Death, where is thy drop off the radar screen? The industry, phenomenon and force of artistry known as Michael Jackson is very much alive, if not its namesake. Columbia Pictures is readying release of Michael Jackson’s This Is It, a film of Jackson in rehearsals for the tour that will never be. The film is set for theatrical release Oct. 28, but advance tickets are available as of Sept. 27 (a smart marketing approach on Columbia’s part, one that seeks to extend the frenzy of a live Jackson show into the multiplexes for what will be nothing less than a cinematic wake).
But the Michael behind Michael, the mystery of the man behind the machine, was the subject of an often-moving segment of “Dateline”, aired on NBC Friday night. “The Michael Jackson Tapes” explores Jackson’s inner hells and private joys, all chillingly documented in his own voice. Programmes consisting largely of crawl lines of words transcribed from audiotape have rarely been this emotionally compelling. Ironically, in its reach for the mysteries of this incandescent figure, the hour-long programme only deepens those mysteries; by the show’s end we’re more familiar with the how; the why of Michael Jackson remains as elusive as ever.
The tapes belong to Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, a longtime friend and advisor Jackson met in 1999, a man who saw the singer through some of his most turbulent times, including the troubling years after his lacerating child molestation trial. Boteach got Jackson to open up, to some degree, on any number of the behaviors that made Jackson a target of opportunity for comedians, bad tabloid newspapers and, let’s be honest, all of us.
Boteach, interviewed by NBC’s Meredith Vieira, offers his own interpretations of what provoked Jackson’s chameleon physiognomy; his bipolar relationship with women; his fear of the physical attributes of aging; his profound desire for fatherhood; and a relationship with his father that, to go by the obvious pain in Jackson’s voice, veered from a challenge to an unyielding horror.
We hear Jackson document physical abuse at the hands of a domineering, unemotional father whose arrival home at night literally made Michael sick; we can detect the infectious joy he feels describing the first throes of love with Brooke Shields, and the heartbreak when he reveals Lisa Marie Presley’s change of mind about having his children.
And throughout, we’re witness to Jackson’s reaction to a lifelong dance with fame and a fickle public as eager to impugn Michael’s racial identity and sexual preference as to make him, in record sales and adulation, the most popular entertainer in history. It’s little wonder that Jackson finally comes clean on his legendary status and its consequences: “I would like some kind of way to disappear where people don’t see me any more”.
Vieira is a game interviewer and Boteach a willing subject able to illuminate some of Michael’s dark corners. But it’s the tapes that give the program its emotional heft. There’s a curious documentary power in hearing Jackson without seeing him; we’re audible witnesses to the first steps of an intervention or a 911 call from one lonely man to the world at large.
The rabbi tells Vieira: “Michael said to me constantly, ‘if I can’t help kids, then I will find a way to terminate my life’ … He lost the will to live”.
Add this “Dateline” programme to the inevitable catalog of Jackson arcana. But unlike the unreleased music to be unearthed, and other facts and artifacts of his life and career that will emerge, “The Michael Jackson Tapes” (sure to be aired again on his August birthday or the day he died in June, ad infinitum) will stand as a testament to the grim side of celebrity, a transcript of how a Croesus of the culture became a Sisyphus at the hands of that culture, and the personal demons he could not defeat.
Michael Jackson ruled more than one realm. The King of Pop was also the King of Pain.