Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Heath Holland On...Michael Jackson's Moonwalker

Annie, are you okay? Are you okay, Annie?

If the 1980s were defined by excess then Moonwalker, the 1988 Michael Jackson anthology film, is the poster child for the entire decade. The film was released the year after the album Bad was dropped on the world, selling 30 million copies and spending six consecutive weeks at number one. Michael Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world.

Watch Moonwalker and your feelings on it will probably be similar to your feelings for Michael Jackson himself. You can’t really separate the film from the man because so much of the man is IN the film (for better or for worse). If you think MJ was an unbelievable talent who made great music then you’ll probably find the anthology to be charming. If you think he was an over-hyped weirdo who didn’t know when to stop then that’s probably going to be reflected in the film.
Regardless of your feelings on Michael Jackson, I think it’s safe to say that this movie is effin’ CRAZY. It’s just ridiculous, but I don’t mind it so much because I just so happen to like crazy, ridiculous anthology movies. You can almost feel how the movie came together, with Michael Jackson saying “I want to make a movie, and I want all the stuff I love in it. I want lots of dancing and some music videos, because that’s what people will be expecting. But I also want a bunch of my famous friends to be in it too. And I want a segment to be in stop-motion animation. And I want to heal the world with the power of love and music. Also, I like those Transformers toys, so throw in a giant transforming robot that looks like me. Money is no object. Just do it. Heeeee-heee!”

That’s probably NOT how this movie got made, but you’d never know it. It’s totally incomprehensible, disjointed, schmaltzy and faux-sentimental, and the star’s posturing and apparent messiah complex don’t help either. Still, there’s nothing quite like it. Watching it now is a reminder that it used to be possible to go see just about anything in a movie. I sometimes forget that because today’s film market feels pretty homogenized, where everything is like everything else. Today you can say something is “like Die Hard on a spaceship” but you can’t easily compare Moonwalker to anything else, except maybe that dream you had after you ate peanut butter pizza and jalapeno ice cream.
I’ll walk you through my reactions to the different sections of the film. The first segment consists of live concert footage of MJ singing “Man in the Mirror.” So far, so good. Up next is a montage of all the hits that Michael Jackson has been a part of over the years, beginning when he was just a lil’ fella singing with his brothers in the Jackson 5. It’s a little self-aggrandizing, but that’s not to be unexpected. Plus, wow, all those songs! Almost looks like Michael Jackson invented the hit. So talented. Sometimes eccentric, but that’s okay because look at how much he accomplished.

Next up is a video that reenacts Martin Scorsese’s short film Bad, only with all the actors being replaced by children. Okay. This is weird and I feel very uncomfortable. Does that little boy have a drawn-on beard?! And I had no idea that Osh Kosh B’Gosh had an entire line of leather gang wear. Hey, it’s the kid from The Mighty Ducks in the role of MJ! Wow, these kids seem so angry.

Then comes a music video for the song “Speed Demon.” I think I might have seen this on MTV way back in the day. Oh, it’s all in Claymation? OF COURSE IT IS! But all this stop motion and Claymation is done by Will Vinton, that cool dude who is responsible for the Christmas special I still watch every single year and that creepy movie The Adventures of Mark Twain. I think I like it! This is way better than all those kids singing about being bad.
After that is a music video for the song “Leave Me Alone,” which I KNOW I saw on MTV as a kid. Cool video, but there’s Michael Jackson with his pet chimpanzee Bubbles. Now I feel weird again. And now there’s a whole part of the video that seems to be dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor. I think I need to go do the dishes. Or the laundry. Something other than this.

Next is the very long segment for “Smooth Criminal.” It’s not just a music video, it’s a whole short film directed by a guy called Colin Chilvers. Chilvers never really did any film directing of note (aside from this) but he had done a lot of special effects work before Moonwalker, including the first three Superman movies. Weird, after this movie he doesn’t seem to have worked again in almost a decade. I wonder why? It can’t be because of Moonwalker…can it?

The “Smooth Criminal” segment is very heavy on Amblin-style kid stuff, but way more sentimental than Spielberg would ever have gone. These kids are HOMELESS! And there’s a drug dealer played by Joe Pesci who is trying to catch them and kill them because they saw his gang shoot Michael Jackson with machine guns. But MJ had a special lucky star that helped him avoid the bullets. Did you get all that? I didn’t.
Michael gets away from the armed thugs and ends up in an old building. The kids follow and look through the grimy windows, which triggers a really long (and I’ll be honest, pretty cool) music video for the song “Smooth Criminal.” Say, this is neat! Look at how far over they lean without falling over! I’ve heard a lot of theories over the years about what the song is about. It’s a rape. No, it’s a murder. It’s about Anne Frank. I don’t think anyone has ever officially said what it’s about, but I think it’s safe to say that Annie is NOT okay.

