Visual Art

The Way You Make Me Feel

What It Is About Michelangelo and Michael Jackson

The Way You Make Me Feel

Kevin Mazur © Michael Jackson Company, LLC

ABSENCE VERSUS PRESENCE Michelangelo wallpaper at SAM; MJ making magic on death’s doorstep.

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Kevin Mazur

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. recommended


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He was not emaciated (according to autopsy) he was not high (according to all people who were actually around him for months in rehearsal) he was not about to die until a doctor over dosed him with propofol - don't you watch the news? Freakish is in the eye of the beholder - I thought he looked good - better than the last few years anyway and he certainly acted normal. He was visually reimagining every song and dance. His direction to the music director to make it sound like the record was specific to him trying to make the director understand what he was saying about changing the rhythm behind the beat not on top of it. Listening to the record, which was done that way, is an easy way to learn that rhythm.

Other than that a pretty good review.
Posted by Tom Joyce on December 2, 2009 at 9:41 PM · Report this
I agree with Tom about the lapses in your review, but you did a great job of zeroing in on the subtlety and depth of his rhythmic responses. "He is the music" could not be better put and a nice piece of writing around that. Any individual gesture that you isolate, especially in the solo dancing like Billie Jean, but perhaps most of all Human Nature, is almost negligible, a hand raise, a turn of the head, a step, but the fluidity and in-the-momentness of his dance is beyond anything one has ever seen or imagined. When I think of *that* body stilled for ever, I do just weep to this very moment.
Posted by FaustaBarra on December 3, 2009 at 10:13 AM · Report this

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