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Michael Jackson’s Halloween: Scary Enough?

“Are You Scared Yet?”

On July 11, after much fanfare and teasing, a new project from the Michael Jackson estate was officially announced.

 

by Denise Petski

Michael Jackson’s Halloween, a new, hourlong animated special, featuring the King of Pop’s music as its soundtrack, will premiere this fall on CBS.

Created and produced by Optimum Productions, the Michael Jackson company now owned by his estate, the special will feature the voices of actors Christine Baranski, Kiersey Clemons, Alan Cumming, George Eads, Brad Garrett, Lucy Liu, Jim Parsons and Lucas Till.

The special follows millennials Vincent (Till) and Victoria (Clemons), who meet “accidentally” on Halloween night and find themselves, along with Ichabod the dog, at a mysterious hotel located at 777 Jackson Street called This Place Hotel. Once inside, Vincent and Victoria are sent on an unexpected, magical adventure of personal discovery, culminating in a spectacular dance finale featuring an animated Michael Jackson.

John Branca and John McClain, co-executors of the Estate of Michael Jackson, serve as executive producers. Daniel Chuba is the producer and Mark A.Z. Dippé is the director.

Many, including myself, presumed we were finally building up for the official announcement of the long promised Thriller 3D film project. Alas, although that was not to be for this go-round, we still have a project that is centered around a Halloween theme. (Update: Thriller 3D has been scheduled to premiere at the Vienna Film Festival August 30-September 9).  However, the announcement had no sooner been made than a barrage of negative reactions swiftly engulfed social media. That’s really no surprise. These days, the announcement of any major MJ-related project is usually a polarizing affair, but this project, in particular, seems to have elicited a lot of strongly negative reactions-somewhat inexplicable, I think, given the overall benign nature of this project. Sure, it’s not Thriller 3D or Dangerous25 (a project that many were hoping to see come to light) but what could possibly be so wrong with an hour long animated special on a major network, featuring Michael Jackson’s best known dark themed works?

Well, the answer to that question is quite complex, and to fully understand it, one must take into account how deeply divided the fan base has become over the estate executors and how deeply that issue of trust vs. mistrust has become, especially when it comes to A: Projects that profit off of his legacy, and B: How that legacy is being handled.  As I have emphasized many times, I have always been and remain neutral when it comes to the politics surrounding the fandom and estate. Overall, I believe the estate has made some smart moves when it comes to preserving Michael Jackson’s legacy (This Is It,  the Cirque du Soleil Immortal show and One) but also some major missteps. The controversy over the Michael album has forever tainted any posthumous music releases, and the insistence on “contemporizing” Michael’s music (rather than simply allowing the tracks to stand on their own merit) has not helped matters. True, they did manage to wrangle a Top Ten hit with the updated “Love Never Felt So Good” but, for the most part, there have been far more misses than hits with the estate’s attempts to ignite interest in a posthumous musical career for Michael Jackson. In a recent article, in fact, it was stated that there were no future plans to release anymore music from the vaults. That is a downright shame, as they are still sitting on a ton of unreleased gems that many fans want to hear. There is certainly still a market for unreleased MJ tracks; it’s just that fans want these tracks, for the most part, in their raw but pristine state, not over produced by a Timbaland or L.A. Reid to try to mimic everything else on the radio these days.

I think it may be safe to assume, then, that the estate has not had a very good track record for its management of Michael Jackson’s posthumous musical output. I’ve said many times, if they had simply combined the best of the unreleased tracks on Michael (minus the controversial Cascio tracks) and the best of the demos that made it onto Xscape, they could have had a great posthumous MJ album. The tragedy is that, between the insistence on including debatable tracks (which weren’t exactly great tracks to begin with) and the insistence that every MJ track must somehow be “updated” to compete in today’s market, the estate has pretty much blown any confidence that fans may have once had in their ability to successfully market a musical career for Michael Jackson beyond the grave. And here we can certainly add that this shaky confidence has not been helped by the loss of the Sony/ATV catalog, nor the little matter of that 750 million dollar debt with Uncle Sam (which I will still be addressing in due time).

