‘You’re going to love it,’ intones Michael Jackson to the audience of his much ballyhooed vanity project, released to UK cinemas for Christmas 1988 and promptly forgotten about by all but MJ completists. ‘Love it’ probably isn’t the right phrase, but Moonwalker is certainly something to behold, an expensive, incoherent mess that probably has more curiosity value now than then. Self-indulgence is the main ingredient here, and while I’ll leave it to others to consider the faults of Michael Jackson the man, his cinematic incarnation is a genuine crime against cinema.
Fans were baffled by Moonwalker; it’s a 90 minute film without a plot, or even any coherent narrative thread other than Jackson’s appearance, and even then, he appears to be missing in action for chunks of his own film. But if you’re attracted by such trimmings as a pony-tailed Joe Pesci beating children and trying to inject them with syringes of mind-numbing drugs, a video-tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, trippy, giant Clay-mation rabbits, or a performance by Ladysmith Black Mambaso, then you’re in luck, because all these unasked for elements are here, present and correct.
‘Based on a story by Michael Jackson’ is the red-flag warning on the central segment of the film, Smooth Criminal, in which Michael rescues kids (including Sean Lennon) from a drug-dealer (Pesci), turns himself into a car and a spaceship in the process, and appears as a white-suited gangster in a night-club dance routine that’s actually pretty impressive as choreography. But a story, this is not, and it’s hard not to feel that Jackson was let down by those who advised him that such half-assed tv special plotting would sustain a feature.
Elsewhere, Moonwalker has a knack of giving you what you want in a way that you don’t. If you like Martin Scorsese’s Bad video, how about seeing the entire thing re-enacted by tiny children? If you like live concert footage, what about an interminable version of The Beatles’ Come Together? Or how about the animated Speed Demon segment, which features ancient comedy routines featuring Michael Jackson escaping from his horrible, grabby fans (who presumably forked out to see him disparage them here?) Again, there are minor pleasures here, notably the video for Leave Me Alone that leans into negative press about Jackson’s private life. Given the public interest in Jackson, Moonwalker is about the least interesting film that could be made about Jackson, and yet the star, seemingly blind to how his audience saw him or what they might want to see, is the worst person to make it.
Moonwalker is something of a train-wreck, a turning point at which the reputation of the world’s golden-boy starts to go off like sour milk. An absurd mix of Fellini’s showman-like self-absorption, Spielbergian sentiment and Jackson’s own brand of aggressive self-promotion, it’s a genuine travesty. In August 1992, a friend gave me tickets to see Jackson perform on his Dangerous tour, the one which ended with the star, or someone, flying over the audience’s head on a jet-pack. Of course, we couldn’t tell who it was, or when the switch was made, but the illusion was effective, and there was an element of role-playing and make believe on the part of both performer and audience. That kind of shared connection is abjectly missing here; Jackson seems to have been far more interested in individual dance moves than making a film, and the result has been air-brushed from cinematic history.