The Dark Side of the Moonwalker

Captain EO (1986) | Moonwalker (1988)

I missed the bus on Michael Jackson. Had I been born a bit earlier, and Thriller or Bad (his best LP, in my opinion) had been my introductory album to the “King of Pop”, rather than ’91’s Dangerous, who knows, I might’ve been one of those fellas you see with a single white glove.

Billie Jean” might be his masterpiece. “Beat It”, I can get with, perhaps because it has such prominent guitars. Although done to death by Simon Cowell’s American Pop X Factor Idol machine, “Dirty Diana” remains a tune. The definitely not occult-endorsing, John Landis-directed, zombie promo for “Thriller” surely stood the test of time, and remains one of Jackson’s most iconic moments; encapsulating music, dance, and fashion – reanimating itself every Hallowe’en to haunt us. I wanted more MJ songs like these, both as a kid, and during my recent rewatch of Moonwalker.

Although I’m yet to pay for any of Jackson’s music, I did have the Moonwalker computer game for the Sega Master System II, in which he memorably throws a coin across the room, directly into a jukebox, decked out in an elegant white suit and hat. It was such a captivating image. School friends talked about it often, and clearly bought into Jackson’s hip image. Maybe I did too – to an extent. Frankly, his strangeness always put me off.

“I’m going to search for my star until I find it. It’s hidden in the drawer of innocence, wrapped in a scarf of wonder.”

Michael Jackson

“Wacko Jacko”, they christened him in the UK tabloid press, and boy did it catch on. The sensational headlines included Mike buying the Elephant Man’s bones, his vitiligo/shifting skin tone, multiple surgeries (two nose jobs confirmed), artificial inseminations, and other wild tales of building shrines to Liz Taylor, kipping in an oxygen tent, pissing off Paul McCartney by snapping up The Beatles’ publishing rights, and naming his third kid, “Blanket.”

The calculated Martin Bashir hit piece, Louis Theroux’s kick in the teeth follow-up circa MJ’s baby-dangling antics, plus Leigh Francis’ (Bo’ Selecta!) cruel and nonsensical (but I’m a little ashamed to say painfully hilarious in its time), abstract portrayal, and comedic dissection, which echoed playground jibes about Jackson’s nose falling off, and hammered a few more nails into his coffin.

Negative press aside, I do feel, for the most part, Jackson was given the benefit of the doubt in relation to the more disturbing hearsay. He continued to have colossal hit singles despite the lewd rumours, court cases, and in light of recent Neverland revelations, even posthumously, retains die hard supporters; some with high profiles, willing to die on the cross alongside him.

Talking of crosses, Jacko’s Christ-aping nonsense got Jarvis Cocker’s goat at the BRITS ’96, where the tweed-clad Pulp frontman, in an inspired moment of comedic heroism, decided enough was enough, and crashed the stage to do a daft hand dance, and expose Jackson’s blasphemous, power of healing, self-adoring “Earth Song” stage show for what it really was: a self-inflating booster for Michael Jackson, Inc.

Moonwalker didn’t represent MJ’s first foray into acting though, with appearances as Scarecrow in 1978’s The Wiz, and as the titular Captain EO in George Lucas’ and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 (first ever 4D) Disney sci-fi short, which makes a fascinating and kooky double bill with Moonwalker.

Captain EO features a rag-tag band of space truckers, struggling to bring balance to the force, sorry, freedom to the universe, using musical gifts as peaceful offerings. MJ, of course, plays the charismatic leader, capable of turning even the haggiest of ceiling-hags – the spider woman with a planet of her own, into a chilled out, benevolent goddess.

Jacko really looks at home amongst the Mos Eisley cantina rejects in his cool, light-up space jacket. When a man owns a monkey, the image of a singing, orange hamster with wings sitting on his shoulder isn’t that much of a stretch.

EO’s motley crew includes Academy Award winner (An American Werewolf in London), Rick Baker’s Fuzzball animatronic, the three-legged and two-headed Geex – Idee and Odee, the moustachioed Major Domo – a bossy, pegleg droid, largely ignored by EO à la Han Solo and Threepio, Minor Domo – a mini robot cleaner, and last but not least, the (surely) Max Rebo-inspired, Hooter (played by Bad Santa’s Joseph Anthony Cox) – a flatulent, two-stepping, Artoo-ish, honking Howard the Duck-alike, keyboardist pachyderm in a string vest, who enjoys putting waste paper bins on his head, eating star maps for a laugh, and getting the group completely lost in the process, much to the dismay of Michael, who constantly emits breathy, childlike yelps in his direction.