However, when it comes to the musical legacy that Michael created in his lifetime-those seven adult solo albums and the many classic tracks they yielded-the outlook has been much brighter. Clearly, public demand for those songs isn’t apt to disappear any time soon, and it is in the continued public demand for those songs-as well as the continued popularity of Michael’s brand and image-that largely keeps the estate’s bread buttered. The estate’s marketing of Michael Jackson’s known works has been for the most part successful, though still occasionally marred by some questionable choices (for example, licensing the use of “Bad” for Angry Birds, a move that many felt reduced the track’s powerful political message to a silly rumble between cartoon birds). Indeed, these are the kinds of arguments and debates that continue to drive the polarization of the fandom over most estate decisions. Inevitably, some are going to argue that these decisions cheapen the message of his songs and will ultimately water down the impact of his legacy, while others argue-just as vehemently-that this is exactly the kind of exposure that will keep his music, image, and memory alive for future generations.  Both arguments have their validity, and this brings me to today’s topic. Michael Jackson himself was an artist who constantly balanced the often polarizing extremes of artistic purity on the one hand, and commercialism on the other (Michael did love sales, and anyone who would wish to argue that sales did not matter to him is sadly deluded). This fact is partly what makes the posthumous marketing of Michael Jackson product a particularly challenging affair. The balance between “what Michael would have wanted,” “how Michael would have done it” and what is going to keep fans and consumers happy is a constant challenge. Even this aspect raises another interesting question: With the wealth of material and projects left behind by Michael Jackson that were completed-but have yet to receive their due-do we really need new projects that have nothing to do with him other than the lending of his name?  Here in particular (especially since we are talking a Halloween special) I am referring to the short film Ghosts,  a film whose re-release fans, including myself, have spent years clamoring for. As far as the general public is concerned, many are still unaware of this 1997 closet classic, which given the right promotional push and a little updated HD magic, could certainly still captivate a modern audience. Personally, I would love, love love to see Ghosts re-released as a major broadcast special.

However, I do think that in all fairness, we have to consider the uphill battle that the estate is against. There are some factions simply waiting to tear down and rip to shreds anything the estate does, regardless of rhyme or reason. As soon as the announcement hit, many of the reactions across social media were viscerally over the top. Granted, I think much of the negative reaction has stemmed from a long series of gradually building disappointments over estate projects, but I’m just not sure that there is anything in the idea of a Halloween cartoon special to warrant so many hostile reactions, even if, granted, the announcement of the project may not have warranted such a major buildup. This post is not intended as an outright defense of the project-which, granted, could still turn out to be a disaster-but I would like to directly address some of the criticisms that the project has raised, and why I don’t necessarily agree with all of them. For starters, a point to consider is that this is going to be a major network broadcast, which in itself speaks volumes about the renewed faith in the Michael Jackson brand. Obviously, its target audience is going to be kids, and the plan seems to be that this might develop into one of those perennial seasonal projects that returns year after year. That will depend, of course, on ratings and the overall quality of the program, all things that have yet to be proven, but the fact that CBS is willing to take its chances and broadcast a Michael Jackson themed special geared towards children speaks volumes about how far the healing process has come in the re-branding of Michael Jackson.

A recent Inquisitir article by journalist Jonathan Brown summed it up perfectly:

WHY I’M ‘THRILLED’ THAT A MICHAEL JACKSON ANIMATED SPECIAL IS HAPPENING THIS YEAR [OPINION]

Michael Jackson was pretty special to a lot of people.

Special enough, in fact, that a little more than eight years after the sudden, saddening loss of the Grammy-winning music genius, a Halloween-themed animated special centered on the beats, pops, and vocal effects that the 50-year-old left to the planet in the wake of his death, will air later this year, just in time for the annual boo-fest.

And for the record, I couldn’t be prouder, happier, and just about moved to tears to learn of this news. And also, no, I am not ashamed to own or publicize my tears. In fact, the world probably could do better with owning their feelings, kind of like Michael tried to teach all of us through his music.

But, I digress.

The reason why the news of CBS’ plan to air the one-hour long cartoon special, Michael Jackson’s Halloween, themed around the only album that could go with it, Jackson’s seminal Thriller; an album that still charts at least once a year on the Billboard Top 200 (along with a mix of MJ compilations that always include some, if not all, of the seven singles released from the nine-song long 1982 recording), is wonderful to yours truly is for one reason and one reason only.

It means that despite everything that most of us have heard about him, the thing that made Michael Jackson special; his gift of music, has finally found a way to outwit, outrun, and outlast the gossip.

