Friday, May 8, 2009

why does ANYBODY even try to make a film about michael jackson's life? : musings on 'man in the mirror: the michael jackson story'

proof that the actual michael is a better actor than the guy who portrayed him in an actual film...


i saw this little film on ebay for a couple of bucks, so i decided to get it, figuring that ANOTHER item on mike won't do any harm, especially if it's gonna assist me in writing my book. i try to look at information from as many sources as i can get; it's possible that you can always learn something new...

but, dear lord, what convinced me to sit there for 86 minutes and think this 'man in the mirror' film was going to somehow improve, from the incredibly atrocious opening?

'man in the mirror: the michael jackson story' was released in 2004 (in the midst of mike's second trial) and funded by Canadian money. the director, Allan Moyle, is also Canadian. on the u.s. end, it was promoted by VH1, and released on DVD by paramount; both VH1 (of which the mother network is MTV) and paramount are owned by Viacom. watching this, i was not expecting a TV movie- but i should have known better, given that the most obvious (VH1 promotion, as well as production from public Canadian organisations) existed. the result of all this money funding this film, if you will, was a shoddily-put together piece, which chronologically and factually, made NO SENSE half of the time. a director with a least a BIT of credit like Allan Moyle (who directed 'pump up the volume', a film i only vaguely remember, but know it's got some cult status) should have known better.

if i was to sit here and pick out every little thing about this film, THAT would actually be the book i could publish, instead of the one i am working on... i don't expect every little detail to exist (we've got to still have some sort of dramatic leeway), but if a film is going to be somewhat convincing, there needs to be some true research done...

The film opens with a young Michael (played by Brennan Gademans) sitting outside the steps of his house, gazing at the young, blond, white children playing outside. This very scene is quite interesting, as in all the things i have read about life in Gary, Indiana when Michael was growing up there- was that his neighborhood was predominately black. nevertheless, this was not a huge problem, as far as i could see. those children were not essentially crucial to the plot, especially since there was no basic explanation of his life surrounding this moment. all we see is that Joe, his father, screams at him to get back in the house. and THIS is where the faux pas sets in... in only the beginning of scenes which chronologically jumps ahead of itself- in this particular scene where Michael is STILL A CHILD, Joe has a set of 80s wet curls.

The casting choices are abominable... Gademans looked nothing like the adolescent Michael. Even worse, Samantha Banton looked even less like 'Diana Ross'. Most of the characters played such a minimal part in the film, that casting felt like a second thought. 'Diana' was the first face Michael saw in his ruminations. She advised him to never give up his dreams, and that during his journeys of superstardom he will be hurt. This is all you see of 'Diana'- her face taking up the screen. Her character was not fleshed out at all; which is a shame, considering she is a significant part of the narrative that makes Michael into the person he became. Berry Gordy was not even part of this narrative. And with that, neither was Steeltown Records, the Jackson 5's first label. Obviously.

Michael's adult character is now played by Flex Alexander; he is way too stocky to be playing someone as incredibly thin as Michael Joseph Jackson. Alexander hovers over other characters, and seems large simply due to his height and size. He never captured the nuances which make the real-life Michael larger than life, despite his smallness. Alexander spent too much time in Michael's 'childlike' space, never capturing his bullish business acumen, control of his image or stubbornness when it comes to it. We never see the actual journey to the road of becoming 'the King Of Pop'. The film jumps to Michael's relationship with 'Ziggy', a short, seemingly Italian man who is a fictional persona of MJ's notorious first manager after Joe Jackson was let go by his son- Frank Dileo. Michael's relationship with Ziggy (Peter Onorati- of course looking not a thing like stout, real-life Dileo) felt indecisive, when a relationship with Dileo was reportedly anything but.

One interesting note on the film is that there is a scene where Joesph (Frederick Tucker, who DID actually kind of look like Joe later in life) is cleaning a gun. In the book 'Michael Jackson Unauthorized', which may be where this scene was inspired by), it was noted that Joseph slept with a gun under his pillow, as well as pulled a gun out on his children from time to time. The 'gun under the pillow' statement was relayed by Michael in the film. Joe's response was to flare up at Michael and call him 'big nose', and that he had better to the Pepsi commercial with his brothers... These scenes (which run a span of less than five minutes) alter so quickly without warning. We never see how Michael is shaped by life in the J5, how he asserted his independence with 'Off The Wall', and how he actually became a phenomenon by the time of the release of 'Thriller'. And no, Quincy Jones is not in the picture either.

