple acoustic guitar accompanying him throughout the entire song. It’s like his own version of MJ Unplugged, something we don’t get to hear very often.

Joie:  Wow. I can’t believe you find “Little Susie” more depressing than “Be Not Always.” I’m actually equally astonished, Willa. And I find our differences in opinion on this one so interesting. I don’t know that we’ve ever had such a huge gap in our feelings about a song before, do you?

Willa:  No, I think you’re right. We’ve disagreed about how we interpret different aspects of certain songs or videos, but I can’t remember us ever having such completely opposite reactions before. I feel like I need to listen to “Be Not Always” again with your words in mind to see if I can try to hear it the way you do, because I respond so differently.

But to get back to the theme of death, he actually touches on it fairly often, in different ways. Sometimes he addresses it more directly, like in “Gone Too Soon,” the song he dedicated to Ryan White. And sometimes he’s much more subtle. For example, it’s part of the backstory for the Bad short film, and contributes to the sense of threat and foreboding we feel in that film, I think.

Joie:  Oh, I agree, it is a theme that he touched on often and in varying degrees.

Willa:  It is, and what I really wanted to talk about were the “death shall have no dominion” ones. For example, in Moonwalker, the main character, Michael, is surrounded by armed soldiers with seemingly no escape. He transforms into an armed robot and begins fighting back – though interestingly, his most powerful weapon seems to be his voice, crying in pain. He then transforms into a spaceship and tries to escape, but is shot down and seems to be destroyed. But when the evil Mr. Lideo threatens the children, the spaceship returns and destroys Mr. Lideo and his entire operation instead – and again, even though he is now a spaceship and not human, we hear his voice, crying in pain. And again, his voice seems to be what makes him so powerful.

Then he begins to fly off into space, but a shooting star suddenly appears. We see a shooting star repeatedly in Moonwalker, and it’s somehow linked with the Michael character and with magic – it seems to call out the magic that’s within him. But this time the shooting star collides with the spaceship, there’s a big explosion, and he’s gone. The children miss him, and even start to question whether that magic exists – as Katie says, “It’s not a lucky star.” But then she says, “I wish he would come back,” and he does. So he seemingly dies not once but twice, and then against all odds he reappears and there’s a happy reunion.

Ghosts has a somewhat similar structure, but with some major differences also. Once again his character, the nameless Maestro, is under attack, but this time it’s not by a criminal mastermind and his thugs – it’s by the Mayor and townspeople where he lives. And they aren’t attacking him because they harbor evil ambitions, but because they’re frightened and want to make that fear go away. So his goal is different. He isn’t trying to defeat the villagers but connect with them and dissipate that fear. And as in Moonwalker, his voice – actually, the evocative power of both his singing and dancing – is his most powerful weapon.

However, the Mayor still wants him to leave, so the Maestro destroys himself – pounding himself to dust, which then blows away. After he’s gone, the children miss him, and even the townspeople who were trying to drive him out of town feel regret for what’s happened. And it’s after that change of heart that he returns.

Joie:  Oh, I see what you’re saying, Willa. It’s as if he’s repeating that theme of “death shall have no dominion” in each of those short films by returning just when everyone starts to believe that he really is gone. You know, it’s a subject he addresses head on in the song “Heaven Can Wait.” And of course, much more subtly in “Best of Joy,” as we talked about a few weeks ago.

Willa:  Exactly, but it seems to function a little differently here. He doesn’t seem to be trying to say something about death, so much as using death as an artistic device for psychological and artistic reasons. What I mean is, he’s using the presumed death and reappearance of these two protagonists to create a specific emotional effect in the audience.

In both of these films, the protagonist is under attack and undergoes a deep personal trauma – one we as an audience experience also through our identification with him. In Moonwalker, we witness Michael’s powerlessness as Mr. Lideo hits and threatens Katie, and then kicks and beats him when he tries to help her. In Ghosts we hear the Mayor threaten and ridicule the Maestro and stir the villagers against him, and then we watch the Maestro brutally destroy himself in front of our very eyes.

These are both very traumatic events. When Michael and the Maestro “die,” it draws out all the painful emotions evoked by those traumas: grief, fear, compassion, anger, outrage. It’s like a snakebite kit pulling venom from a wound. And then when Michael and the Maestro return, all of those emotions are washed away, and we’re left with a feeling of relief and renewal. So taken together, this double movement of death and reappearance provide us with catharsis – almost like a Reset button for rebooting our emotions so we aren’t stuck with the trauma of what we’ve experienced.