And you know of the gossip, I’m sure. The many whispers. The ones that, just this week, began to hit the headlines again for the umpteenth time since the special Michael Jackson departed this Earth. Whether you believe those rumors or not is up to you, but what I believe at this moment is that for the first time since they’ve been uttered, they’re not the only focus of Michael Jackson being in the headlines.

michael jackson special
A new animated special themed around Michael Jackson’s legendary ‘Thriller’ album will air on CBS this fall. [Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

Right now, it’s also about his music. Right now, there’s also talk about whether the album is too dated for present times for a television show in 2017, or whether anyone wants to actually see a Michael Jackson Halloweenanimated special in 2017, some fans included — and no, there’s not actually wrong with having a third, for the record (following the short films for Thriller and Ghosts, of course).

But with that said, with the storm finally starting to lift on the life of someone who was far too special than anyone ever could’ve imagined, perhaps now, we can finally begin to get back to Michael Jackson’s ultimate dream of making the world a better place through his forever-amazing music.

michael jackson special
[Image by Getty Images]

Perhaps now, the young kids who this Michael Jackson animated special in geared toward, won’t grow up only knowing of him as the “joke” their parents made him out to be.

Perhaps they can be the ones to carry his music and magic over to the next generation without the shame and/or judgment that came along for us with standing by the belief that the King of Pop, Michael Joseph Jackson, the blessed son of Katherine and Joe Jackson, brother of Janet, Tito, Marlon, Randy, Rebbie, Jackie, Jermaine, LaToya, and the late Brandon, father of “Prince” Michael Jr., Paris-Katherine and Prince Michael Jackson II, whom he affectionately relayed to as Blanket for the “blanket” of love that he felt for his children, was actually a good guy.

Maybe now, in 2017, we can start reminding the world just how loving, wonderful, magical, powerful, inspirational, and special Michael Jackson truly was.

And it can all begin, ironically and finally, with a Michael Jackson animated special in 2017.

[Featured Image by Junko Kimura/Getty Images]

To add my own after thoughts to this, being “moved to tears” over this project may be a bit hyperbolic but Brown does bring up an interesting point that cannot be emphasized enough. The news of this special hit the same week that the Jimmy Safechuck case was officially dismissed, resulting in yet another round of media attacks by a desperate Vince Finaldi in order to salvage whatever chance the Robson case may have.  In the wake of Finaldi’s revenge, the fact that CBS would be broadcasting a Michael Jackson Halloween special was still considered by mainstream media as the bigger story. This is a positive no matter how you slice it, but I would still like to move beyond this (to some extent it is a given that Michael’s art will always trump the tabloid trash) to, rather, addressing some of the direct concerns about the artistic merits–or lack thereof–of this project.

By far one of the biggest criticisms the project has raised is the fact that it is a cartoon. Many of the harshest criticisms I saw could basically be summarized as the estate reducing Michael Jackson’s legacy to an animated cartoon, and how insulting this is for a serious artist. Considering Michael’s own love for animation (heck, we are talking the guy whose dream was to purchase Marvel comics!) I find these kinds of criticisms particularly baffling. Certainly Michael had always loved incorporating these kinds of fantastical, often animated, elements into his work. We know he was a huge fan of Walt Disney, that he loved comics, that he loved the idea of casting himself as these kind of comic, “Superhero” characters. In fact, a very good discussion on a recent MJ Cast episode addressed this very issue, as various points were raised both pro and con regarding the upcoming special and the entire Thriller 35 promotional campaign (of which, supposedly, this project is just one of several planned–we hope, anyway). We also know that a plan for a television Halloween special, to be broadcast on CBS,  was already being proposed as part of Michael’s planned “comeback” following the This Is It residency. However, this would have shaped up (according to Michael’s plan, at least) as something very different from the current project (though that isn’t to say that the current project bears at least some similarity in spirit). The plan that Michael drafted with Randy Phillips would have been a reworking of his “Thriller”/”Ghosts”/”Threatened” segment from the This Is It shows. Michael very much wanted to reintroduce the world to Ghosts, and the plan had been to include footage from the classic 1997 film.

The Halloween Special Jackson Was Planning For CBS Would Have Recreated Elements From His This Is It “Thriller/Ghosts/Threatened” Sequence

So the argument that this was something Michael had already planned before his death does have validity, but then becomes one of those pesky “yes, but…” kind of questions that will drive you bonkers if you find yourself drawn into a debate over it. Yes, a Halloween special was in the cards and on the drawing room table, but the actual product that Michael envisioned making would have been very different from the project that it now looks as though will actually materialize.

