He may be known more for his music (justifiably) and his dancing (damn, could he dance), but some of my earliest memories of Michael Jackson had to do with his movies. As opposed to Elvis, the only other person in pop music to have done anything like MJ, Michael didn’t sell out by creating a string of weird, cult movies that probably denigrated the untouchableness of his image. As the Scarecrow in the fantastic Wizard of Oz musical The Wiz, the 20-year-old Michael appealed to a kid the way he did when singing “ABC” with the Jackson 5. That strange film, with Diana Ross as Dorothy, did to The Wizard of Oz what Jim Henson and David Bowie’s The Labyrinth did to The Muppets. There is a weird, dark side to everything, but having Michael in The Wiz somehow made it accessible to me as a child.
More than that, however, Michael Jackson blew my mind at Disneyland, in 3-D, as the title character in Captain EO – incidentally, directed by Francis Coppola. Michael and his misfit crew were completely devoid of cynicism, bringing a quintessentially Reagan-esque message of peace and joy to the dark, Borg-like queen – incidentally, played by Anjelica Huston – of a planet that knew nothing of music. Who better to show them music than Michael Jackson? (The entire movie is viewable here in part one and here in part two, although it pails horribly in comparison to the big-screen in 3-D when you’re six years old.) And lest we forget, other memorable screen appearances by dear Michael include The Simpsons episode “Stark Raving Dad” and an uncannily appropriate cameo in Men in Black II.
Thankfully, there is plenty of classic, remarkable MJ in which to wallow right now, instead of the neverending bizarre-fest that filled the last umpteen years of his sad life. Having been born in the year of Thriller and danced in diapers to “Billie Jean,” the legend and phenomenon of “Michael Jackson” is too big for words. This much is certain: very few performers can make an audience forget there’s no live band.