Joie:  That’s a very interesting way of looking at that, Willa. I’m not sure I would have thought of it in that way before but, I like the way you put that.

Willa:  Well, there are many different ways to interpret these two films, and this is only one approach. But it’s very interesting to me to think about how his character’s death and reappearance in these films affect us as an audience. The extreme emotional whiplash we experience when he dies and comes back to life seems to bring about a kind of psychological cleansing – a purging of the deep trauma we endured before this final crisis. And using art to purge an audience of uncomfortable emotions and bring about a feeling of rebirth or renewal is precisely what Aristotle meant by the word “catharsis.”

It’s a very old concept – more than 2,000 years old – and we tend to think we’ve changed a lot in those 2,000 years. But while daily life for humans has changed tremendously since then, human nature apparently hasn’t, and this process of catharsis still powerfully moves us as an audience, even today.

The Moon is Walking

Willa:  You know, Joie, we’ve been chatting for over a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker, Michael Jackson’s only full-length film, which is kind of shocking.

Joie:  It is shocking, isn’t it? And it never even crossed our minds until fairly recently.

Willa:  Well, actually, it’s been in the back of my mind for a while now, just bubbling away, but it just never felt quite ready somehow.

Joie:  I think we were sort of dancing around it because we just weren’t sure which way to come at it, you know?

Willa:  You could be right. There’s so much to talk about, it’s kind of overwhelming!  But this week I was hoping we could begin looking at Moonwalker, and I think a good place to start is its structure.

When Moonwalker first came out it was generally well received, but it was criticized for not having a central plot running through the entire movie. The primary criticism was that it felt like a bunch of videos stuck together, rather than a feature-length film. And it’s true that Moonwalker is structured as a series of short segments. In other words, it’s more like a book of poems than a novel, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a cohesive structure. For example, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is a collection of poems, but it still has a highly complex structure, and so does Moonwalker. However, like Leaves of Grass it’s structured thematically, rather than relying on a central plot.

Joie:  That’s an interesting analogy, Willa – comparing Moonwalker to Leaves of Grass in terms of structure.

Willa:  Well, I just think it’s odd that critics seem to assume every feature-length film has to be structured like a novel. There are a lot of different ways to express ideas and emotions through film – like Koyaanisqatsi by Philip Glass. It doesn’t have a plot or characters or dialogue, but it still communicates a powerful message – and it does so using a structure that’s appropriate to the ideas and emotions it’s trying to convey.

A useful way to approach this, I think, and begin thinking about the structure of Moonwalker in a different way – not as “lacking” a plot but as striving for something different – is to compare it with The Band Wagon, a 1953 film Michael Jackson loved starring Fred Astaire and directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli’s father). The Band Wagon does have something of a plot, which in a fascinating loop-de-loop way is the story of its own creation, but that plot is really just a device for showcasing the talents of the main character, Tony Hunter. As one of the on-screen playwrights describes it, it has “just enough plot to make him do lots of gay and varied numbers.” Structurally, The Band Wagon is primarily a series of shorts that are related thematically, just like Moonwalker. And in fact, Moonwalker can be interpreted as an artistic response to The Band Wagon, with the individual segments correlating in interesting ways.

Joie:  I know you talk a lot about The Band Wagon in your book, Willa, and I found it all very fascinating. But I’ve never actually seen the whole movie. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it but, I’ve never sat and watched the entire film from start to finish.

Willa:  Oh Joie, you’ve gotta see it!  You know, I hadn’t seen it either before I started working on the book, but I was having a really hard time figuring out what was going on in Smooth Criminal. It’s like I could feel all these contradictory emotions I couldn’t explain and couldn’t understand. So I went looking for clues in The Band Wagon since it was a major inspiration for Smooth Criminal, and that sent me back to Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury. And really, looking at those three together as a progression opened up Smooth Criminal for me in ways I never could have predicted. I see it in a completely different way now that simply wasn’t available to me before.

So you simply have to see The Band Wagon, Joie. It’s really fun – I think you’ll eat it up – and I bet you’ll see lots of connections to Moonwalker. There are so many fun little references like costumes and props and dance moves, and the two films are structured in similar ways as well.