But in all fairness, we still have to come down to the obvious. Michael Jackson didn’t live to do his planned spectacular “Thriller”/”Ghosts”/”Threatened” segment on tour, let alone to oversee the production of this proposed Halloween special, which I’m sure would have been something quite wondrous to behold. And it goes without saying that he is not here to actually host the program as he had intended. So what to do? Well, either the idea could die with him and wither away in the vault, or the estate could try to find a way to at least partially realize this vision. Again, some will call it exploitation and others will see it as keeping his brand alive, and these days there isn’t much room for middle ground in these debates. The real challenge-and ultimate test-will be in how well the project is actually pulled off.

To that end, I have no crystal ball and certainly can’t predict how this project will play out. As it gets closer to the broadcast date, I’m sure we may start to see some trailers and other teasers that may give us a better idea of what to expect. But in the meantime, here are some points of concern that have been raised and some possible points of refutation to consider (as Michael would say, all for love, of course).

Point #1: The estate is treating Michael like a joke by reducing him to a “cartoon”:

I saw a deluge of social media outrage over the idea of portraying Michael as a cartoon. I think for many, the idea conjures up recent associations such as the hologram fiasco. However, I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with giving us either an animated Michael Jackson special, or for that matter, an animated Michael. We already know that Michael was a huge fan of animation. What’s more, a lot of younger fans (particularly those only born in the 80’s and 90’s) seem to have forgotten that many of us who grew up with The Jackson 5 also grew up with seeing Michael as a weekly, Saturday morning cartoon. The Jackson 5 cartoon was a huge favorite of fans in the early 70’s.

True, we might argue that Michael himself didn’t exactly  have much say or control over his career and image at that time (he was only a kid) but in one of his taped conversations with Rabbi Schmuley Boteach (which made it into Boteach’s 2009 The Michael Jackson Tapes) the adult Michael gave us some interesting insight on how he felt about being a Saturday morning cartoon figure:

It is very interesting here that Michael states being a part of that cartoon series was something he felt “more special about” than all of the “hit records and concerts.” He stressed the importance of the connection to children around the world, who were still watching The Jackson 5 cartoon a generation later (and no doubt are still watching it today).  Michael’s own words certainly leave little doubt how he felt about being a “cartoon figure.” He certainly didn’t view it as something demeaning or as something that belittled his image, but said, in fact, he thought it was one of the coolest experiences of his life.

Point #2: They would not do this to someone considered a “serious” musician or artist. This is proof of the estate’s ongoing refusal to take Michael Jackson seriously:

But really? I could point to at least half a dozen examples that outright refute this argument.  The most obvious, of course, would be The Beatles, who not only got the cartoon treatment in their 1968 classic Yellow Submarine but also, like The Jackson 5, as a Saturday morning cartoon. (The Osmonds, likewise, had a stint as a Saturday morning cartoon, though I suppose there could be room for debate as to whether The Osmonds count as “serious” musicians!).

But certainly being made into cartoon figures didn’t reduce the artistic status of John Lennon or Paul McCartney, so again, there is no reason to jump to the knee jerk assumption that such a project is somehow cheapening his legacy. (However, with that being said, we can still argue, Yes, but…The Beatles did maintain some degree of creative control over projects like Yellow Submarine and therein lies all the difference in the world. To that, I would say it is definitely a valid point, but The Beatles’ actual input into the finished project was actually quite minimal, as they considered the vehicle more as a convenient and quick way to wrap up their three picture commitment to United Artists).

Point #3 This project doesn’t even feature Michael Jackson until the very end. His image is nowhere to be seen in the promo. Is the estate trying to “erase” Michael Jackson from his own brand?

Where IS Michael Here? That’s The Question Some Are Asking.

Again, this was an interesting question raised on the MJ Cast webisode I linked to earlier. We are being promised that an “animated Michael Jackson” will make his appearance at the end of the special, but it seems that until then, we will simply be making do with Vincent, Victoria and “Ichabod the dog” having various spooky adventures in a haunted house (albeit, presumably, to a Michael Jackson soundtrack) for nearly an hour. This could go either way, I suppose. On the one hand, it could be a very satisfying and climactic buildup to the big moment when “MJ” actually makes his grand appearance. OR it could have the opposite effect of simply reducing his grande finale performance to a footnote at the end. Again, much is going to depend on how well the project is ultimately put together, and will the big payoff at the end be worth it? If it becomes just an hour of two animated teens having silly, lame adventures and the finale falls flat, the project will be sunk. So obviously a lot is riding on how well that finale comes off.