The extremely loose, 17-minute, Jim Henson nightmare plot revolves around the gang’s quest to transform a witchy queen with the empowering gift of music. What follows results in, without doubt, the maddest A-list movie short ever produced.

Director, Francis Coppola slums it, presumably for a sizeable paycheck. George Lucas is executive producer and wrote the screenplay from a Disney Imagineers’ concept. Anjelica Huston (The Witches) makes a compelling, if a little broad, Giger-esque, biomechanical bitch, with claws and tubes galore, suspended from wires; scowling her way through heavy 3-hour makeup. There’s lighting and photography courtesy of Oscar-winner, Vittorio Storaro (The Deer Hunter), James Horner (Aliens, Willow, Titanic) did the music, and the impressive choreography is by Jacko and Jeffrey Hornaday (Flashdance, Streets of Fire, Dick Tracy).

Captain EO was made to launch a cutting edge theatre at Disneyland, California; designed to lure the punters in with 3D, lasers, smoke and of course, Michael Jackson. It was sold as a space opera akin to Star Wars, but in reality plays like some shit Lucas had left over in a drawer. The hologram boss, Commander Bog, the Millennium Falcon-style, Death Star runs from the ship’s point of view, the Trench City miniature, and royalty ceremonially knighting EO and the crew is all reminiscent of a galaxy far far away.

It’s a well-meaning, non-violent, infectious farce, with a disobedient, rebellious MJ sticking it to the Man, as an outlaw with transformative superpowers. In terms of positives, there’s a blend of inventive stop motion musical sequences, the Seinfeldian bass-slapping dance numbers work well, and like it or not, there’s a true showman at the helm – albeit inexplicably shooting space glitter lightning out of his fingertips at every turn. Captain EO arguably justifies its own existence entirely by premiering Jackson’s first two new tracks since Thriller and “We Are the World” with “We Are Here to Change the World” and the Bad-teasing, “Another Part of Me.”

I don’t think I’ve ever written the word “bizarre” more often than in my notes to Michael Jackson’s experiMENTAL movie-musical, and video anthology piece, Moonwalker – directed by Colin Chilvers and Jerry Kramer, not that it really matters, as Mike is the pretty much the sole creative vision behind it.

I was puzzled from the outset, as I found myself wondering where the movie element I vaguely remembered was. I thought perhaps I’d made a mistake and was watching something different, but a quick Google search confirmed Moonwalker was always comprised of both documentary footage, and short and long-form narrative, video vignettes – the main segment beginning at around 37 minutes, in the form of the Smooth Criminal story.

An exploration of fandom and innocence in seven chapters; Moonwalker is a confounding, confused, mish-mash of concepts, muddled together in the form of a “Man in the Mirror” performance, an MJ retrospective docu dealing with rumours and speculation amid the media frenzy, then a Jackson 5 bit, “Badder” (an all kids recreation of Martin Scorsese’s “Bad” music video, the “Speed Demon” and “Leave Me Alone” promos, a round the bend “Smooth Criminal” narrative segment, and finally, a cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” Jacko once again proves to be a draw for the best of the best, with Frederick Elmes (Eraserhead, Wild at Heart) – David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch’s go-to cinematographer, photographing the “Speed Demon”, “Smooth Criminal”, and “Come Together” segments.

Fainting fans, and general MJ adulation kick off the proceedings (as they’re meant to go on). Jackson’s boogying around from the outset, shaking stardust out of his trousers with double doses of Michaelese “cha’mones!”, “heee-heeees!”, “hooo-hooos!”, and “owwwws!!” He telegraphs these quirky affectations to ludicrous extremes, and comes off, as my parents would say, as “a bit of an oddbod.” It’s a collaged sequence, cynically designed to prop up Jackson as a humanitarian figure of empathy and mercy. Here, even the reflective lyrics to “Man in the Mirror” play as narcissistic and conceited.