When Joe chastises his son for having a 'big nose', at this point in Michael's career, his nose was much smaller than the nose of Alexander, who is playing Michael... And at that point, many of the family members got nose jobs. And let's not mention Katherine, played here by Patricia Idlette. She looks nothing like Katherine. Her character, interestingly enough, was unlike the reserved mother the children so revered. Katherine is no saint, obviously, but here, you did see more of her playing a role in leading Michael into career choices he did not necessarily want to make (such as the Pepsi commercial and the 'Victory' tour).

And let's stick to this 'Victory' tour for a second. This was clearly a pivotal moment in Michael's true artistic independence and distinction, and this movie treats it in a trivial manner. This was the time of the infamous 'ticket lottery' controversy- where a single letter from a young fan caused Michael to openly advocate putting a stop to the process, which led people to pay $120 for four tickets, without knowing whether or not they were going to even get to see the show. This was the time where the brothers each got their own managers and lawyers, and Michael publicly disowned any associations with Don King, the promoter of the tour. And no, Don King is not here either. The only scene we see is Michael, on stage, telling the band to stop the music, so he could announce that he was performing his last show with his brothers- and even This scene was done shabbily. What actually happens is that he tells the band to bring down the music, but not stop it... You could definitely sense the frustration in his voice when he addresses the audience. I never caught that with the film version; I found that Mike's decision to not perform with his brothers again was not taken seriously, with all the laughing and smiling. Alexander as Michael did not take charge of the stage, and he seemed as lost in it as his filmic brothers (who were secondary characters; so secondary that they were not even introduced individually). Mike, in the film, states them by name in this scene, but in the actual Dodger Stadium concert he does not do this, as he's informing everyone at that moment of his decision to leave his brothers. He opens his declaration of independence with "Listen up." To make sure EVERYBODY is listening. "Ya'll have been wonderful, it's been a LONG 20 years..." This is perhaps the most important statement regarding his initial retirement from the Jacksons (even more than the statement itself of leaving), and it was severely missing from the film's dialog. Mike's sighs, his stomps of defiance as well as the stress on the word 'long' are imperative to person Michael became. "...And we love you all." He says this in the tone of a man who is just plain tired of the life he's led.

And the Pepsi commercial... Why is Michael wearing a white armband in 1984? didn't the armband first start appearing with some regularity around the time of 'Dangerous'? Couldn't a little fact checking exist, in some of the money allocated to produce this film?

Here is the moment we meet Dr. Arnold Klein (or 'Dr. Goodman', played by Dan Libman) with Debbie Rowe (April Telek). Here is also the moment we are introduced to Michael's Vitiligo, the skin condition where one can lose pigmentation in the skin. This is one of the reasons the film fails: the film runs various situations (like Mike's Vitiligo) so rapidly, as if the only people watching it are those who already know something about his life. A film's objective should be to grab people who may not know about the subject or characters involved. The film moves so quickly, it's impossible to identify with anyone. With this, Dr. Goodman and Debbie give Michael some sort of drug. Is there a possibility that that drug could be retin-a? Or could it be hydroquinone? If one has Vitiligo, it's not that surprising that that drug would be an option. However, it's a curious thing to think that someone uses the same chemicals that are used in photo developer for the largest organ on the body. Nonetheless, the drug given to Michael in this film will remain mysterious.

It's also curious to see Debbie Rowe be so starstruck, when she appears to be a no-nonsense kind of person.

The WORST casting decision in this film has GOT to be Barbara Mamabolo as Janet Jackson (and yes, she was the only sibling who played a significant role in the film). Mike called her 'Tink' in the film (to her calling him 'Peter')- this is funny, because 'Tink' is awfully close to 'Donk', which Michael actually called his sister. 'Donk' is short for 'Donkey'. He's called her 'Donk' on national television, when she made an appearance on the Jacksons' 1977 show, amongst other times. But let's get technical here: With Mamabolo playing Janet, where did Janet get all that hair from? Janet's hair was NEVER that long (until Janet discovered the massive hair weave). Janet's hair was thick and hanging over her shoulders, like La Toya's hair. The actual Janet was never as flighty as the character in the film. She learned from her brother on how to take control of her career, and to not compromise.