The premise can work IF (But Only IF) the grande finale pays off.

On the other hand, it does appear that Michael’s “presence” as such will certainly be a factor throughout the program, not only the music, of course, but in all of the various allusions to his song titles and films. It seems that at least part of the idea is that these two “millenials” will not immediately make the connections, but of course they will be very obvious winks and nods to those of us old enough to remember.

As to whether the promotional ad is a deliberate attempt to erase Michael’s image from the project, or simply to preserve the element of surprise at the end, I can’t say. I would certainly hope that it is the latter. A mystery still remaining, however, is which “era” Michael we will get when he finally does appear at the end. Is it going to be “Thriller” era Michael? Or the “Ghost” era Maestro? Or something else altogether? The one argument I would buy is that it seems the estate has continued to push “Thriller” era Michael as its brand of choice, while ignoring or downplaying much of his later, more controversial work. And it may explain in part why Dangerous 25 has been all but trumped by Thriller 35. Clearly, we know there is a very large percentage of Michael Jackson fans who remain nostalgic for 80’s era Michael, pre-vitiligo, pre-political, and pre-controversial. Is the estate catering to that faction? It would not surprise me, although we also have to remember that Bad25 was largely a commercial flop because it did not receive sufficient fan support (again, we had about roughly half the fan base actively boycotting it as an estate project) so there is that argument to be considered, and again, may have a lot to do with why no Dangerous 25 project has materialized.

For now, I am willing to give Michael Jackson’s Halloween the benefit of the doubt. My initial gut reaction to the announcement was, “It seems like a cute idea, but I’m not blown away.” As I have continued to emphasize, everything is going to depend on how well the idea is actually executed. But I would say that certainly at this point, the estate cannot afford another disappointing output. The likelihood that this is going to be something brilliant is pretty slim, but at the very least, if done right, it may turn out decently enjoyable. The sad irony here, of course, is that Michael Jackson, as we all know, was the master of perfection who never settled for mediocrity.

On the positive side, I do have much higher hopes for Thriller 3D which may possibly see a theatrical release in conjunction with the TV special. In any event, Halloween 2017 is shaping up as the season of Michael. It will be interesting to see how these projects play out. Duds or classics, the proof will be in the pudding-the pumpkin pudding, that is.

Neverland’s Sacred Spot: Recent Tour Provides An Interesting Glimpse Into How Neverland Is Being Marketed

Recently, a new video surfaced on Youtube that features a rare, inside look at what a person visiting Neverland Ranch (i.e, prospective buyers) might expect to see in 2017. The video was filmed by Coldwell Banker realtor Brad Pearson. As fans are all too aware, we got the devastating news in 2014 that Colony Capital had decided to put Neverland Ranch (re-renamed Sycamore Valley Ranch) on the market.  Compounded with the sale of the Sony/ATV catalog, the action stands as a sad reminder that much of the empire that Michael built has been slowly siphoned off. But despite the fact that Neverland has sat dormant for over a decade, ever since Michael himself abandoned the property in 2005, it is encouraging to see that the magical imprint he left there is still very much intact.

While there have been many fan videos posted from the gates of Neverland, we have had precious few glimpses-that is, recent glimpses-of what has transpired with the property since going on the market in 2014. These days, only prospective buyers and realtors are offered access to the house and grounds. It is not open for public or private tours. But for prospective buyers who just happen to be fans, it is an added bonus. At any rate, the video does offer an interesting glimpse into the manner in which Neverland is being marketed to potential buyers, and it is an encouraging sign.

The worst fear of most fans is the idea of some millionaire buyer scrubbing the property of all reminders of Michael Jackson’s residency, and turning Michael’s magical creation into just another sterile, faceless California ranch. Indeed, that could well still happen (I had shudders reading here about the proposal of Golf Digest to turn it into a golf course). But it does seem obvious that Coldwell Banker, the company currently listing the Neverland property, has made no concentrated effort to scrub the property clean of Michael Jackson’s memory, and in fact, seems to be using it as a selling point.

