In the austere confines of a German war room, Adolf Hitler attends a briefing with his generals. They have bad news for him.
“Mein Fuhrer. Michael … Michael Jackson has died after going into cardiac arrest. The King of Pop is officially dead.”
Hitler is apoplectic with rage. Turns out he’s Michael’s biggest fan. His tickets for the singer’s new live show are useless. “No one can replace MJ,” he grieves, “not even that little girl Justin Timberlake.”
The scene comes from one of the many parodies of the German film Downfall, in which internet yuksters switch out the subtitles of the film with words — hopefully humorous — of their own. This one’s been doing the rounds since Jackson’s death on June 25, the latest example of his impact on our visually driven pop culture.
Unlike any performer before him, Jackson was always in the spotlight. His TV image may not have been as essential to his career as his music, but it certainly maximized it. By age 11, he was lead vocalist (with brother Jermaine) of The Jackson 5 and making his network debut. His performance on ABC’s The Hollywood Palace included dance moves that host Diana Ross said she “would get arrested for doing.” But when Little Michael twitched his hips or sang about love affairs, it was regarded as harmlessly cute.
Two months after the ABC gig, The Jackson 5 put on a more sanitized routine for The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s no coincidence that the group’s first four singles were all No. 1 smashes. Sure, songs like “I Want You Back” and “ABC” had great hooks, but the Jacksons’ on-screen performances helped to cement their presence in the national imagination.
In 1972, the prodigy had his first brush with movies, singing the soulful theme tune for Ben, a film about a psychic pet rat gone bad. While the rodent was seriously lacking in social skills, the record-buying public hardly cared that Jackson’s single and same-titled album were inspired by a horror movie. In isolation, the ballad was a catchy song about love and friendship. The music mattered more than its less pleasant associations. It wouldn’t be the last time that fans concentrated on the songs of Michael Jackson and not the strange circumstances in which he made music.
By 1976 The Jacksons had switched to CBS Records. Backed by the might of this entertainment behemoth, they got more royalties and creative control, their own prime-time show, and increasingly ambitious music videos. These pop flicks culminated in 1980’s “Can You Feel It,” in which the group towered over a city as giant elemental beings, sprinkling disco-pixie dust on the children of the world.
In 1978 Michael made his movie acting debut in The Wiz, a funky update of The Wizard of Oz. Jackson was the innocent, straw-brained scarecrow, and he proved to be one of the film’s saving graces. The Wiz wilted at the box office, but Jackson was recognized as having genuine acting talent.
The big budget, high spectacle music videos combined with Jackson’s safe, cozy image helped get him on MTV when other black artists like Rick James could not. Just as the ’60s variety shows had boosted The Jackson 5’s sales, videos like “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” helped Jackson’s Thriller album to become the best selling of all time. Most important of all was the 14-minute, John Landis-directed “Thriller” video. When the film premiered in 1984, it was an event, a must-see that brought new viewers to MTV and, with the single, boosted album sales by an estimated 14 million copies over the next six months.
No matter how convoluted or over-the-top the videos were, they had a beginning, a middle, and an end, with a cinematic attention to imagery, sound, visual effects, and choreography. The ultimate expression of this was Francis Ford Coppola’s Captain EO, a $30 million, 17-minute narrative film starring Jackson, which Disney park visitors flocked to see in the ’80s and ’90s.
In many ways, Jackson was a perfect icon for the ’80s, but the opening of his ’88 movie Moonwalker, where leather-clad kids lip-synched “Bad” (opening line: “your butt is mine”), gave the public a clue as to what lay ahead. Five years later the self-coronated King of Pop was facing child sex-abuse allegations. The media that had helped turn him into a superstar was now calling him Wacko Jacko and shedding light on the scandal.
Although no criminal charges were ever brought against him, Jackson paid a $22 million out-of-court settlement, and his career was never as strong again, despite some incredible concert tours and attempts to refresh the public’s memory about his heyday with a HIStory greatest hits collection. He was no longer cute, cozy, or remotely safe.
“Ghosts” was a response to the hassles Jackson was getting from the press and public. In this 38-minute video directed by Stan Winston, a group of townsfolk visit a creepy mansion inhabited by the “weirdo” Michael Jackson. The singer proceeds to indulge in masquerade, high-energy dance numbers, and even a feigned death and resurrection, all in attempts to shock and scare the intruders. The film attempts to revisit the glories of the “Thriller” vid, with dusty dead people shaking their bony booties around a ballroom. But where “Thriller” is held together by a geeky respect for the horror genre, “Ghosts” relies on fake-looking ’90s CGI. Jackson wanted to top “Thriller;” instead he got stuck with Haunted Mansion: The Musical.
Just when everyone seemed ready to forgive and forget Jackson’s purported immorality, a documentary called Living with Michael Jackson was broadcast. An unsuspecting Jackson invited journalist Martin Bashir into his home in an attempt to reconnect with the public; Bashir focused on Jackson’s abusive childhood and his obsession with children, the way he invited them into his bedroom, and sometimes shared a bed with them. Several more accusations of child sex abuse followed (he was acquitted of all charges).
Bashir’s home country of Britain was to host the singer’s big comeback, a run of 50 engagements at London’s O2 Arena. Despite Jackson’s death just before the shows began, enough rehearsals and behind-the-scenes clips were gathered to make a new movie, This Is It. This rockumentary is set to amaze crowds in ways that the performer couldn’t in his later years because of the press backlash he faced. Once again, the music is the focus rather than the three-ring media circus around Michael Jackson.
Now, the Downfall parody’s angry-little Hitler can breathe a sigh of relief. He’ll get a chance to see the King of Pop in concert after all.