About Janet in relation to this film- There is a scene where Michael (still living at Havenhurst around the time of 'Bad' here) runs into Janet's room (with her husband James (DeBarge, ya'll)) and shows a picture book of where he is moving to- Neverland! It has been noted in several sources that Michael has barged into Janet and James' room, but those sources claim that it was not as happy a moment as was displayed in the film. It should also be noted that by the time Michael moved on to Neverland, Janet and James were long since divorced. 'James' (i cannot find the actor's name right now) was also MUCH darker than DeBarge actually is; the fictional James was distinctively black, whereas Debarge is half-white, and even looks Puerto Rican.

There is 'Bobby' (Eugene Clark), who appears to be a sort of assistant to Michael throughout his life; however, Bobby in my view represents the stereotypical black character whose role is simply to protect the helpless white character. Of course Michael is black, but he is displayed in so innocuous and childlike a fashion that he has no control over his career or life- alas, the stereotypical female white character. Is Michael emasculated here? I would not go that far; however, I do feel that which makes Michael such a compelling character and cultural figure is sorely missing in this film's representation of him. Ultimately, 'Bobby' could be an alter ego for Bill Bray, Michael's long-time head of security. Bray had been with Michael since he was in the Jackson 5, and was a longtime confidante.

And Elizabeth Taylor. Liz (Lynne Cormack) was so plain and was the straight woman to the actual Taylor's campy outrageousness.
...And so, we have now travelled to the land which is 'Dangerous', in which the hair is chronologically correct, but our man Mike is STILL dark, and he's got the same nose he started out with in the film... Here is where we also encounter a pivotal moment in his life, where he fires 'Ziggy', or Dileo. A representation of Branca, his lawyer, remains at the peripheral in the film; when in fact Branca was an integral part of the decisions Michael made, such as the acquisition of ATV publishing in 1985. In this film, Bobby was his security, his advisor and his best friend. If Michael asked Bill Bray for counsel in terms of firing Dileo, we (or at least I) will never know. But as this film stands, he did. And of course, Bobby had a right to be concerned if HE was going to be fired.

Before you know it, we are introduced to what has become classically known as 'the beginning of Michael's troubles'. The film introduces us to a maid and her son, which I assume is supposed to be a dramatic take on Jason and Blanca Francia, who accused Michael of inappropriate behaviour. They disappear from the storyline after they exit Neverland, luggage in tow, when the mother finds Michael and her son together, under a homemade tent. We are then introduced to 'Adam Thomas' (Brian Martel) and HIS son (who I assume are Evan Chandler and his son Jordan; there was mention of a certain screenplay in the film, and the Chandlers wrote the screenplay to 'Robin Hood: Men In Tights'). And soon after that, we are introduced to 'David' (Aidan Wilks), who is a fictional account of Gavin Arviso.
There must not have been enough money allocated for our man Alexander's make-up job, because it just looked like they placed a bunch of powder over him; the send-up of Eddie Murphy as a white man on Saturday Night Live in the 80s was done more effectively. By the point in the film Alexander had the white make-up on, Michael's photos had him looking as white as a sheet half the time. In the film, Mike's hands were still significantly dark. The scene of Michael in the English treatment centre for drug addiction was pretty funny. Was Michael truly that open amongst the other residents of the facility? I would think that in this most vulnerable time (right after the initial accusations of child molestation), he would be especially guarded.

