In honor of Michael Jackson, we’re raiding our archives. Below, Elvis Mitchell’s review of Jackson’s straight-to-DVD Moonwalker, published in May of 1989.
By Elvis Mitchell
May 23, 1989
I recently had a truly astonishing viewing experience, catching “Moonwalker,” the Michael Jackson Fan Club photo album with moving pictures, on Showtime. (Or is it “Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker”? After all, we don’t want a phalanx of lawyers with sticky perms and sparkly socks delivering a sheaf of papers that will turn this column into a biweekly legal apology.) “Moonwalker” provoked a number of reactions in me. Sure, boredom was one. But “Moonwalker” is, essentially, the most expensive vanity project of all time. It mixes concert sequences, in which spectators scream and faint in several different languages, with what seems like an extended version of the “Smooth Criminal” music video and an extremely long Claymation film in which Jackson and his paranoia mount a motorcycle and are pursued by fans and the rest of the spiritually unwashed.
You get the feeling that he made the film in the closet of his mind, and that nobody was around to say, “Uh, Michael…maybe we should eat this, y’know?” Actually, that’s not exactly true. Apparently Jackson’s manager, Frank Dileo, decided that “Moonwalker” had no business being in theatrical release–maybe he remembered the “Thriller” experience–and quietly slipped “Moonwalker” out on videocassette early this year. Consequently, Dileo himself was quietly slipped out of the Jackson organization, and the poor guy’s apologetic public statement made him sound about as confused over his dismissal as anyone who sat through “Moonwalker.” He didn’t seem to know what he’d done to deserve an early shove toward an unemployment claim. (Perhaps Dileo had had a hard afternoon dodging phone calls from Pepsi, dozed off on a sofa in his office, and when he woke up, found both himself and the couch out on the street.)
“Moonwalker” is bewildering and sad because it goes through so many motions of trying to whip up enthusiasm in the viewer that it shoots itself in the foot. In its eradicable naïveté, this hybrid robs us of the emotional connections we make with a performer on our own; it displays all of our reactions for us and locks us out in the process. As a result, “Moonwalker” is excruciating and frustrating–it’s so jacked up from start to finish that the only honest reaction you can have is numbness.
In contrast to all the eerily precise controls that “Moonwalker” erects around Jackson–there’s not a moment in “Moonwalker” where anything resembling natural lighting is even approximated–was the real excitement generated by a television appearance he made two weeks ago that allowed us to see him in an entirely different light (and lighting). In footage that was shown on what seemed like every major news show and Entertainment Tonight, Jackson was seen shopping. But this wasn’t the usual Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous video reel, with Robin Leach screaming, “And there’s Michael and ‘is constant companion, Bubbles, relaxing by dropping a ton of ‘is swellegant loife-stoile…,” and Jackson studying a handball-sized diamond while jheri-curl tendrils gleam like onyx over his smoothly beveled forehead.
Instead, a surveillance camera at a store in a Simi Valley, California, shopping mall caught Jackson and one of his young buddies browsing and strolling. They were in a Zales, I think, one of those 14-karat electroplate jewelry chain stores.
Jackson was in disguise, wearing a wig that resembled the curly do Cher wore in Moonstruck, along with a cap and a paste-on mustache that he had to keep patting so it wouldn’t fall off. To the untrained eye–as well as the trained eye of the store’s security guards–he looked like a criminal, and not a smooth one either. Jackson had such a serious “Psycho Killer, qu’est-que c’est?” look that you could almost hear the security guards overturning milk cartons to see if his underage companion was pictured on one of them.
What with the camera’s grainy stock, long-angle lens, and bad positioning, the film evoked the dirty thrill of one of the lurid, bad-dream recreations on A Current Affair, or those topless sunbathing pictures of Jackie O that look as if they were shot by a Russian surveillance satellite. This close encounter of the first kind provided an extra jolt because this must have been one of the few times in this decade when Jackson wasn’t controlling his image as it issued forth into the world.
Jackson is certainly entitled to his privacy–which is probably why he went shopping at Zales in the first place; you can bet he wasn’t there for the Mother’s Day Special on Seiko wall clocks. Undoubtedly, he didn’t want to have to compare stone sizes with Liz Taylor and Mr. T while making an over-the-counter buy at Cartier or face the pack of paparazzi hovering like process servers when he left. It odes seem odd, though, that he would leave his compound and brave the fresh smog outside to buy the kinds of merchandise he could order watching the Home Shopping Network in the limo. (And, in fact, the Zales shopping spree may have backfired. After showing Jackson at Zales, ET then reported Jackson’s supposedly imminent marriage to one of his backup singers, But I imagine that may have been put on hold once she found out her engagement ring was one of those 1/8-karat-cubic-zirconium-on-a-real-lookin’-gold-setting specials that Zales advertises in Parade.)
The Jackson Jewelry Store Caper puts us in the unfortunate position of voyeurs, jumping from the shock of glimpsing someone as our eyes are fastened to the keyhole. But seeing Jackson in the climate-controlled environment that he commissions creates a hunger, a curiosity, to see what he looks like out in the sunlight–or at least the light of a Zales. It’s probably not a healthy hunger, unchecked, it’s like the carbo-stacking that leads to Geraldo‘s placement on the menu. But there are times when an order of fries and a Coke is just what’s needed.