The Band Wagon opens at an auction of some of “Tony Hunter’s Personal Effects, as Used in His Starring Roles.” His iconic cane, top hat, and white gloves (two, not one) are up for sale, but no one is bidding. At his peak, Hunter had a string of hit Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, but he hasn’t had a hit in years and the public has lost interest in him. We then meet Hunter himself as he overhears passengers on a train talk about how “he was good 12 or 15 years ago, but the columnists … say he’s through.”

Finally he arrives in New York, and he’s pleasantly surprised when a flock of reporters gathers in the train station to ask him questions. However, they abandon him as soon as their real target, Ava Gardner, appears. Hunter then breaks into a sad rendition of “By Myself” as he walks quietly through the train station.

The repeated message of these opening scenes is that Hunter was once harassed by his celebrity – by the crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame – but ironically, now he’s tormented by their absence. It’s a sure sign that his career is in serious decline, for one thing, and he knows it – and so do the fans and reporters.

Joie:  That’s interesting, Willa. Especially when contrasted with the opening scenes from Moonwalker. The movie opens, of course, with concert footage of Michael performing “Man in the Mirror.” And those concert shots are interspersed with famous, and infamous, shots throughout history with lots of politicians and humanitarians and starving children and such. And we also see lots of shots of fans in the audience screaming and fainting and going nuts as they watch him up on stage.

And then, when the song comes to a close, we suddenly hear various audio clips of scenes throughout his lifetime: being introduced with his brothers as the Jackson 5 on the Ed Sullivan show, a song being announced on the radio, building a shrine to Elizabeth Taylor in his home, being admitted to the hospital when his hair caught fire on the set of the Pepsi commercial, Thriller being listed as the biggest-selling album of all time, becoming the first artist to generate six number one singles off one album. We even hear President Ronald Reagan’s voice commending him on his great success.

And we hear all of this as a camera pans around what is presumably a dressing room or a bedroom and we see sparkly costumes, the sequined glove, old home photos and such sitting next to Grammy Awards and MTV Awards, and pictures of him with Diana Ross and Quincy Jones. Even an adorable shot of baby Michael sitting on a couch, and the intended message is clear – this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known. In fact, the very next song we hear is “Music and Me,” a poignant reminder that Michael Jackson and music have indeed been together a very long time.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie. I hadn’t thought about that quite that way before. I was aware of the focus on his celebrity, but didn’t think about the fact that it spanned so much of his life, beginning in childhood – that “this life of celebrity, fame and music is all this person has ever known,” as you said.

Joie:  It is interesting, isn’t it? It’s almost the exact opposite situation from the one Tony Hunter finds himself in on that train. Michael’s career, though it began a very long time ago, is still in full swing and he’s still harassed with the ‘crush of fans and reporters and photographers that accompanies fame,’ as you said earlier.

Willa:  That’s true. So he’s in a very different stage of his career than Tony Hunter, and while The Band Wagon shows us the problems an artist faces when his career is in decline, Moonwalker shows us there are problems when he’s at his peak as well. He explores that more fully in the Speed Demon and Leave Me Alone segments that follow the opening section. We talked about both of those in September – specifically how he’s exploring the complicated issue of fame, and how that’s been a wonderful opportunity for him but a difficult burden as well.

And I’m very interested in what you just said about the opening montage of “famous, and infamous, shots throughout history,” as you put it. By beginning that way, Moonwalker places art in a very different context than The Band Wagon does. It’s implying that this isn’t just about Michael Jackson as a person, entertainer, and cultural icon. There are other issues at stake – issues of global importance that can make a real difference in people’s lives.

Joie:  That’s very true, Willa. And I think perhaps the message here is that music can have a real impact on those issues of global importance. Or maybe that the artist making the music – since he is so connected to his audience – has the power to impact those global issues. Using the power of art as a means of social change.

