Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Heath Holland On...Michael Jackson's Moonwalker
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.