Debbie Rowe (April Amber Telek): You need to not worry about things.
Michael (Flex Alexander): Easy for you to say.
—Man in Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story
I’ve never met Mr. Eminem, and I’ve always admired him and to have him do something like that was pretty painful… it’s sad. I’ve been an artist most of my life and I’ve never attacked a fellow artist. Great artists don’t do that.
—Michael Jackson, Geraldo at Large (5 February 2005)
Man in Mirror
The Michael Jackson Story
US DVD: 8 Feb 2005
By an almost unbearable fluke of timing, the start of Michael Jackson’s trial coincides with the start of 2005’s Black History Month. While this happenstance allows for late night tv joking and a Court TV blitz, it also creates opportunities for some bizarre tie-in marketing. So here comes Man in Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story on DVD from Paramount, a fingernails-on-blackboards anomaly when it aired on VH1 made stranger still by the current focus on the man from Neverland.
“I created Neverland as a home for myself and my children,” Jackson recently told Geraldo Rivera, “It gave me a chance to do what I couldn’t do when I was little. We couldn’t go to movie theaters. We couldn’t go to Disneyland. We couldn’t do all those fun things. We were on tour. We were working hard.” As if to corroborate, Man in the Mirror makes the same points about Michael’s terrible childhood all over again. Originally an “unauthorized” “telemovie,” the DVD version is unadorned, but its repetition is apt, for this is the story of MJ, the same story, again and again.
In part, such attention to multiplicity and reiteration makes sense, given the film’s title” Jackson is a function of endless exploitation, a reflection of a former self (which is not to say that self was ever “real” or knowable) and a projection of audience interests, which range from abject adoration to prurient curiosity. However Michael consumers understand themselves in relation to their idol, he maintains his childish-Peter-Pannish distance, never allowing access to any part of himself beyond a reflection.
When the movie first aired, much was made of the actor Flex Alexander’s dissimilarity from Michael, his height, his athleticism, his charming youthfulness on UPN’s One on One. And yet he delivers a surprisingly decent performance from under the many layers of makeup. According to Allan Moyle’s film, Jackson’s strangeness is the result of lifelong emotional wounding and exploitation by attendants, managers, and hangers-on, rather than arrogance or even insanity. No one looks after Michael, and he just can’t do it himself. When he meets Debbie Rowe (April Amber Telek) or courts Lisa Marie (Krista Rae), he’s not creepy or cutting deals, but shy and sweet. If only it were true.
While it hardly pretends to seek “truth,” the movie is often frustratingly contradictory. Seductive ambiguity is one thing, but it’s hard to tell whether Man in the Mirror means to defend or heap blame on its subject, or even whether it means to do something in between. The seeming joke in the above exchange depends on believing that Michael has a sense of everyday phrases, and thus, has a sense of himself in relation to them. But the movie never makes that case. Rather, it suggests that he is so removed from every sort of common experience that most of his dialogue is quite extraordinary, underlining his space-alienish difference from the rest of us: “In Neverland, no one ever gets sick… and no one ever dies!” Or again, as a “real” Jackson tells that ever-real journalist Geraldo, Neverland “allowed me to have a place behind the gates where the entire world I love is there… Other men have their Ferraris and their airplanes or helicopter or wherever they find their bliss. My bliss is in giving and sharing and having simple innocent fun.”
As everyone knows, no fun with Michael can be simple or innocent. The film makes several cases about his inability to grasp his many difficult situations. Skipping through the early days (“Michael was raised a devout Jehovah’s Witness,” reads a title; the Pepsi commercial debacle occasions a discussion of his developing vitiligo and the sequined glove), the film quickly arrives at his post-Thriller breakup with the Five, as it constitutes his most egregious rebellion against that legendary bully, Joe Jackson (Fred Tucker). When dad protests the decision (which Michael announces on stage at the end of 1984’s Victory Tour, apparently leaving his brothers dumbfounded: “He dumped us!”), Michael takes a stand: “If I’m going to be the family business, I’m going to do it my way.”
This “way” becomes increasingly bizarre. (And the movie is repeatedly adrift when it comes to “business” without music, it runs 30-second blurred “montages” of Alexander imitating MJ’s moves on stage, with video inserted of screaming fans.) Perhaps to declare his independence, Michael builds Neverland Ranch (and appears surprised on his first visit, as if he had nothing to do with the planning), and moves in with his devoted bodyguard Bobby (Eugene Clark) and a staff that includes a maid with an adorable son. Minutes later, she finds them in a “tent” after a “sleepover”: she quits in a huff, dragging her son away as Jackson watches from an upstairs window, the kid pausing to wave feebly while mom, still in uniform, marches away resolutely.
According to Man in the Mirror, Michael’s strategy for dealing with rejection is to schedule plastic surgery with a beautiful white lady surgeon who performs the scalp graft following the Pepsi burn, and whom he sees as an “angel.” Though Bobby cautions, “Surgery’s no way to drown your sorrow,” each time Michael lands on the operating table, this lady doctor hovers above, the surgery lamp bright behind her like a halo, only her eyes visible from beneath her green mask.
Michael’s contact with responsible adults now falls off considerably. His relationship with Janet (Barbara Mamabolo)—who early on introduces herself as “Tinkerbell”—is reduced to a few dreamy flashbacks of her floaty face when events overwhelm him. The few folks who stay in physical contact include his manager Ziggy (Peter Onorati), who presses Michael to keep in some vague touch with reality (“You treat these kids like they’re instant family. You can’t buy love and you certainly can’t buy family”) before he’s fired (“He doesn’t believe anymore,” moans Michael). Also tottering on the edges of Michael’s looney tunes existence is Liz Taylor (a chillingly unconvincing performance by Lynne Cormack), who arrives conveniently whenever Michael needs someone to help him eat pizza. Seeing how sad and lonely he is, she advises him to “have children.”
Enter Manny (Brendan Post), who announces proudly that he and Michael are celebrating their 30th anniversary—30 sleepovers. Manny’s dad, who just a minute ago was asking whether Michael had had a chance to read his script, becomes alarmed, and tries to cut off contact. As Michael sets off on the Dangerous Tour in 1993, the case comes screeching to headlines, and again, he’s overcome by surprise at the lack of “belief” in him. (At this point, if not long before, you’ll be wishing for South Park‘s more insightful and much funnier take on the whole Peter Pan angle.)
At last, Michael decides that looking “normal” might not be such a bad idea. His route to such a performance, however, is unsurprisingly ridiculous. Michael gets Bobby to play pimp with Lisa Marie, who arrives at Neverland and promptly “falls in love” with this peculiar manchild who’s “weird” like her, and loves butterflies and giraffes, and yes, little boys. By the time she figures this last part, they’ve been married for months. Call her slow on the uptake. From here, the movie picks up speed again, scampering through the Latoya tv appearance (using the actual video—apparently no one could “play” Latoya), the Debbie Rowe arrangement, the arrival of Blanket, and the Bashir betrayal.
Much as Man in the Mirror works hard not to “take a side,” it also can’t seem help it. Michael repeatedly gets advice in his head, from a fairy-looking Diana Ross, and her promise to him is that he will always prevail. “Listen to your heart,” he hears in his head as he jumps up on the SUV roof at his 2004 hearing. “It will tell you the truth.”
The real and unauthorising Michael thinks so too. “I love my community and I have great faith in our justice system,” he said in a recent statement. “Please keep an open mind and let me have my day in court. I deserve a fair trial like every other American citizen. I will be acquitted and vindicated when the truth is told.”