Work and Soul in Michael Jackson´s This Is It (Special Series Part 3 & 4): A Spotlight on Excellence

  by Aberjhani (African—American Art Examiner) on

November 16, 2009

Singer/songwriter Lionel Richie at premier of Michael Jackson's This Is It in Japan. (AP/photo by Shizuo Kambahyashi)

Upon completing a jaw-dropping work-out to “Billie Jean” that stuns fellow dancers as they look on, Michael Jackson states with noted dissatisfaction, “At least we got a feel of it.” His co-stars applaud loudly because they know they have just witnessed something too marvelous to believe. Yet they also knew when signing on how high the bar of expectations would be set and are thrilled to hear Jackson dismiss his nearly flawless performance so casually. Something similar occurs following his duet with vocalist Judith Hill on the song “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” To the delight of dancers, musicians, and crew members watching from offstage, the singers give in to the heat of the passionate musical moment, their voices roaring erotic tension and romantic desperation. As the song concludes, Jackson motions for Hill to turn and face their audience. Then he quips, “You shouldn’t let me sing like that, I’ve got to save my voice for the performance.”

His point is taken and ignored at the same time as the audience of colleagues applauds. Clearly, the director in Jackson wants to keep his exertions at a certain restrained level while the performance artist in him is chomping at the bits to liberate himself from the stagnation of years spent away from the concert stage at home with his children

A Spotlight on Excellence and A Fan of Humor

Speaking to reporters shortly after the performer’s death the brilliant music producer Quincy Jones noted, “Michael was the most professional person I ever worked with in my life ––ever, in every way. In fact, we used to set up a stand when he sang. He'd do his dances and just have a spotlight on the stand ––a pin spot on the stand. And he'd do his dances and do his twists and everything else while he was singing. He was absolutely amazing.”

Legendary music producer Quincy Jones (left) and the Honorable Ewart Brown, Premier of Bermuda. (PRNews Foto by Chris Burville)

Fortunately, he was also a fan of humor and This Is It contains healthy doses of it to balance the strenuous labor, such as when Jackson and musical director Michael Bearden playfully debate adding “a little more booty” to the tempo for the song “The Way You Make Me Feel.” And whether intentional or not, humor is also present when a woman choreographer coaches a group of male dancers on the proper way to grab their crotches for a particular routine. What her instructions do not include, and what most have never heard, is how this especially infamous gesture by Jackson likely evolved out of a comedy skit by the late genius Richard Pryor. In the routine, Pryor answered the question of why African-American men in the last century tended sometimes to hold their crotches by asserting that they were, “Checking to make sure it [genitalia] was still there.” This was a stinging satirical reference to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jim Crow practice of castration during racial lynching.

One Peak Achievement to Another A major part of Jackson’s strategy throughout his career as an adult seems to have been not only to work so hard that he would achieve recognition as the best in his field, but to set standards so high that any performances he considered below par were perceived or experienced by others as superb. Therefore, even in a state of being described as “tarnished” or “fallen” the only thing he could do was continue to shine by virtue of artistic excellence.

Movie audience in Paris prepares to watch Michael Jackson's This Is it. (AP Photo by Christopher Enaa)

The perseverance, repetition of routines, employment of technological innovation, and commanding team leadership he exhibits are components of a work ethic distilled from a life spent in studios and on the road, making and living some of the best music the world has ever hummed. Such an ethic provides priceless lessons in the kind of self-discipline that any creative artist must accomplish in order to sustain a career moving forward from one peak achievement to another.

The Existential Spirit

Guitarist Orianthi with Michael Jackson in This Is It. (AP Photo by Sony

At the beginning of this series, Michael Jackson’s This Is It in two week’s time had become the United State’s second highest grossing music concert movie after Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tours, which has a lifetime box office gross of $65,281,781. Following Sony’s decision to extend This Is It’s theatrical run for a third week, the film has taken over the top spot in the music concert movie category with a gross of $67,546,236 as of November 18, 2009. This fourth part of the series takes a look at one major aspect of the movie’s and the man’s phenomenal success.

