Remember to Always Think Twice: The Pains of Immortalizing Michael Jackson

When people reflect on the legacy of Steve Jobs, many, including his biographer Walter Isaacson, highlight editorial strengths as the the source of his genius, as opposed to creative innovation. Although the societal positioning of a true editorial genius may not be as outwardly glamorous as artistic mastery, the loss of the former is no less painful. While Michael Jackson was undoubtedly a musical visionary, editing also played a central role in his ability to succeed as an artist.

Created within the confines of an era dominated by vinyl and its limitations as a medium, Thriller included only nine songs that total less than 45 min. (by comparison, Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream requires nearly an hour to present its robotic, often indistinguishable dance anthems). Songwriter Rod Temperton wrote over thirty compositions for the album; only three of his songs made the final cut. The affiliated Motown 25 performance of 1983 was the perfectly distilled composition of drama, artistic references and visible emotion. Later in life Jackson severely suffered from an inability to edit his personal life with similar skill, but in terms of  music and performances, his achievements in editing have rarely been seen in pop music since.

Cirque du Soleil’s new Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour purports to continue the pop icon’s legacy through the spectacle-driven acrobatics that define the French-Canadian company’s past 25 years of productions. Throughout the various three-minute YouTube videos, promotional interviews and online sources, Director Jamie King promises to turn Jackson’s legacy into a Cirque du Soleil show that re-envisions his concert experiences; in effect, the audience should find themselves believing in the star’s artistic immortality through the experience of the show.

Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. Image by Olivier Samson Arcand for Detroit Free Press.

The lens King selects to craft the Cirque journey into a Michael Jackson-infused world immediately signals the impossibility of the task at hand. The show begins with a rapid-fire video montage across various over-sized screens, the largest of which intermittently raises from and retracts back into the main stage floor. The various forms of Michael flash before our eyes; red jackets, white gloves, black loafers, crying fans, gold jumpsuits, smoke and guitars, and all of the other iconic imagery builds towards an expectantly thrilling climax. Seated in the giant arena, fans screaming (albeit not as loudly as those in the montage), lights flashing, it seems that Michael Jackson is mere moments away from magically dropping onto the empty stage; for a second, he is immortal.

That moment abruptly ends as the images distill into a single, Jackson 5-era Michael across all screens, sporting the classic globe Afro and singing the chorus of “I’ll Be There.” Evoking a memory of the first time I heard this song on a car insurance commercial following the announcement of Jackson’s death, those of us in the audience are given just enough time to loose all of the energy created by the earlier video montage.  Then, The Immortal hits us with the first, full-length Jackson song of the show: “Childhood.” As the Disney-like instrumentals of the lesser known, Free Willy 2 ballad from 1995’s HIStory album fill the arena, the golden gates of Neverland roll into the stage’s center, followed by a wandering line of acrobats, made up in a monochromatic, metallic gold sheen that signifies the statues that once populated Neverland Ranch.

Cirque du Soleil's Neverland gates. Image by Olivier Samson Arcand for Detroit Free Press.

As the acrobatic figures flip and cartwheel to Jackson’s high-pitched musings on the sorrows of his youth, the question of editing arises from the disappointment.  Why the video montage buildup? Why not the artist’s signature opening track, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin” or any number of his works of greatness, rather than this track I recall not even appreciating as a teenage, suburban Jackson fan in the 90s?

Those familiar with Cirque du Soleil’s standard tropes recall the company’s typical, quasi-narrative journey begins with a symbolic transition from the audience’s world to the Cirque fantasy. Conceptually, the use of the Neverland entrance to instigate the beginning of the Michael Jackson experience makes sense. However, in the context of an arena full of fans who have been promised an “immortal world tour,” in a moment when Jackson’s music has managed to overcome the never-ending coverage of his personal life, conjuring the aspects of the artist that most of us wish he would have edited himself demonstrates the stream of erroneous approaches populating the production.

Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. Image by Olivier Samson Arcand for Detroit Free Press.