However, amid the greatest hits montage, and braggy collection of awards, MJ’s impact as a pop star is undeniable. When you hear these tracks back to back, it’s just a fact. As the key member of The Jackson 5, the little fella was a songbird – a naturally gifted wunderkind. Whatever came to pass, whatever may have happened to, and because of this person; there’s an underlying tragedy here.

Moonwalker contains no interviews as such; the non-fiction portion is solely montaged concert and live footage with added voiceover. In essence, Moonwalker was a promo tool for Jackson’s Bad LP, released in 1987. This strikes a disingenuous chord, as a commercial for an album perhaps shouldn’t exploit images of children and famine in Africa, and preach incoherently with shots of Desmond Tutu, JFK and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, John Lennon, and Jesus Christ. There’s a clash of interests there, surely? Are you making a statement about how we should all listen to the words of Nelson Mandela, or are you selling a record? In the era of Live Aid, these political inserts initially appear to make a peaceful statement of some kind, but actually play quite trite. A picture of Mother Teresa is not going to fix anything, dude.

Next up, a Bugsy Malone-esque take off of the visually arresting “Bad” video, in which MJ originally, implausibly, dance-defeated a rock hard Wesley Snipes and earned his respect. Yeah, right. The very natural child actor, Brandon Quintin Adams (The Mighty Ducks, The Sandlot) showcases his talent as a miniature “Baby Bad” Michael here, and also in the “Smooth Criminal” story as Zeke.

Adams shifts from child to adult in a single cut as Jackson leaves the sound stage with his entourage, and struts onto the studio back lot, where a chase akin to a scene from Dick Lester’s Beatles picture, A Hard Day’s Night kicks in. Michael encounters claymation expert, Will Vinton’s Plasticine fanatics, and later takes on their live action/clay hybrid form, much like his other famous creation, The California Raisins. “Excuse me”, Michael squeaks, in a timid, little girl’s voice, before an MJ bunny rabbit “Speed Demon” motorcycle chase ensues, with character cameos from Swamp Thing, Sylvester Stallone, Tina Turner, and Pee-wee Herman.

Next, Michael attempts to shake off the media critics with the artistically adept, and visually arresting, “Leave Me Alone” video, featuring a cut-out “King of Pop” and Bubbles zooming around in a little, detached, fairground rocket ship, and climaxes with Jackson as a Gulliver-esque giant, standing up and breaking a rollercoaster.

The remainder of Moonwalker is a nutty, short-feature fiasco, and it won’t surprise anyone to discover it’s all based on a story by Michael Jackson. It was also his first independent movie project, financing, and penning the Smooth Criminal screenplay with David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde, the first three Superman movies).

Cue more adoration. It’s laid on pretty thick with three kids on a rooftop, peering down in abject terror as an attempted MJ assassination rocks the neighbourhood. Mike enjoyed playing prankster on this particular day of shooting, firing tommy gun blanks to startle everyone on set.

Plot-wise, Moonwalker depicts Michael as being constantly victimised, and always on the run, when all he wants to do is play with kids. Hmm. One eerie flashback involves MJ frolicking with youngsters in a meadow. What’s Sean Lennon doing there? How did that poor lad get dragged into all this? Hasn’t he suffered enough?

Teary children are distraught, with cries of “Oh no! Michael!”, as they weep inconsolably at the thought of Jackson leaving them; concern for his well being is littered throughout. It’s somewhat of a pity party. It plays as truly unusual, due to Jackson’s real life antics; inviting kids to the Neverland Ranch, sharing his bed, and allegedly his “Jesus juice.” Perhaps this scene, and Moonwalker to a greater degree, was a conscious attempt to normalise these social interactions, and steer away the demonising media by concocting a distracting, batshit crazy plot line about drugs, spiders, lasers and robots.

“Bugs and drugs. Bugs and drugs. Smooth operation, that’s what I got. Smooth operation.”

Mr Big, Moonwalker

If you want to see Joe Pesci as a fruitcake character named, “Mr Big” – a drug dealer to, and happy slapper of little’uns, eating peanuts in high heels, yelling incoherently into a megaphone, with a disturbingly erect ponytail, little round sunglasses, and tarantulas all around him (and why wouldn’t you?) this is your one stop shop. One pursuit sees a silhouetted MJ running (in tap shoes) from a pack of dogs, before bafflingly morphing into a hyper-fast, futuristic, bulletproof vehicle to evade him.