Willa:  I agree, and of course we know he felt very strongly about the power of art to not only bring people together, but also challenge our perceptions and beliefs and lead us to see things in a different way. So in this section, he’s really raising some important philosophical questions about the function of art. And there’s a direct correlation to that in The Band Wagon also – for example, in its signature number, “That’s Entertainment”:

As we can see very clearly in this clip, the primary issue is high art versus popular art, and as Nina pointed out in a comment a few weeks ago, there were specific historical, cultural, and even political reasons for why that was such an important topic back then:

Film scholar Rick Altman, who wrote a very helpful book (“The American Film Musical”), … writes that one of the social functions of musicals is to articulate some ways by which millions of Americans, many of whom were European immigrants in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – when the genre was in its heyday – could know themselves AS Americans, and establish a sense of national identity and solidarity. So a number of binary oppositions are set up in the narrative, in order to achieve this. In the “show musical” (a major subgenre), the opposition between “high” and “low” culture is often key to the whole story. Films like “The Band Wagon” set up a contrast – and competition – between forms that emanate from the European classical tradition (like ballet, modern “art” dance, symphony orchestra, string quartet, etc.) vs. things like American popular forms like swing, jazz, pop, and show tunes themselves! In this way, “The Band Wagon” (and even more, “Singin’ in the Rain”) become a kind of advertisement for Hollywood and American show business itself. Of course, good ol’ American knowhow wins out at the end….

So as Nina points out, the “key to the whole story” of The Band Wagon – and many other musicals of that era – is this competition between (American) popular entertainment and (European) high art. Of course, this disconnect between pop art and high art is something Michael Jackson faced as well. His work was misinterpreted and horribly undervalued by critics, I think, because it was seen as “just” entertainment, so they failed to see the artistry of his work.

Joie:  I love that comment from Nina!

Willa:  Isn’t it great?

Joie:  It really does underscore the issue of high art vs. popular, or low, art. And you’re right. Michael Jackson faced this issue constantly during his career and his work was often criticized as being “just” entertainment, or too commercial, if you will. But in Moonwalker – and not just in that opening segment but, throughout the whole film really – he seems to be focusing on using his art to attempt to bring about that change he sings of in “Man in the Mirror.”

Willa:  He really does –  we see that from the opening shots of Moonwalker to the haunting rendition of “The Moon is Walking” by Ladysmith Black Mambazo during the closing credits. He’s much more interested in exploring the cultural functions of art, and how art can be used to effect deep cultural shifts in how we perceive and interact with one another. As you said so well, Joie, “Using the power of art as a means of social change.” We see that idea repeated throughout Moonwalker – for example in “Badder,” which is all about kids using the power of art to stand up to gangs.

Joie:  That is a really interesting section of Moonwalker, Willa. That whole “Badder” section. I think most people really love that part because it’s so not what you expect when the camera pans up from the silver-tipped boots, all the way over the buckles and belts costume, up to the face. It’s a little bit of a shock seeing that cute little boy staring back at you. But the interesting part to me is that they then recreate the entire Bad video using this cast of amazing child dancers.

You know, I’ve always thought it was really cute and fun to watch. But, since talking to you, I have come to realize that almost every artistic thing Michael did, he did it for a specific reason. So that makes me wonder … what is really going on in this “Badder” section? What’s the message or the lesson here?

Willa:  Well, that’s always a complicated question, but one way to approach it is by comparing it with what’s going on in The Band Wagon, because once again there’s a direct correlation. While the “Badder” section of Moonwalker has child actors dressed up as adults, and singing and dancing as adults, the “Triplets” number in The Band Wagon has adult actors dressed up as babies, singing and dancing as babies. But if we look at the lyrics, we see they aren’t really like babies at all:

We do everything alike
We look alike
We dress alike
We walk alike
We talk alike
And what is more
We hate each other very much
We hate our folks …
How I wish I had a gun
A wittle gun
It would be fun
To shoot the other two
And be only one

It’s a funny segment but surprisingly violent, and actually the humor comes from the irony of these little lisping toddlers (“A wittle gun”) harboring such bloody thoughts about their siblings. Here’s a video clip:

So “Triplets” takes a situation we tend to think of as very safe and domestic – three babies in highchairs – injects it with an unexpected note of violence, and explores the comic aspects of that. But of course, by the time Michael Jackson created Moonwalker, the world had changed. Many neighborhoods were erupting in gang violence, children were getting caught in the crossfire, and the idea of children thinking bloody thoughts wasn’t funny any more. So he’s approaching the issue of children and violence in a very different, and much more serious way.

Joie:  I have to say, Willa, it is a little bit startling to me to watch that “Triplets” clip because the words of their little song are so very violent. It’s odd really, and I think that’s because of what you just said. The world was a very different place back when The Band Wagon was made and this kind of joke wasn’t looked at in the same way it is today. Very interesting.