The adult meeting and consummation of marriage of Michael and Lisa Marie Presley (Krista Rae) was fairly unbelievable, to say the least. The film did not discuss that Lisa Marie was married with children, when she and Michael met in adulthood. In the film, Bobby (the only loyal character in Mike's life, of course) makes an arrangement to set them up, once again emphasizing our protagonist's (if you will) innocuousness, in 'real life' or adult matters. Here, Bobby actually does project those general perceptions of Michael, which many others project as well: that he (or anyone else) is not a 'real man' unless he's had a few notches on his belt. Bobby seems driven to get Michael to lose his virginity (this is not just assumed in the film; Michael even said that he 'doesn't have sex before marriage' in a scene with Lisa Marie). Why it's so important for Michael to lose his virginity; why it's such a focal point for so many interviewers and members of the public, I'm not too sure. I would think that when he is ready to have sex (whether or not he is a virgin), he would have sex. And it would be none of our business.

The way he asked Lisa Marie to marry him was actually quite tasteless, and in my perceptions of Michael (and yes, in documents I have read), it is not how I would see him doing it. In an attempt to 'normalize' Michael, and to place him in a more 'adult' role, he was given a love/sex scene with Lisa Marie. I am not fond of sex scenes, so I fast forwarded this one. I will add that, despite the emphasis of how 'un-normal' Michael is in the scheme of things, this was probably one of the most 'normal' environments he was placed in. I do not know the depths of the histories of Mike and Lisa Marie's sex life; nor do I WANT to know. But watching what was leading up to this scene (where Michael states that he does not have sex before marriage, then has sex with Lisa Marie after he gives her a ring and she accepts) actually was a bit offensive, as it demoralized both Lisa Marie and Michael's humanity. if I wanted to see a sex scene of that caliber I'd just rent any old Hollywood romance movie.

I also highly doubt that their impending divorce was that amicable either... It was obvious they loved each other, but you are bound to have, with two extremely strong-willed people as they, some all-out screaming. When Lisa Marie went to announce that she wanted a divorce from Michael in the hospital as he lay there; I am pretty sure the scenery was not as calm as the fictional account. What makes Michael so compelling is his intensity, and the fact that he's no innocent angel. It's impossible to be, and get at the level he got to.

The point where Alexander began to look the most like Michael was toward the last act of the film. His hair, suddenly straightened and in his face, was easier to obscure which was cosmetically impossible to alter for this one role. And here is where we are introduced to Debbie Rowe again; however, she is, like most people in this film, NOT a pivotal character. She appeared to be more in the picture of Michael's life before she had his children, if not by much. She simply gives birth to Prince and Paris (Brooklynn Proulx), then she is gone.

Two issues I have (out of the tons I am not mentioning) are that Paris' hair is not as blond as her brothers'; In the film both children's hair runs a golden blond. Also, in the scene where there is a reinactment of the 2001 30th anniversary concert in New York City, Michael is wearing white denims (with no belt), and his hair is fairly short-cropped to his head (the length of his ears). In the film he is wearing some sort of cotton fabric trousers with a gold-sequined belt), and his hair is fuller. If you are going to do a reinactment, things are NOT going to be perfect, but the least the producers could have done was get some sort of consultant, or MJ impersonator. You want the characters to be somewhat convincing.

The most convincing 'Michael' looked was when he was reinacting the infamous 'There's nothing wrong with sharing your bed... it's the most loving thing you can do' scene in the 'Living With Michael Jackson' 'documentary', hosted by Martin Bashir (played here with a little less venom than the actual Bashir, by Cedric DeSouza). Simply, this was the character Alexander portrayed during the whole film- a neverending mixture of naivite and playfulness.
'The Man In The Mirror' makes attempts to wrap this untangled coil of a film into a moral tale of reaching for your dreams, and looking within yourself before you judge someone else: this case is all-too evident with its final scene of Michael getting on top of the SUV he was riding in and staring into the sky, eventually merging into a series of different faces of various ethnicities and interests (you got FACIAL PIERCINGS AND TATTOOS up in here, ya'll!)... I could not help but think of the very end of Spike Lee's interpretation of Malcolm X's life. I was getting ready to stand up and yell "I'M Michael Jackson!" at the top of my lungs at 5 in the morning...

However, the goal of this film (which on the back of the case states is to "(track) Jackson's complicated rise to superstardom- where he came from, how it shaped him, the impact he made on pop culture, and most importantly, who the MAN IN THE MIRROR really is.") falls quite short, since we, as the viewer, were never able to see where he came from, and the people who shaped him; since all the characters we simply minor players in a very major narrative.

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