You need to know the truth, and sometimes the truth is a bitch and the bitch bites.
— Ziggy (Peter Onorati), Man in Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story
If you wanna make the world a better place,
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.
— Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror”
Imagine making a movie about Michael Jackson without the music. Granted, the scandals associated with Jackson are legion and provide something like a storyline. But what do any of them matter without “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Thriller,” “In the Closet,” even “Invincible”?
All this is to say that, from its inception, VH1’s Man in the Mirror is in deep trouble. An “unauthorized” telemovie (also called one of the channel’s “movies that rock”), it first aired on Friday, 6 August, part of a day-long package of Michael Jackson-related fictions, ranging from the old standby, The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992) to Martin Bashir’s notorious 2003 documentary, Living With Michael Jackson. Such programming choices announce the marketing principle right off: Allan Moyle’s film is only one more piece in an ongoing, highly profitable puzzle.
While it’s certainly worth asking why Michael qua Michael compels such attention, it’s also not a question posed by Man in the Mirror, though its title quite begs other questions, including, how does Claudia Salter’s episodically exploitative teleplay reflect audience interests? Or, how might viewers see themselves in relation to Flex Alexander’s strangely mesmerizing performance? While much has been made of the decidedly uninteresting fact that Alexander’s Fake Michael is much taller than Real Michael (presuming, for the sake of argument, that he exists, somewhere), the young actor (until now best known for his work on UPN’s One on One) conjures a surprisingly decent performance from under the makeup. (Even he thinks so, as he tells TV Guide: I worked on the voice and mannerisms and did a good job. I let his nephew Auggie Jackson see it, and he was amazed with the job I did. Hopefully, the public will appreciate it just as much”).
This even when Alexander must contend with inadvertent punchlines, as in the following exchange:
Debbie Rowe (April Amber Telek): You need to not worry about things.
Michael: Easy for you to say.
The strangeness of this moment doesn’t exactly stand out amid the film’s many oddities, but it does suggest the contradictions in its premise. 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!”
The film makes several cases about Michael’s 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 a cute little son. Cue ominous music. When the maid finds them in a “tent” after a “sleepover,” she quits, their departure viewed from Michael’s 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” (mixing his metaphors just a bit), 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 Presley (Krista Rae), 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 a few months (and, according to Man in the Mirror, the worst event in the marriage is the fact that the OJ car chase overshadows the wedding announcement on tv). 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.” However you want to parse it.