Willa:  It is, isn’t it? There’s a similar relation between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, which are the penultimate numbers of The Band Wagon and Moonwalker. “Girl Hunt Ballet” ends with Fred Astaire’s character shooting and killing the woman he said he wanted to care for and protect, which is pretty shocking. Here’s a video clip.

But what’s really shocking if you stop and think about it is that this number is a comedy – just like the murderous infants in “Triplets.” And again, Michael Jackson reworks that, making it darker, more serious, and more complicated by encouraging us to care about the murdered woman. As he asks over and over again, “Annie, are you ok?”

We could spend a month just talking about the many parallels and contrasts between “Girl Hunt Ballet” and Smooth Criminal, but Nina shared a clip a few weeks ago that highlights some of those connections – not only to Smooth Criminal but also You Rock My World and “Dangerous.” And there’s a subtle reference in Billie Jean as well.

Joie:  That is so interesting, Willa. You know, before we began talking, I never knew that Michael had taken so much inspiration from The Band Wagon before. In fact, I love old movies and musicals but, I never even paid much attention to all the similarities before you started pointing them out to me. And now that you have, it is just fascinating!

Willa:  Isn’t it? It’s so amazing to me how he drew inspiration from so many sources – and not just in a superficial way, but in a way that makes you realize just how knowledgeable and engaged he was with all these different genres. Not long after he died, Kobe Bryant talked a number of times about how Michael Jackson turned him on to classics like Fred Astaire movies and other big Hollywood musicals. Here’s a clip from a press conference:

And when you really look at those movies and compare them to Michael Jackson’s work, you see how deeply they influenced him. Nina has commented about this a number of times – like here when comparing Say, Say, Say to Singing in the Rain.

Joie:  That’s very insightful. I never would have made that comparison before.

Willa:  Oh, I’ve learned a lot from Nina’s comments. You know, she’s a filmmaker and artist (she’s made some really interesting Michael Jackson collages) as well as a professor of film studies, and she just seems to have a wealth of knowledge about filmmaking and film history at her fingertips.

That brings us to the finale of each. The Band Wagon ends with an emotional reprise of “That’s Entertainment.” So the final message of The Band Wagon seems to be that Tony Hunter’s career may have been in decline, but he’s still a star, still a talented entertainer, loved and respected by his peers – and that includes his costar, a classically trained “high art” ballerina who has fallen in love with him. So on several different levels, the finale reinforces the message that entertainment, meaning popular art, reigns supreme over high art.

Joie:  Well, the final message I get from Moonwalker is that popular art, and perhaps music in particular, is universal. It has the capacity to draw people together – people from all walks of life, all nationalities, all races, all ages, and all economic ends of the spectrum. And the final song I think illustrates that message well. It’s Michael’s rendition of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” and it’s perfect. A rock song written by the incomparable Lennon and McCartney and sung to perfection by the biggest entertainer in the world, who just happens to be a Black man. Come together, indeed.

Willa:  That’s interesting, Joie. The title kind of says it all, doesn’t it?

Joie:  You know, it really does. And so does the title “That’s Entertainment.”

Willa:  That’s true! They both summarize the central theme of the film in the title of the last song. How interesting!

And then Moonwalker adds a little lagniappe by giving us Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing “The Moon is Walking” during the final credits. I just love the mood of that song and the way they perform it, and I love the way the background images shift back and forth between scenes from Smooth Criminal and the singers of Ladysmith Black Mambazo in period costumes, as if they were part of Smooth Criminal as well. And I love the repeated refrain, “Come and see, the moon is dancing.” To me it feels like they’re testifying.

You know, Michael Jackson’s character is so connected to the moon in this film (after all, the title is Moonwalker) that, for me personally, that line feels like a testament to the power of art – his art. He probably didn’t mean it that way – he probably just liked the synchronicity of the words “Moonwalker” and “The Moon is Walking.” But that’s what I think of when I hear “Come along, my brother / Come along, my sister / Come and see, the moon is dancing.” They’re testifying to the power of his art.

Celebrating Bad: Speed Demon

Willa:  So Joie, you’d think I’d have learned by now never to label any of Michael Jackson’s videos as “just entertainment.” I thought that about You Rock My World – that it was “just entertainment” – but after talking with you about it last fall I’ve come to see it as a very pointed critique of the music industry. I thought that about In the Closet, but after talking with you about it last January I’ve come to see it as a fascinating look at taboo relationships. At different times I’ve thought it about Thriller, and Smooth Criminal, and Scream, but later came to see those three as some of his most important works. And I’ve thought it about Speed Demon, but now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been overlooking something important in that video as well.

