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The passing of Michael Jackson is still spawning many documentaries and tributes; are we using them to understand what happened?

DVD Review: Michael Jackson – The Life and Times of The King of Pop 1958-2009

More often that not, the thirst for anything Michael Jackson-related has increased exponentially after his passing. Even hardcore fans who know everything there is to know seem to have broken down and accumulated more Michael Jackson memorabilia – well, at least the many hardcore fans that I know are doing that.

As for me, I have been redirecting my energy toward understanding. I guess it’s a typical nerd-like way of dealing with such a situation. I’m especially struggling to understand what kind of world we live in that allows for talent to be perverted in such a way that a young black child who sang with such soul and possessed such talent turned into a broken man with white skin, a reconstructed face, and the inability to produce music as touching as his talent should have allowed him to.

So when I saw the title of this DVD, I decided to pick it up. After all, we cannot isolate Michael Jackson from his social environment; and so, to understand what happened to him, one needs to understand the times during which he lived.

Unfortunately, the title doesn’t reflect the content of the DVD. I should have done my homework better rather than simply snap it up. I was expecting a DVD centred on the life of Michael Jackson within the context of the times in which he lived. Rather, this DVD (running time: 79 minutes) is about Michael Jackson’s passing; stripped down to the basic events, it traces the timeline from the fateful 911 phone call made by  Jackson’s bodyguard to the memorial service, then traces some of the moments in his life that, according to the producers, contributed to his demise. Even the presentation is stripped to the essentials — no inside leaflet, no extra features, just the footage.

The memorial service isn’t included in its entirety; rather, it too has been stripped down to its most important events, including the Berry Gordy speech, putting it in context (when Berry Gordy mentions the 25th anniversary moonwalk Michael Jackson performed live, the speech pauses for a few seconds while the clip is played, something that did not happen at the memorial), Smokey Robinson reading the letter from Nelson Mandela, Brooke Shields’ speech, Ervin “Magic” Johnson’s speech, Stevie Wonder’s heartfelt, inspirational, and touching short speech and his performance of “Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer,” the speech of Reverend Al Sharpton, Usher’s performance of Michael Jackson’s “Gone too Soon,” Jermaine and Marlon Jackson’s speeches, as well as the unplanned yet touching tribute Paris Katherine Jackson gave her father. It also includes interviews with fans who were at the memorial service as they left the Kodak Center afterward.

There are also numerous tributes included in this DVD. One is the opening of Madonna’s July 4th concert, which featured a Michael Jackson tribute. Unfortunately, it was dubbed to a remix of Aaliyah’s song "Rock the Boat." Others are singing and dancing tributes from fans.
But although it wasn’t quite what I expected, the DVD did offer many occasions for me to reflect on the topic that has been weighing on me since June 25, 2009. The raw footage that follows the above-mentioned in the second part of the DVD provided much food for thought.

After the montage from the memorial service, we are taken a few months back to the final press conference Michael Jackson gave in London, the one in which he announced his last series of concerts. It seems a little unsettling at first – everything up to now seemed to follow a chronological order, after all – but soon it becomes clear that this is the raw footage available to fans to reflect on the reasons why Jackson died.

The DVD then brings us back to some salient moments in Jackson’s life, as if leading us through these specific moments on purpose to allow for a reflection as to the potential ingredients that contributed to his demise: an ET interview from the 1980s in which Jackson talks about his desire to entertain people; the famous Pepsi commercial shot in front of 3,000 fans in which his hair caught on fire; the recognition he got as a humanitarian after putting together "We Are the World" in 1985; the success of 1987’s "Bad;" the 1996 interview in which he defends himself, saying that he doesn’t bleach his skin, that he is a proud African American and isn’t gay, and so on, so forth.

There is also an interesting interview with Lionel Richie, done between the announcement of the "This Is It" series of concerts and Jackson's passing, in which Richie tells the interviewer that because Jackson has done everything so big in the past, the pressure on him at the moment is really high.

As we being to wonder if there was anything in Jackson’s life that could have possibly kept him sane, we are taken back to 1990, to a water balloon fight between Jackson, his sister Janet, Macaulay Culkin and his brother Shane, and a couple of other unidentified individuals. It really makes you wonder: what went wrong? While some of it most probably had to do with Jackson’s own personal faults, the responsibility also lies with society.

The next bit gave way to a flash of insight. The DVD cuts to yet another interview with Jackson, in which he explains: “Jesus said to love the children and to be like children. Be youthful and be innocent and be pure, and honorable. He was talking to His Apostles, and they were fighting over who’s the greatest among themselves and He said whoever humbled yourself like this child is the greatest among me. And He always surrounds Himself with children.” Unfortunately I didn’t find the original quote in my Bible, so I can’t tell you if this belief is based in fact or not. But whatever the case, it doesn’t change the fact that Jackson really did believe in this.