Neverland currently is being touted to prospective buyers pretty much exactly as Michael left it. From the first few seconds of the video to the final frame, every square inch of the property is instantly familiar, evoking the same magical feeling as it always has. True, as the articles are always quick to point out, the rides and animals are long gone, but there was always so much more to Neverland than just its mini amusement park and zoo. The main house has not been refurbished or remodeled in any way. Although the echoes of the hardwood floors are a stark reminder of the home’s emptiness, its exterior and interior are still instantly recognizable from countless photographs and TV interviews. It still reflects the tastes of the man who called it home for nearly seventeen years.

A tour of the property reveals that not much has changed since 2008. The petting zoo looks to be in very good repair, as is the train station and other amenities added by Michael during his time spent at the ranch. Visitors can still experience the tranquility of The Giving Tree; they can still observe the same diving board where Macaulay Culkin  pushed Michael into the pool in “Private Home Movies.”

But easily the most emotional-and perhaps biggest selling point of the home-is a small, square spot in the center of the studio dance floor, eternally lit by a single spotlight. It marks the scuff spots left by endless hours of diligent practice. On the wall, a video of Michael practicing to “Stranger in Moscow” in that very spot is kept on a loop. This is a spot that all potential buyers are brought to, as a reminder of what they would be purchasing; a reminder that the house does carry with it a legacy, and that the inheritance of that legacy will come along with its purchase. Of course, once the property is sold, all remnants of that legacy may remain or may be eradicated completely, depending on the whims of the new owners, but at the very least, I think it is an encouraging sign that Michael’s ownership and presence is being built up as a selling point for the property, rather than downplayed or dismissed. I think it increases the likelihood that the property could end up being purchased by a fan who respects the property as Michael Jackson’s former home. I can’t expect that a new owner would not wish to put their own stamp on the place, but I would be happy so long as I knew that Michael’s original vision for the property was still respected and maintained in some way, however great or small. That would indeed be the “best case” scenario (rumors of Prince, Paris and Blanket perhaps purchasing the property notwithstanding).

Of course, it stands to reason that it could well be more than just sentimentality that is prompting Coldwell Banker to retain as much of Michael Jackson’s presence as possible. There is also a very practical reason, as well. The additional amenities that Michael added to the property-including the  50 seat movie theater, dance studio, train station, stables, and guest cottages-have added substantially to the property’s total value.  This is confirmed by the description given on Joyce Rey’s website, the Coldwell Banker realtor who is currently handling the property. The following paragraphs all allude directly to amenities only added to the property after Michael Jackson became owner:

Adjacent to the main home is a separate staff annex above the five-bay garage, with a ground-level estate manager’s office, which has a gas fireplace and bathroom. The property also includes separate staff facilities, a movie theater and dance studio, barns, and corrals.

The primary guest house, about 150 feet from the main house, consists of four units, each with a separate entrance, HVAC, and full bath. The hill house, with sweeping views, was used by William Bone during the construction and could now be used as guest or staff quarters.

In a separate building of approximately 5,500 square feet, there is a movie theater and dance studio. The spacious, 50-seat inclined cinema has theatre-grade projection and sound system, private viewing balcony, and a stage with trap doors.

A Disney-style train station has a kitchenette, loft, and two fireplaces. There is also an approximately 1,900 square foot private fire station and administration building with three restrooms and a shower.-Joyce Rey

Click here for full article.

I also find it interesting that the tag “formerly known as Neverland Ranch” is being used prominently in the property’s promotion. What this says is that they are still very much aware that the property’s former history remains its greatest selling asset.

As encouraging as these signs are, however, it still remains the greatest hope of most fans that the property could be converted into a Michael Jackson museum. I highly encourage everyone to read this excellent new piece from Annemarie Latour, “7 Reasons Why Michael Jackson’s Neverland Should Be A Museum.”   This is not just another fan fantasy piece or sentimental fluff; it is a very enlightening piece that delves into the very realistic pros and cons of such a venture. But it is also a very poignant reminder of why such a place is so sorely needed. The absence of any true mecca is a void that Michael Jackson fans have felt keenly for the past eight years. True, we still have Hayvenhurst and we still have Michael’s childhood home in Gary, Indiana, and both have their respective place in Michael’s history. But neither of these homes were ever exclusively his (rather, they were the domain of the entire Jackson clan) and they do not represent the vision that was exclusively his. Only Neverland can provide that experience.