Clarence Clemons Said It Too

From his early days as a devout Jehovah’s Witness going door to door offering to discuss the Bible, to his latter years in concert when he would fall on his knees and sing testimonies to the powers of redemption and love for the earth, Michael Jackson embodied and expressed a profound sense of spirituality that affected others deeply. Small wonder that director Kenny Ortega could proclaim during one rehearsal session in This Is It, “Church! The church of rock and roll!”

Interestingly enough, saxophonist Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band recently told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show that performing with his band was like “having church.” In his scenario, the stage is the pulpit and the joy provided through music the primary spiritual service provided.

The Existential Spirit

Where Jackson is concerned, mainstream commentators ––possibly rightly so–– have generally shied away from acknowledging this spiritual component other than to describe fans’ apparent love for and devotion to him. Speaking on the Larry King radio show the night of Jackson’s funeral author and spiritual philosopher Deepak Chopra bluntly described him as “a mythical being” and “an ecstatic soul.”

“He could go into a state of ecstasy,” Chopra continued, which is nothing short of the existential spirit and he could do that in such a way that he brought that ecstasy to people.”

Various individuals, including readers of this column, have described that spiritual quality in different ways: some have called it creative spirituality, some duende, angelic presence, Weda, bliss, Sufi-like, unconditional love, and other metaphysically potent terms. Flashes and extended moments of these concepts in action are visible throughout This Is It, most notably perhaps in the delicate manner with which Ortega addresses Jackson, almost as if to do so too loudly or too forcefully would cause him to shatter into a thousand glittering pieces. And the singer himself is prone to stating repeatedly “I love you” almost as a kind of subdued mantra.

Director Kenny Ortega at L.A. premier of This Is It. (AP Photo by Matt Sayles)

But nowhere is it more apparent than in specific songs themselves. Of those rehearsed in the movie, “Man in the Mirror” and “Earth Song” carry the most overtly sermon-like messages. “Earth Song” is an exceptionally daring work because the singer at times seems to address humanity and at other times sounds as if he is arguing with his God: “What about all the peace/ That you pledge your only son...” Other songs not included in the movie, such as “Keep the Faith” and “Heal the World” fall into the same category.

Some songs in the movie are less obvious. For example: as fun and danceable as “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is, the lyrics are about the destructive power of gossip and the healing that can come with faith in Self and trust in the innate spirituality of human beings. Likewise, the rehearsal for “Jam,” a slice of raw unadulterated funk if ever there was one, truly encourages dancing in the aisles when watching This Is It. A review of the lyrics, however, can shock individuals upon discovering the song is a very bold Barack Obama-like challenge to nations to set aside political agendas and unite to “Face the problems/ that we see.” Moreover, it is loaded with prophecy, ecstatic utterance, and miniature parables that convey deep moral concerns.

A Kind of Ministry An individual does not have to be an officially ordained religious or political minister to conduct a ministry per se on behalf of humanity, and the more examinations of Jackson’s life that are presented through projects like This Is it, the more evident it becomes that a major aspect of his life was a noteworthy attempt to minister to the world through music and philanthropy. Because his living presence became such an uncommonly global one, that ministry reflected universal ecumenical principles dressed up in ultra-modern dance grooves, love songs to nature, lyrical eulogies in the form of musical elegies, and sermons sung with passionate intensity and suffering eloquence.

Michael Jackson onstage in This Is It. (AP enhanced photo/movie still by

This is less evident in the film than it was for those around the world who experienced the performer’s concerts when at the height of his creative powers and physical stamina, during those times he most deeply, painfully, felt the need to share what he had learned about life and love. But as Jackson said of one rehearsed song, “At least we got a feel of it.”

There’s also more to come with a second major sample of This Is It is already in the works in the form of an extended DVD. Even with that, however, it’s not very likely that the magic of Jackson’s music or the influence of his legacy will disappear or slow down any time soon.

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