It seems to me there are two major themes running through the nine Bad videos. First, there’s the extremely complicated issue of violence, poverty, and criminality, especially as it presents itself in the inner city. We see this theme in the videos for Bad, The Way You Make Me Feel, Man in the Mirror, Smooth Criminal, and Speed Demon. Then there’s the complicated issue of celebrity and fame, as we see in Dirty Diana, Leave Me Alone, Liberian Girl, Another Part of Me, and Speed Demon. So Speed Demon – that cute, quirky, inoffensive little claymation video – is the place where these two major themes intersect.

Joie:  Willa, I have to say, you have me intrigued now because I don’t think of Speed Demon in terms of “violence, poverty and criminality,” as you put it.

Willa:  Well, he has a light touch. You wouldn’t think someone could make an enjoyable video about some of our worst and most complicated social ills, but he did – over and over again.

Joie:  Well, yes. That’s true; he did. But, I’m not sure I see that going on in Speed Demon. And I also never would have thought about Liberian Girl or Another Part of Me as commentaries on celebrity and fame so, I’m interested to see where you’re going with this.

Willa:  I know what you mean, Joie. I would have said the same thing just a few days ago. Speed Demon especially seems to have more in common with Wallace & Gromit than Beat It, at least on the surface.

Joie:  Wallace & Gromit. That’s funny!

Willa:  Well, you know what I’m saying – it’s claymation! But remember a couple weeks ago when you asked me what I saw as the major themes of Bad?

Joie:  Yeah.

Willa:  Well, I’d never thought about that before, so I started listening to the songs and watching the videos with that question in mind, and as I was doing that these two very disparate themes started to emerge, especially in the videos. I mean, think about it:  is there a video anywhere with more celebrities than Liberian Girl? It’s nothing but celebrities. And suddenly there’s Michael Jackson behind the scenes laughing, which seems like such an interesting statement all in itself!

And look at the opening of Another Part of Me and how it focuses on his complicated relationship with his fame – how he both enjoys it but seeks refuge from it, and how he uses it to convey his “message” – a message he states very clearly in the chorus:

We’re sending out a major love
And this is our message to you
The planets are lining up
We’re bringing brighter days
They’re all in line waiting for you
Can’t you see?
You’re just another part of me

So he’s on a mission to send “major love” out into the world, and he uses his art and his celebrity to help him accomplish that. But this isn’t an easy issue – his celebrity both empowers him and isolates him. And as usual, he presents these ideas in subtle but sophisticated ways in the video.

Joie:  Hmm. That is very interesting, Willa. I see your point. And what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I guess, now that you mention it, I have been thinking of both Liberian Girl and Another Part of Me as purely entertainment. And you’re right – that is something that we should never do when it comes to Michael Jackson.

Willa:  We really shouldn’t. It’s easy to fall into that because his work is so entertaining, but there are always so many layers to his work, and a lot of times there are really interesting things happening if we just look. Like it’s easy to dismiss Speed Demon as just a cartoon, but it addresses his complicated relationship with his celebrity as well. It opens with him being chased by some over-eager fans, and they’re pretty rude and obnoxious.

Joie:  Oh, they are incredibly rude and obnoxious! And it makes me kind of sad to think that he may have encountered that often, you know? That fans were ever that thoughtless and unkind to him. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of them as fans; to me, they’re more like an angry mob that’s out to get him. They even seem to be quite angry at him as they chase him around the movie set and out onto the open road. And the longer they chase him, the angrier they seem to become.

Willa:  They really do. You know, it’s presented as this fun chase sequence – and he does seem to enjoy it – but all the same, there is something threatening about it and he really doesn’t want them to catch him. And I think he did have to deal with obnoxious fans sometimes. He talked about it in a 1978 phone interview with Lisa Robinson. She asked him, “do you still like meeting your fans?” and he said,

I enjoy all that sometimes, seeing people who love me, or buy my records. I think it’s fun, and I enjoy meeting my fans and I think it’s important. But sometimes people think you owe your life to them; they have a bad attitude – like, ‘I made you who you are.’ That may be true – but not that one person. Sometimes you have to say to them, If the music wasn’t good, you wouldn’t have bought it. Because some of them think they actually own you. Someone will say, “Sit down,” “Sign this,” or “Can I have your autograph?” and I’ll say, “Yes, do you have a pen?” And they say, “No, go get one.” Honestly. I’m not exaggerating. But I just try to deal with it.

