Even more startling than the news of his death was its impact. Not since Diana has a celebrity’s sudden passing sent such a profound and lasting shock wave around the world. Michael Jackson’s career had been in the doldrums for over a decade, his reputation shattered by allegations of child molestation, his face ravaged by cosmetic surgery, his body wired on painkillers, his finances in shreds. Although his fans had remained fiercely loyal, snapping up tickets for a sold-out comeback tour that would never take place, for much of the world the King of Pop had become a sad freak—a literally pale shadow of the man-child who once moonwalked into our hearts. But after Jackson’s death on June 25, 2009, a miraculous resurrection began to take place.
As the media became consumed with conjuring his memory, parsing his significance and exploring the riddle of his death, it soon became clear that this celebrity death was shaping up to be an event on a par with the loss of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. In death, the moral scales were instantly tipped. Jackson’s iconic stature would trump his human frailties. The man once accused of being a pedophile and a predator was now cast as victim, possibly a victim of murder by lethal injection, perhaps even the target of a conspiracy. The disturbing pathology of Jackson’s personality—the enigma of the lost boy trapped in a man’s body—only enriched the myth. As a showbiz prodigy forever trying to reclaim the Neverland of his stolen childhood, he acquired tragic nobility. Like Elvis, Marilyn and Diana, here was another martyr to celebrity. Jackson had always dressed as if auditioning for divinity. And in the months that followed, pieces of him would be auctioned off like religious relics, from his diamond-encrusted socks to the white glove he wore in the 1983 Motown TV special—which is considered the “holy grail” of MJ memorabilia.
As a black man who seemed bent on erasing his race and blurring his gender, Jackson’s shape-shifting was mocked when he was alive. In death it only magnified his cultural importance. Just as Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger had plundered the moves and music of black R & B to create their burlesque empires of rock ’n’ roll, Jackson merged black music with white pop, but from the other side. He seemed intent on transforming himself into an alien creature, as if the only ethnicity that really mattered to him was extraterrestrial. With Thriller, the monster video that broke racial barriers and virtually invented MTV, he tried on a ghoulish identity that would follow him to the grave.
Jackson always fancied himself a movie star, or rather a movie character. And he received some posthumous poetic justice with the release of This Is It, the movie stitched together from rehearsal footage of the concert that never was. The film, which has grossed more than US$200 million, puts a lie to all the media speculation that his heart wasn’t in the tour, or that he no longer had the chops to pull it off. His ethereal falsetto was still intact, and his quicksilver dance moves still dazzled, as if he had no choice: the music flowed through his body like an electric current, animating every move with semaphore precision.
Had he lived to perform the tour, no doubt there would have been a concert movie, but it would have shown a slicker performer. The rehearsal footage reveals a softer, more circumspect Michael Jackson. Though the film is more hagiography than documentary, it offers a glimmer of vulnerability, and of the creative soul behind the Oz-like armour of the persona. Jackson comes across as an adult, quietly focused and firmly in command. The movie lends credence to what Elizabeth Taylor once told Oprah Winfrey, that Jackson was “highly intelligent, shrewd, intuitive.” There’s a lovely scene in which Jackson is trying to hold himself back. “Don’t make me sing out,” he pleads. “I gotta save my voice.” It’s a moment freighted with sad irony in a movie that redeems a monstrous icon by reminding us that he was only an artist.