Michael Jackson was like nobody else. A singer with a distinctive vocal range, a dancer who set the stage on fire and a versatile songwriter, the King of Pop was relentlessly pursued by millions of fans throughout his solo career. Bigger and more controversial than anybody else, his personal life wasn’t hidden from public view either.
Most believed, and not without reason, that ‘Wacko Jacko’ was, sort of, ‘strange’. The man had a pet python, which had terrified Lionel Richie when he was in his house and co-writing the charity track ‘We Are the World.’
Reports claimed that he slept in an oxygen chamber. He had undergone one cleft chin surgery and two rhinoplasty surgeries, leading to speculations about his obsession with surgeries. What hit him hard were sexual abuse allegations that tumbled out of the closet when he was alive and even after he was no more.
Musically, he was a genius. Inspired by icons like Little Richard and Diana Ross, he, in turn, inspired many musicians, among them Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz. A recent Jackson-inspired performer is Myles Frost, who has been appreciated for his portrayal of the megastar in MJ The Musical, a jukebox musical that premiered on Broadway. Frost got the opportunity to play Michael after the show’s producers saw the YouTube video of his performance of ‘Billie Jean’ at a high school show. He is a Tony award-winning theatre star today.
A Michael biopic backed by the Jackson estate is in the works. It is being co-produced by Graham King (The Departed, Bohemian Rhapsody), Lionsgate has acquired the distribution rights, while John Logan (The Aviator, Hugo) is writing the screenplay.
As Jackson fans eagerly wait for the film’s completion, one question is whether or not it will explore the sensitive topic of sexual abuse allegations. Leaving Neverland, a 2019 documentary co-produced by Channel 4 and HBO, centred around two men who had alleged that they were victims of Jackson’s sexual abuse. Michael Jackson: Chase The Truth, another 2019 documentary, defended the megastar against these allegations. Neverland Firsthand: Investigating the Michael Jackson Documentary, also released in 2019, spoke to individuals who, it claimed, had been deliberately left out of the HBO documentary.
Considering it is backed by the Jackson estate, how will the biopic deal with the subject? If it views the megastar compassionately, which is likely, it will be criticised by those who believe that Jackson was like the title of one of his songs, a ‘Smooth Criminal’, until a teenager named Jordan Chandler and his father Evan became the first ones to accuse him of sexual abuse in 1993. If a sequence or two suggests that he was at fault, his fans will start a ‘Boycott Biopic’ campaign on social media and tear the film to shreds. For the maker, this is a Catch-22 situation.
Sexual abuse allegations became the highlight of the latter part of his career. A biopic must, however, cover the Jackson story from the beginning, starting with those days when he debuted in 1964 as a backup performer in the Jackson Brothers, a band consisting of him and his brothers. Jackson was five years old at that time. Getting the perfect kid for that role will be a triumph of casting.
Jackson wasn’t even a teenager when he sang major hits, among them the bubblegum pop track ‘ABC’ (1970). Other members of the band, which had been renamed The Jackson 5, provided musical support to the main draw. The youngster’s face radiated pure innocence. He had a gentle smile – and a missing tooth. He seemed oblivious of his talent while his childish voice soared and charmed his listeners. Finding the right kid for this role won’t be easy either.
His fans would like to know more about his relationships, among them his relationship with his disciplinarian father Joe, a former crane operator. The depiction of his relationship with Jermaine, one of his older brothers, might result in a few revelations. This writer must mention that he found two of Jermaine’s solo efforts, Dynamite and Let Me Tickle Your Fancy, particularly likeable. Michael, however, was too good for his reasonably gifted but inconsistent elder brother.
Janet, his sister, became a superstar. Blessed with a fine voice and an equally good performer, she, despite her popularity, failed to emulate her brother’s success. Her relationship with Michael can be an interesting subplot.
Michael was fond of Diana Ross, and her singing style and technique had inspired him. The film must feature Ross, an important presence in his life, who was once asked if Michael had undergone surgery to look like her. Lisa Marie Presley, the daughter of Elvis and Michael’s first wife, cannot be left out simply because of her famous dad. Michael had dated Madonna for some time before their affair fizzled out. What happened?
On the musical front, Michael’s solo career produced tracks like ‘Got to Be There’ and ‘Ben’ (both 1972) when he was barely a teenager. In India, Michael became popular after Off The Wall, his 1979 release with classics like ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ and ‘Rock With You’, hit the market. 1982 saw the arrival of Thriller, the biggest selling album of all time that won eight Grammy awards. Thriller, a pop masterpiece, had pulsating uptempo tracks like ‘Beat It’ and ‘Billie Jean,’ while the title track’s video was nothing short of outstanding.
Michael’s music had everything: soul, funk, rhythm and blues, rock and a lot more. Bad (1987), Dangerous (1991) and HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I (1995) consolidated his stature as the undisputed King of Pop. None of them could match the sales figures of Thriller, which sold 50 million copies, or 20 million more than AC/DC’s Back in Black, the second biggest-selling album of all time.
However, these three albums also registered fantastic sales figures as the musical megastar explored themes such as love, poverty, racism, environmental awareness and suicide. Invincible (2001), his last studio album, featured his least impressive work. By that time, Michael, the creator, had lost his touch.
Much happened in his controversy-riddled life before Michael announced his final series of concerts, This Is It, for a residency scheduled to take place in The O2 Arena in London. He died on 25 June, 2009, 18 days before the first show. The reason for his death was a drug overdose, his physician Conrad Murray having prescribed medication that would help him sleep. The musician, who had started performing in his family band when he was five years old, was 50 at the time of his death.
How will a biopic on Michael, the enigmatic subject of a million different stories, convince the viewer that nothing of consequence is missing? If the project doesn’t get stuck in development hell, we will have the answer soon.
The author is a freelance writer and author. Views expressed are personal.