And remember, this was in 1978 – three years before Thriller came out.

Joie:  Yes, I remember that interview and it is really sad when you think about it. And again, I have a difficult time thinking of those people as fans. I guess I just have a different idea of what that word means. “Fan.” You know, oftentimes that word has such a negative connotation to it. Especially with regard to Michael Jackson fans. But I’ve been in the fan community a long time and I know Michael Jackson fans to be some of the nicest, most respectful people I’ve ever met, so that’s difficult for me to reconcile. But, I’m certain from his point of view there were times when the attention probably became extremely rude or even threatening. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with that kind of attention 24/7.

But I was really more referring to the video itself – not his real life. In the short film, the “fans” who are chasing him sort of become this angry mob that seems like they’re out to get him. And it’s not clear what they intend to do with him if they catch up to him. Do they want to hurt him or do they simply want his autograph? It’s difficult to tell by the snarls on their faces. It’s no wonder he’s trying to get away from them!

Willa:  I think you’re exactly right, Joie – they are like a “mob,” meaning they’re gripped by that weird mob mentality that takes over sometimes, and I think Michael Jackson had seen how dangerous that could be and was scared of it. We see that fear of the mob in the intro to Ghosts. And he said in a number of interviews that being mobbed “hurts.” That people go crazy and start pulling your hair and twisting your arms, and it really hurts. Apparently, the first time the Jackson 5 went to England, a mob scene broke out at the airport and he could have been killed. He was wearing a scarf, and one girl grabbed one end and another grabbed the other end, and they were both pulling as hard as they could. The scarf was tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t breathe and couldn’t loosen it, and his brothers had to rescue him. What a scary story!

So you’re right – it’s hard to predict what a mob will do, and it’s not clear at all what the mob chasing him in Speed Demon will do if they catch him.

Joie:  But luckily, they don’t get that chance because they all end up getting stopped for speeding and causing a pile-up of sorts. The last we see of them, they’re all being taken away in a police wagon as Michael speeds away, finally free to breathe now that the mob that was chasing him is gone. He heads out to the open road and stops for a few minutes to discard the costume he used to escape his pursuers, then finds himself in the middle of a dance-off when that costume comes to life and issues a challenge.

But I have to say, Willa, that while I agree that the complicated issues of celebrity and fame are definitely present in this short film, I’m still not really seeing the issues of ‘violence, poverty and criminality’ in Speed Demon that you mentioned at the beginning of this discussion.

Willa:  Well, think about those repeated lines from the police:  “Pull over, boy, and get your ticket right.” There’s so much sheer joy of flight in Speed Demon, just the exhilaration of speed and escaping all the pressures being put on him. But then near the end a trooper gives him a ticket. In fact, there are policemen throughout this video, and a lot of times they’re chasing him too. So while it’s a policeman who puts those obsessive fans in jail and kind of rescues him from the mob, as you just described, another policeman shows up and treats him like a criminal.

You know, what really started me thinking differently about Speed Demon was the MJ Academia Project videos. Unfortunately, the people who posted those videos have taken them down and they aren’t available at the moment, which is disappointing. I’d really like to watch them again and link to them right now. I hope they repost them. But anyway, in one of their videos they talk about how Michael Jackson repeatedly uses the word “boy” in a number of songs and videos as a code word for how black men have been treated by the criminal justice system in the U.S., and they specifically mention Speed Demon. I’d never thought of Speed Demon like that – as anything more than a cartoon, actually – but I started listening to it differently after that. And one thing I realized is that the video really softens the message of the song. If you can somehow block the video images out of your mind while listening to it, it feels much grittier than when your mind is full of Michael Jackson in a dancing competition with Spike, the claymation rabbit (which I love, by the way).

So, as he does so many times with so many different subjects, he shows how complicated human relationships can be. He loves his fans, but feels threatened by them when they turn into a mob. He feels protected by the police, especially when the mob is carted off to the police station, but he also knows the police can turn on him at any minute and criminalize him. And this was filmed in 1988, before he’d really experienced just how biased and abusive the police could be.