And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps the dichotomy that Michael Jackson represented for so many people is that what he wanted to do was good, but how he did it was wrong. It is very good that he loved children so much, and that he placed such importance on their purity. Purity is something all adults should strive to attain despite the many taints that daily life stains them with; but is acting like an innocent child the best way of keeping one’s purity? While an adult trying to remain pure might be admirable, clinging to childhood is only a denial of the nature of adulthood.

Perhaps then the tragedy of Michael Jackson becomes that his deification isolated him from society so much so that he didn’t have a healthy support system in place, a group of friends who cared about his well-being, and with which he could have reflected and consulted, and channeled this desire to remain pure and to help children in a better way. Perhaps Michael Jackson’s fall from grace was inevitable because he didn’t have that support system, and his deification, an act of misplaced love on behalf of his fans, ultimately became his greatest source of despair.

No documentary on Jackson’s untimely passing at the relatively young age of 50 can ignore the 2005 trial. Footage from two events related to this trial is included in this DVD. First is the footage of Jackson climbing on top of the SUV and the ensuing pandemonium of fans who were camped outside of the courthouse.

Then we have footage from the verdict day: his arrival at the courthouse, the reading of the verdict with relevant courtroom drawings, the reaction of elated fans outside, and an exhausted looking Jackson leaving the courthouse.

The thing that hit me the most about this footage is the noise. The screaming fans drove me nuts, and I pressed the mute button numerous times. But Michael Jackson couldn’t; he had to live with it more often than not. Quite possibly he had to live with it every single time he stepped outside. How can a mere man shoulder the burden of being elevated to the level of a deity? Impossible.

This point was further driven home by the next videos; one is a home video of two people chasing Michael Jackson’s SUV from outside the courtroom; another of a shopping trip Michael went on with his three children, another, a clip of Jackson leaving a building and him crying out, amidst the seemingly endless flashes: “I can’t see!” And, finally, the movie ends with a clip from the memorial, when Marlon Jackson says, “We would never, ever understand what he endured. Not being able to cross the street without a crowd gathering around him. Being judged, ridiculed. How much pain can one take? Maybe now Michael they will leave you alone.”

Going back to the reflection started above, living in such a fashion obviously contributed to Michael Jackson’s demise. He obviously believed in the fact that we are spiritual beings, as stated in many interviews and reflected by his belief in Jesus Christ. Being a spiritual being implies that we are here on earth to develop our spiritual qualities. And it’s only through social interactions that we can hope to develop our spiritual qualities. How can we learn about forgiveness if we don’t get into a dispute with someone? How can we learn about patience if we don’t have someone holding us back? Living in a cocoon like Michael Jackson did meant that he couldn’t develop his spiritual qualities, even if he truly wanted to – and I have the feeling this contributed to his pain.

This is in no way a mea culpa, nor is it a condemnation of fans’ actions. It’s just a harsh look into the social processes behind the raw footage that this DVD provides. Fans who screamed "I love you, Michael" might have had the best of intentions, but I don’t know if stalking him was a healthy way of expressing that love. And, quite honestly, footage such as that provided in this DVD makes me think that perhaps fans got it all wrong; after all, this seems more like an unhealthy obsession than love, doesn’t it?

Even after having watched it a couple of times to be able to write this review, I still don’t know what to think about this film. As I said, it wasn’t at all what I expected. It seems like a rather morbid addition to any DVD collection, and yet another reminder of some of the reasons why Michael Jackson’s life finished so wrong. But on the other hand, it’s a great source of reflection on the social processes that were at work in the rise and fall of Michael Jackson. And since these social processes influence us all greatly, it’s worth it to take the time to reflect on them, whatever our personal opinion on Michael Jackson and his music might be.

One way of figuring out if this DVD is morbid or not it to have a discussion about the meaning of death before a discussion of what consists of a dignified and appropriate way to say good-bye. On the one hand, death is a messenger of joy, as it allows human beings to fulfill their full potential as their souls are liberated from the limitations of the physical body. It seems that Michael Jackson’s family as well as his close friends believed in this, which would really make this film a celebration of his life rather than a way to make yet another buck off of Michael Jackson’s death.

But as we cannot segregate ourselves from the social context in which we live and act, I can’t ignore such questions as: is this really a tribute to Michael Jackson, the King of Pop? Or is it yet another symptom of the odd sickness that has pervaded society, that makes deities out of performers and outcasts out of deities? After all, however talented, however famous, and however nice a person Michael Jackson was, he still was, at the end of the day, a man.

And learning this lesson would be the ultimate tribute to his passing.

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