It couldn’t be stopped. The official, estate-approved Michael Jackson biopic is coming and there’s nothing we can do about it. It will be helmed by Antoine Fuqua, produced by the same guy behind Bohemian Rhapsody, and written by John Logan, from The Aviator, Gladiator and… They/Them fame. Worst still, MJ will be played by none other than his nephew on Jermaine Jackson’s side, Jaafar Jackson, passing over Jermajesty. According to the press releases, the film won’t shy away from covering … “The Thing.” You know, “The Thing” that had Michael Jackson settling with plaintiffs out of court for dozens of millions of dollars, “The Thing” that got him prosecuted and absolved in criminal court, “The Thing” that reared its ugly head in the second most shocking interview by Martin Bashir, and “The Thing” that was investigated at length in the documentary Leaving Neverland (its director has denounced the project). I think we can safely predict this project will not address “The Thing” in a fair and balanced way, but instead will become a hagiography. It’s going to suck, and considering how deeply entrenched MJ’s relatives are in the project, it will probably suck more than Bohemian Rhapsody.
However, there is a way you could write a film about Michael Jackson’s life that could be Great without having to address “The Thing,” still portraying him as a complex and conflicted individual, and incorporating his classics. We would need, however, to throw his useless brothers and monstruous father under the bus.
One of my favorite YouTube essayists, Patrick H. Willems, made a video analyzing everything wrong with music biopics and their formulaic pitfalls. One of the biggest problems, aside from the rise-fall-rise again structure and the meddling of the estate, is that they cram way too much history in two hours. He proposes that a good music biopic should, among other things, limit the scope and focus on one defining moment of an artist’s career, amplifying their creative process and taking a sample of what made them who they were (or are, but it’s mostly in the past tense). His own pitch is a Oasis biopic focused on their post-Knebworth concert, during the disastrous production of Be Here Now, basically, when they plateau’d.
And here’s where my own pitch comes from. Michael Jackson has had as much career eras as he had noses: The child prodigy; post-disco with Off The Wall, the Thriller era, the Bad era, the Dangerous era, the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Era… each of them would make for an interesting film the family would not allow. But there is one era, and one concert tour in particular, which marked Jackson’s inflection point: The Victory Tour from 1984, which was technically a The Jacksons tour. And saying ‘technically’ between quotation marks falls short of how much this was not a Jacksons (the band’s name after leaving Motown) tour, it was the de facto Thriller tour.
It could also be called “The Family Guilt Trippin’ Tour.” Named after The Jacksons’ 1984 album Victory, in which MJ had minimal involvement, this was a tour done only because the other Jackson brothers were broke and their careers were floundering, save for Jermaine who had a minor solo hit. Meanwhile, MJ was the King of the World, and most importantly, he had broken free from his father’s claws a long time ago. The tour was one of the biggest hits of all time, grossing $75 million dollars in 1984 dollars with only dates in the USA. At the same time, it was one of the biggest shitshows in 80s music: It was promoted by Don King; former New England Patriots owner Billy Sullivan was one of the sponsors, and he lost so much money that he had to liquidate the team; Joe Jackson, King, the lesser brothers and Sullivan came up with a ticket
racket lottery system, against MJ’s advice; not a single song from Victory was actually played on tour; the relationship between the brothers became irreparably strained because the Gloved One had no time for their shit, sleeping in different hotels and flying private, while the lesser brothers flew commercial.
It was also the tour where Jackson consolidated his stage persona, being at the top of his game. And, more importantly for his biopic, it was before Michael began his, you know, relationships with children. Before he bought Neverland and before his … vitiligo. It is a perfect era in his career to explore just how much his family fucked him up. There are no excuses for Michale Jackson’s alleged lies, but I am firmly in the camp that all of his mental depravity was as a result of what his father and brothers did to him as a child (case in point, when older ones brought girls to their shared hotel rooms). I’ll admit my bias, I still believe MJ was a genius and that his brothers are a bunch of incompetent losers even without the comparison.
So there’s the tradeoff of such a film, they get to focus on a moment when MJ was at his greatest, before the controversies, but it would mean showing his brothers and father for what they were: Leeches. Of course, the extended family might not be happy with this decision, but last time I checked, the Michael Jackson estate are his children. That would mean Jaafar Jackson exiting the project, but it’s better for him, his career will be over once the film’s cycle is over.
Of course, it’s never going to happen. If the brothers could guilt-trip Michael Jackson, at his biggest, of course they could pressure MJ’s estate holders into portraying them in the best possible light. Michael Jackson’s life is probably one of the most compelling and cinematic star stories ever, but he is also a cash cow, an estate surrounded by people just as shady as he was.
If, for some reason, you’re reading this in the year 2120, Alberto Cox would like to congratulate you on living in a century with great music biopics about 20th Century artists. Ain’t Public Domain a peach?