Latour’s article makes a good point (actually, several but this one stood out to me): After three years on the market, the property still remains unsold. That doesn’t mean it won’t sell eventually, of course. But it does say there must be something that is holding potential buyers back. Aside from the obvious fact that most people don’t just have 67 million dollars lying around to burn on real estate, perhaps there is a deeper reason. Stepping onto the grounds of Neverland now, even after twelve years, still feels like trespassing. Any potential owner has to know that, regardless of any changes or renovations made, they will be living with the ghost of Michael Jackson (and what’s more, all superstition aside, will inherit the legacy of the property as a fan gathering spot, something that won’t be easy to eradicate). I can almost imagine the ghost of Michael, mischievously interfering with every potential deal that “almost” goes through. Clearly, no matter who eventually buys Sycamore Valley Ranch, they will have only two options: Embrace its legacy as Neverland, or have a miserable life trying in vain to eradicate that legacy.  I think by now, even its sellers have had to come to terms with the fact that what they are selling isn’t just another California ranch property. What they are selling is the home and soul of Michael Jackson, and any buyer-fan or not-will have to have some measure of peace with that idea.

The sad reality is that, ultimately, once the property is sold, its new owners can do with it whatever they want. They can tear down the train station; chop down The Giving Tree; demolish the dance studio to make room for an extra golf course, and there won’t be anything that fans can do other than to accept it and move on. However, that is only the most extreme end of the scale and it seems far more encouragingly likely that Neverland’s chances of being sold to a buyer who will at least respect its heritage is extremely good, given that its former owner and his contributions to the property’s value remains its biggest selling feature. The best case scenario is that it might be purchased by a very rich fan who will not only respect what the home meant to Michael Jackson and his original vision for the property, but would even be willing to open it up for occasional private or public tours-or, better yet, someone who would find a way to finally give us that museum! But, really, I have to say from a personal standpoint that it does not matter to me as long as whoever buys it is respectful to the property, takes care of it and cherishes it as did Michael. The ideal future owner of Neverland, as I see it, is a steward who will continue to respect the unique stamp that Michael Jackson left on this property, even as they convert it into a home that will invariably reflect their own lifestyle and values.

Most importantly, they must recognize the futility of competing against a ghost. Obviously, some things due to their sacred nature should remain untouched at Neverland. The Giving Tree should be left undisturbed, and only a complete and utter fool would wish to erase those scuff marks from the dance studio floor. But true stewardship of the property must extend beyond just Michael Jackson’s memory. We must also remember that hundreds of years before Michael Jackson called Neverland home, this was also the sacred ceremonial grounds of the Chumash Indians. This was already sanctified land centuries before Jackson purchased it. Therefore, respect for the land itself and conservation of the property’s natural resources should remain the top priority of any true steward.

It is probably the wisest approach that the realtors have chosen to embrace Michael Jackson’s seventeen year residency. After all, any attempt to downplay it would only be doomed to failure. Realtor tours of the property are conducted almost as guided tours inside a superstar’s home (indeed, that seems to be the reaction of many even if that is not the actual intent of the tours; I would imagine-unless there is a stringent vetting process- they get their fair share of the simply curious who just want to see the inside of Michael Jackson’s home). Prospective buyers know what they are getting, as well as all of the history-both famous and infamous-that comes with ownership of the property. I think it is, at the very least, an encouraging sign that if Michael Jackson’s stamp on the property is used as a selling point, it is a selling point that will likely continue to hold value for its future buyer.

Three years and counting, we are still waiting anxiously to see what this next chapter reveals.

“Searching For Neverland”: A Review

Navi Recreating Michael Jackson’s 2007 Ebony Shoot in “Searching For Neverland”

I just watched the premiere of the Lifetime biopic Searching For Neverland and am rushing this review out while the film is still fresh on my mind. First of all, I’ll just acknowledge that I know this review isn’t going to please everyone, as a goodly percentage of the fan base was already gunning for this film from the start. However, despite some reservations, I said I would give it a fair viewing before jumping the gun to condemn it. I am glad I approached it with an open mind.

Here is really the bottom line: One’s reaction to this film is inevitably going to be based on how one felt about its source material, the book Remember The Time by former bodyguards Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard. Fan reception of the book was every bit as polarizing as any MJ project that gets released. Some praised it as a positive account of Michael’s final two years, revealing his struggles to provide a normal life for his three children despite mounting financial issues and the fallout from the molestation trial. Others condemned it as a violation of the very trust that Michael had placed in them.