Following “Childhood,” the show moves past the initial misstep into more moderately entertaining renditions of classic Jackson singles, including “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin,” “Jam,” and “Dancing Machine.” In contrast to other Cirque productions, choreography takes center stage for the majority of the individual songs, which transition more similarly to change-overs between numbers in a concert than the stream-of-consciousness flow commonly used by the company. Among the more successful aspects of the show, a quintet of Michael Jackson impersonators act as the Cirque clowns that lead the audience through the fantasy. Evoking the extreme levels of devotion found among the international community of Jackson fans, while simultaneously displaying some of the most impressive, MJ-esque spins, moonwalks and toe balances of the production, the impersonators strike a rare balance between The Immortal’s desire to cater to the star’s fans without neglecting Cirque du Soleil’s talented performers and established tropes.

The five MJ impersonators who lead the journey of Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. Image by Olivier Samson Arcand for Detroit Free Press.

The competition between intentions unfortunately persists throughout most of the show, limiting other potential successes significantly. “Human Nature” could have been a stunning combination of one of the singer’s strongest ballads with the aerialist spectacle and sparkling special effects for which Cirque du Soleil is known.  Positioning LED-coated acrobats against a projected night sky as Jackson’s strangely complex ode to desire whispered through the arena, the moment was nearly exquisite. However, one had to block from sight a strangely swinging, CGI-like version of an over-sized, juvenile, hovering alongside the aerialists, in order to appreciate the aesthetic experience.  Herein lies the primary issue with Michael Jackson: The Immortal and its failure to immortalize the singer: the absence of editing.

"Human Nature" performance by Cirque du Soleil, including the CGI Child. Image by Olivier Samson Arcand for Detroit Free Press.

The competition between intentions throughout the production ultimately causes The Immortal to disintegrate into what can only be described as a hot mess by the show’s end. Jamie King’s self-imposed responsibility to both Michael Jackson’s fans and to his own understanding of the singer’s vision were pitted against the needs of the fantastical, established circus. The resulting offense committed against the fans and Michael’s own approach to touring was the shortening of seminal songs (“Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and “Bad,” most notably) to allow more time for full renditions of the weaker ballads and lesser known tracks that were better suited for the acrobats. The issues caused for the Cirque du Soleil manifested as recessive acrobatic presence, and, most egregiously, the troupe’s appropriation of Jackson’s trademark imagery into absurd costumes, including an enormous, white glove that roamed the stage, bringing to mind the White Glove Tracking Project, among other unintentionally humorous distractions.

The White Glove Tracking Project, whose imagery was entirely too similar to the enlarged white glove that took the form of a costume in Michael Jackson: The Immortal.

Although Michael Jackson: The Immortal’s shortcomings would be easy to blame on its positioning as a beloved, nostalgic music experience that no longer exists, Cirque du Soleil found significant success in its Las Vegas-based production of The Beatles LOVE.  Without the weight of the incomplete This is It tour, a doctor recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and the determination to execute the show as he artist’s own vision, LOVE succeeds in creating aesthetically based performances inspired by the songs of their soundtrack; this simpler focus enables the stegnth’s of Cirque du Soleil’s performers and the recorded music to ground the show, rather than the comprehensive history of The Beatles themselves. The Immortal, in contrast, strives to achieve too much, in too many divergent directions that ultimately benefit neither the Cirque performers nor the needs of a successful tribute-based approach.

Cirque du Soleil's LOVE at the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas. Image from Cirque du Soleil.

The most consistent feeling that pervades Michael Jackson: The Immortal is the absence of Jackson himself.  The band of mummies behaving like zombies in “Thriller” (another moment of bafflement), the white fedora-clad gangsters of “Smooth Criminal,” all seem to be building towards a climactic moment when their centering leader appears onstage, exploding into the burst of iconic choreography and genuinely performed ecstasy that is so noticeably absent not only in this production, but in most live pop music of the present moment.  The arena full of devotees, many clad in red leather jackets, white gloves and black fedoras, more than most aspects of the performance, supported the notion that Michael Jackson’s legacy is, in fact, immortal. As demonstrated by this Cirque production, however, the genius of his ability to distill music, choreography, and his personal iconography into a single, perfect moment may be absent from the stage for generations to come.

The mummies in Cirque du Soleil's rendition of "Thriller" for Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. Image by Olivier Samson Arcand for Detroit Free Press.