Joie:  Well, I agree with you, the video does really soften the message of the song. And I wonder if he did that intentionally, seeing as how this video was part of the movie, Moonwalker – which is really sort of a kid’s movie with a feel-good theme to it. But, as we talked about last week, this is one of those short films where the visual he presents us with is much different than what we conjure up in our minds when merely listening to the song itself.

Willa:  That’s true, though we need to be careful about viewing Moonwalker as just entertainment also. It does have a fun, “feel-good” mood through most of it, but there’s a lot of very interesting things going on in that movie. We should talk about that sometime. I can’t believe we’ve been chatting about Michael Jackson’s work for a year now and still haven’t talked about Moonwalker.

But getting back to Speed Demon, we really see that structure of a fun entertaining film overlying a serious message here too. In some ways, he seems to be exploring the role of artists in society, and how artists and police are kind of at cross purposes. The police tend to want everyone to follow the rules and behave in conventional ways, even if that has nothing to do with legality, and artists are constantly challenging those conventions. We see that conflict between the police and the artist with the “sheriff” from the western movie early in the video. He starts chasing Michael Jackson and calls out to him in this really patronizing way, “Hey, Songbird.” And then at the end the trooper gives him the ticket, saying, “I need your autograph right here.” Importantly, the ticket isn’t for speeding. It’s for dancing.

Joie:  Well, in the trooper’s defense, Willa, it was a clearly marked No Dancing zone!

Willa:  That’s true! And you notice he’s a very law-abiding citizen. He doesn’t dance after the trooper points to that funny sign telling him he’s not supposed to, though you know he disagrees with it.

But you know, while this is all handled in a very light, entertaining way, it’s addressing some really complex ideas as well. The policeman is trying to rein him in and prevent him from dancing, from expressing his art, and even treats him as a criminal, or at least a law-breaker, because of his dancing. And this ties back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago with the Bad short film. As we said then, artists and criminals actually have something in common: they both challenge social norms. They do it in very different ways – one legally to improve our cultural awareness, and one illegally and often destructively – but sometimes that distinction becomes blurred and artists are treated as criminals. And Michael Jackson was very aware of that, as he shows us in Speed Demon and Bad, and perhaps most explicitly in Ghosts. Remember, the “crime” he’s accused of in Ghosts is being an artist, a teller of ghost stories, and too outrageously different.

And I think this criminalization of artists played out in very real ways in how the police (and the press and the public) interpreted the allegations against him in 1993 and 2003. It’s like there was this idea that he was willing to transgress social norms – by singing and dancing, by challenging gender and racial boundaries, by representing the Other, as Joe Vogel described a few weeks ago – so some people seemed to think that maybe he was willing to transgress legal and moral boundaries as well and do illegal, immoral things.

Joie:  I think that’s a very interesting point, Willa. And maybe a very simplistic way of describing that is the old saying ‘judging a book by its cover.’ Because he looked “strange” or “freaky” to some, then perhaps he was more likely to be a criminal than someone who looked sweet and innocent. Actress Winona Ryder comes to mind. Who would have ever imagined she would behave like a common criminal? After all, she looked so “normal.”

Willa:  I don’t really know much about the Winona Ryder case, except that it got a lot of attention in the press – far more than shoplifting charges usually get. But this criminalization of artists has a long history. Think about the McCarthy trials, and how many artists’ careers were destroyed by them. And William Tyndale, who may have been the greatest English poet of all time. Most of the King James Bible was written by Tyndale, and you can make the case that Shakespeare wouldn’t have been Shakespeare without him – even the cadence of his language reflects Tyndale. And Tyndale was burned at the stake.

And I always wonder how many of the women, and men too, condemned as witches during the Salem witch trials had an artist’s sensibility. They were definitely people who didn’t fit in, and were seen as “strange” or “freaky,” as you just said. Many were independent women who didn’t marry and lived unconventional lives. And this is interesting: one of the first people accused during the trials was a slave named Tituba who liked to tell children stories, just like the Maestro in Ghosts.

Joie:  That’s a really interesting point, Willa. And you’re probably right about that, many of them probably were artists in some form, or at the very least, free thinkers – also like the Maestro in Ghosts. But I think what you’re trying to get at is that, even though on the surface it’s a cute little claymation video, Speed Demon is anything but childish or simplistic.

Willa:  Exactly. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is that it works on both levels. It’s a fun, cartoon-like film that kids enjoy, but there are some complicated ideas for adults to grapple with as well.