This villain, Frankie Lideo, is named after MJ’s manager; a mafia don-looking, cigar-chomping fatman, and real-life hawker of stuff that’s likely bad for you (you’ll recognise him as both Tuddy Cicero from Goodfellas and also Wayne’s World’s Frankie “Mr Big” (aha!) Sharp of Sharp Records, Frank DiLeo. DiLeo, Lideo, Chyeah! Right! As if we wouldn’t notice! Are they equating the peddling of narcotics to kids to flogging Michael Jackson records? Are they equally Bad for you? Is DiLeo as much of a crook in real life? What are they alluding to exactly?

Jackson’s half-unbuttoned, sweaty torso flashing and staccato “uh!” noises, meshed with his constant crotch-grabbing (at least it’s his own), fondling himself, and gyrating his gold belt buckle like he’s the the WWF Intercontinental champion of oddness, lead us into the most overtly sexual scene of Moonwalker. The “Smooth Criminal” section showcases a harrowing, blue-washed, nodding sex-scene-of-sorts, with no actual sex or nudity – just writhing, panting, and groaning on the dance floor.

Clearly sexual, yet desperate to appear wholesome, could be a review of both Moonwalker, and of Jackson in general; his career image was split. His sexuality and appearance, clothes, moves, vocals, and then this other immature persona, with the falsetto choirboy voice, childlike mannerisms, the funfair obsession, climbing trees, etc. When these two aspects of MJ collide, it’s a psychological pill many understandably can’t accept.

Michael imbibes himself with a supernatural, messianic power to save children from danger, but it’s all tinged with a try-hard implausibility, and at times, a freaky, ill-judged tone. Take Jackson’s ominous, glowing eyes, and sinister mechanical mask as he transforms into Mechajacko – a RoboGod with built-in, impenetrable force field, whose cries of, “aaaahhhh!” can decimate Mr Big’s henchmen no bother. Shooting stars (including MJ’s “lucky star”) give him level-up powers for unexplained reasons, ensuring justice is served and the invincible Jacko reigns supreme.

At a late juncture, Jackson (again, just because he can), turns into a spaceship and reverse zaps Mr Big’s weapon; cue lots of things blowing up in slow motion. The final, frankly unearned musical crescendo baffles and underwhelms in equal measure, and that’s that. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s “The Moon is Walking” winds things down, and “Come Together” draws the curtains on the sharpish 93 minutes; one of Moonwalker‘s few virtues.

DiLeo denies Moonwalker is merely a commercial for Michael Jackson, and insists they’re selling “happiness.” If you have no issues bastardising your music to pimp Pepsi, I don’t see how plugging yourself for an hour and a half would be such an issue. The unsightly egotism and greed lands again when we learn Jackson demanded such insane amounts of cash for the American theatrical release of Moonwalker that he was eventually denied one entirely.

So, is Moonwalker fractured lunacy from the mind of an insane person? Or is it all just a bit of fun?

Moonwalker plays as a hypocritical mess. At best, it was a cynical tool, no doubt used to Jackson’s own benefit financially and commercially, and at the worst, to fuel his own sociopathic ego, and perpetuate a squeaky clean media image, enabling him to manoeuvre in some seedy circles. Another disconcerting factor is to what degree Jackson may have benefitted from this affected persona. Whether we’re watching a childishly playful, grown-man scamp, or someone more sinister and calculating, is a disturbing question to pose.

To me, it’s a unique, but crackers, ego trip to the furthest reaches of Jacko’s self conceits. Bar a few standout moments of true visual creativity (namely the “Smooth Criminal” and “Leave Me Alone” segments), Moonwalker folds under the weight of its own erratic derangement. It’s like existing inside Jackson’s head for an hour and a half; as if he dreamt it, described it to the crew in his shy little voice, and then the execs (and Mike, to be fair) just chucked bucks at it.

There’s no rhyme or reason to anything that happens, and the film itself hides behind its somewhat experimental approach. Basically, the narrative is crackers, but as expected, the dancing and tunes are mostly first-rate.

As a songwriter, musician, and performer, Michael Jackson was a phenomenon. As the key creative behind Moonwalker, he’s selling self-promotion, self-adulation, and dark wonder, and it’s hard to buy any of it.


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