In the 1980s, everything was so big. I was pretty small, and since it was hard to tell what size things really were, I always assumed the myth of Michael Jackson was part hype. When he later went his own way, so to speak, I easily went mine, despite the misty lavender MJ pin I'd worn on my jean jacket and kept in my jewelry box. When he died, I was sad but undisturbed. We had the recordings; we didn't need the (shell of the) man. Soon another announcement came out: a posthumous Michael Jackson movie, shot in the weeks before his death as he prepared for his final tour, called This Is It. On a talk show, the director, Kenny Ortega, explained the decision to release the unauthorized footage: "This movie is going to revive Michael Jackson's reputation forever."
At the same time, Seattle Art Museum was feverishly pitching an unauthorized, posthumous, behind-the-scenes, man-behind-the-myth art "event" of its own (This Is It was a movie "event," not a movie). The museum's home page showed a breathless Flash animation advertising a dead star: Michelangelo. The coming show—which opened October 28, 13 days before This Is It hit theaters—would reveal things about Michelangelo you never knew, things even he didn't want you to see. He famously burned his sketches, but here would be a dozen that escaped the flames. Looking at these would be the opposite of laying eyes on Michelangelo's most celebrated works—the hard, cold marbles; the paintings way, way up on that ceiling—those 16th-century equivalents of MJ's perfect, produced recordings. This was Michelangelo in rehearsal. And because this is the museum world rather than the movie world, they called it Michelangelo Public and Private: Drawings for the Sistine Chapel and Other Treasures from the Casa Buonarroti, using 16 words when three would have done. This is it.
Fast-forward to the week after Michelangelo Public and Private opens. A tour guide is leading a group of teenagers into the exhibition. "This is really the best part, so I like to start here," she says, stopping in a doorway and pointing. The students all follow her finger.
It directs them to a blown-up photograph of the Sistine ceiling plastered to the wall. This is glorified Sistine Chapel wallpaper. Everybody is hushed as they approach and study it. It already has a small crowd of people standing before it; the rest of the show is emptier. Somehow, in its attempt to deliver the raw stuff behind the name, Michelangelo Public and Private managed only to reinscribe that Michelangelo is and has always been (even during his life), in fact, very famous. The little drawings bring a few lovely moments, but the loveliness is drowned out by other artists' tributes and decorative objects and documentation: the giant slice of wallpaper, a 19th-century print reproduction of the Sistine ceiling mounted on the surface of a table, a miniature replica of David (with an angrier face) made in 1873 (15 replicas of which the museum had made for circulation around the city for photo opportunities). All the tour guide did was genuflect in the direction she was pointed: at the fame.
Weeks later, I went to see This Is It. This was long after the very special, limited two-week run the producers originally announced, but the movie was still playing, as though somebody had forgotten to take it away. Days before, MTV purchased the rights to play it in 2011 on regular old cable. The early manufactured scarcity of the movie "event" had already evaporated; there were only 11 of us in the theater.
But five minutes in, I knew. This movie was the rare glimpse I'd been promised. The goods. It.
There are three kinds of footage in This Is It. Ortega distilled the 111-minute movie down from 80 hours of material: making-of, including interviews with the dancers; mini-movies, shot to be broadcast as part of the concert (50 sold-out dates were scheduled at London's O2 Arena over nine months); and what Ortega calls "the miracle footage."
The quintessential "miracle footage": MJ alone, onstage, under the lights, rehearsing "Billie Jean." You don't see MJ the accused, MJ the plastic-surgery victim, MJ the fashion plate, MJ the historical figure, MJ the alien, MJ the chum of Liz Taylor, MJ the owner of Bubbles the chimp, MJ the balcony dangler, MJ the baby of the Jackson 5, MJ the cryogenics believer, MJ the 50-year-old, MJ on death's doorstep—you almost don't see MJ at all. You see a man moving in a way that no other man has ever quite moved before. Every part of his body goes its own way, fast and fluid, connected to every minute layer of music, as he sings. He is the music.
"At least we got a feel for it," he demurs softly after finishing "Billie Jean." But down in front of the stage, his 20-year-old backup dancers are going crazy. They see what we see: Michael Jackson was a genius. Even at 50. Even emaciated and freakish and high as hell and about to die. It's hard to imagine that anyone has ever had a more complex, intuitive sense of rhythm. He was not, as I'd assumed, a small figure hooked up to the prostheses of a 1980s-size production mechanism; he was a performance giant. It's not that he values innovation over repetition; he's an artist of his era, and he wants much of the music to be "just like the recording, just like the recording," he tells the band. But he was also art embodied. The death of his body is sadder than ever. It is miracle footage.