After all the singing and dancing is over the criminals catch up to the homeless kids. Things are not looking good! Joe Pesci wants to shoot this little girl up with DRUGS! MJ finds the kids and saves the girl just before she gets jabbed and can go all “Incense and Peppermints” and turns into that giant robot I was telling you about, killing the bad guys and saving the day. But that’s not all. Oh no, that is not all. That is not all for this robot so tall. Then the Michael Jackson Giant Robot turns into a spaceship and flies off into the sky.

You don’t see this everyday.
Oh, wait, it’s not over. The kids are all sad because they don’t know if they’ll ever see Michael again. Don’t worry, kids! Wherever there are platinum records to be sold, wherever there are streams of revenue to be generated, there you will find him. In the laugh of a baby, in the smell of a new can of Play-Doh, in the overwhelming, giddy sensation that you get when you get when you enter Disney World, that’s where he’ll always be waiting.

This crazy movie didn’t exist in a vacuum. It was marketed at the tail end of the “Bad” tour of 1988, and there were video game tie-ins, too. The greatest was an arcade version that had really sweet graphics; MJ would side-scroll through various levels looking for kidnapped children and fight off bad guys. He didn’t punch or kick them, though. No, he defeated them with DANCE MAGIC! At certain parts in the game you unlocked the ability to unleash a devastating dance attack that caused all the enemies on screen to dance with you and then die. To make it even better, Bubbles is in each level, too. I played the arcade version a few times, but the Sega Genesis version was my primary exposure to the game. The home version wasn’t as slick as the arcade version, but it was still a pretty big deal.
Since I’m talking about hard to see movies during the month of March, I want to discuss the fact that this movie has, until very recently, been really obscure. Moonwalker was a theatrical release for Europe and South America, but North America had to wait to see the film when it was released on VHS in early 1989. The VHS release was the first and only time that the movie was made available for the next 21 years. I remember having conversations with people in college about seeing pieces of it on cable as kids and how we’d all love to see it again. We would be waiting a long time.

Moonwalker is still not widely commercially available (and isn’t available at all in American retail stores), but thankfully a region-free Blu-ray was released in the UK back in 2010 that you can easily import from a bunch of online retailers. It’s been remastered and looks pretty swish. It’s ALMOST a happier ending than the one in the movie itself. But it does truly amaze me that the only film project that was rushed onto the market after Jackson died was the dull documentary This Is It while this movie, which captures his influence and power at its peak, is STILL not available in stores outside of Britain. Someone certainly missed a window of opportunity.

Moonwalker is a film so eccentric that it does the legacy of Michael Jackson proud. Jackson and his music was a big part of my childhood, just as it probably was for a lot of us. This movie is a fun (and totally bonkers) trip down memory lane that has thankfully been brought back to life. Check it out, and don’t stop ‘till you get enough.


  1. The only part of this I've seen is the "Smooth Criminal" portion. I like the dancing, I like the song, but there's that weird-ass middle section where the music drops out and everyone is just gyrating around in slow motion...whaaaat?? It seems Michael wanted it both ways - he wanted to be kid-friendly, but also wanted to be edgy and (forgive me) "DANGEROUS!" It's like the strange coda to his "Black or White" video. I can't say I'll seek this out, but your post clues me in on what a weird acid trip it seems to be.

  2. I think the reason for Moonwalker's obscurity might be because of how much Michael Jackson's popularity in America nosedived in the nineties until his death. Because of his eccentric behavior and "alleged" incidents that got him in court, I think his stock was so low that if Moonwalker came out on DVD at that time it would''ve bombed. However, I would love to see a blu-ray release.

    1. That is absolutely true, but when he died it seems like he became Saint Michael and all his albums shot back onto the charts. There was even a video game featuring his music. His legacy is still pretty big in Europe, which is where my blu-ray is from, I just think it's a shame that all we got in America was the documentary film (which I thought wasn't very good).

  3. My best friend bought this on VHS when it first came out. We watched it a lot, but I only ever wanted to skip to the "Speed Demon" section. Such was my love of Claymation. That song is rubbish.

  4. Hey Heath, check out Spike lee's "Bad 25" it's not only brilliant but it also tells you who "Annie" is. Go to 1:29:09

    1. Very interesting! Now I want to watch the whole doc. And punch Kanye West in the face.

    2. Yes! F Kanye and F Chris Brown (who is also in the doc unfortunately) but the whole thing is absolutely amazing. I personally think it's one of Spike's best.