I gave the book a fairly positive review back in 2014. I suppose given that I was one of those more charitably predisposed to the book, it may explain why I was willing to give a bit more benefit of the doubt to this movie. Let’s just say, if you were one of those who liked Remember The Time, you’ll probably love Searching For Neverland. The movie is pretty much simply a faithful, condensed version of the book. Which also means if you were one of those who disliked the book, it will no doubt color how you view this film.  but if we put that aside and just view the film on its own merits, I found it refreshingly sweet and endearing in its portrayal of Michael as a family man struggling to keep together the most important thing to him-his life with his children. Sure, the eccentricities are there, but this was not one of those condescending portrayals intended to make him look one dimensional, naive, or mentally challenged. (Indeed, the few eccentricities will be familiar ground to anyone who routinely watches celebrity biopics; Michael does not come across as worsted for them ). For once, I think a genuine effort was made to portray Michael in all his human complexities, which is at least a big step in the right direction. The worst thing for me was Navi’s accent, which was frankly terrible, but overall, his performance was surprisingly nuanced. I think he did a good job, certainly exceeding my expectations. Despite what some reviewers have said, he is not a “dead ringer” for Michael Jackson, but his performance was believable and earnest enough to transcend those concerns (and, in fact, in some segments such as the Ebony photo shoot, he managed to perfectly capture the sizzling sex appeal of mature era Michael. Refreshingly, this was one of the few portrayals in which we actually are able to see what the fans always knew-that this was still a sizzizingly sexy and vibrant man, not the media portrayed “freak”-and, yes, we even get the scene of the “backseat date”). In another refreshing twist, this was the first film I have seen to successfully capture both the wonder and enchantment of Michael’s world view without the kind of patronizing condescension of so many projects. Despite the title, there is no pixie dust and no childishly naive pleas to everyone around him to “just believe.” What we do have is a realistic depiction of a man who once truly believed he could create magic, but has become worn down by a world that has turned its back on him. This is the story of a father who simply wants to find a home again, both for himself and his children.

The Film Balances The Fine Line Between Michael’s Sense Of Wonder And Unique World View Without Resorting To Merely Cliched’ Or Cloying Sentiment.

By far the biggest complaint, one leveled at both the book and film (and an irony not lost on most reviewers) is that the film is still, nevertheless,  an exploitation of a man whose last years were already the stuff of exploitation. Certainly there is something to be said for those arguments. However, perhaps it is my own journalistic background, but I tend to take a more tolerant and long sighted view of these things. Michael Jackson was a public figure, and even his personal life has become public property. The simple fact is that, while fans may know and cherish the knowledge of this Michael Jackson-the devoted father who strove to give his kids an ordinary life amidst the most extraordinary circumstances possible-it is still a side of him that many do not know, and haven’t bothered to know. If even a fraction of those bothered to tune in tonight, they will have met a very different man from the “Wacko Jacko” they thought they knew. And if the film at the very least accomplishes that goal, it is a worthy endeavor. I’m not going to necessarily subscribe to the school that insists every single project made about Michael Jackson is some sort of gross exploitation. Most are, but for every fifty films that are trash, there is always going to be at least one that deserves a fair chance to be seen and heard.

As I had mentioned back when I first reviewed Remember The Time, the one thing that really struck me the most was how they captured the claustrophobic sense of how small Michael’s world had become at that point, a world consisting mostly of himself, his kids, nanny Grace, and the bodyguards. There have only been two books that have successfully shed light on what those last two years were like for Michael and his kids, the other being Dr. Karen Moriarty’s Defending A King: His Life and Legacy (which also originated from Bill Whitfield and Javon Beard as sources). Not surprisingly, this is also a central narrative of the film, and even though it doesn’t dwell on any of the real controversies that created these circumstances, it successfully conveys the pathos of a wildly famous father, his life now tainted by scandal, who is struggling to keep life for his children as safe, secure, and filled with love as possible. The bottom line is that, as much as we may wish to respect Michael’s bid for privacy from a human perspective, his life-both public and private-has long since passed into the realm of public domain. We live in a celebrity dominated culture, where interest in the private lives of public figures continues to be a billion dollar industry, and where the proliferation of biographies,  biopics and “tell all” memoirs are a permanent fixture of our culture. For better or worse, future journalists, historians, bloggers, scholars and, yes, filmmakers, will be telling his story. In this case, at least some genuine and heartfelt effort was made to get it right, even if they may have failed on one or two minor fronts.

Of course, this was not so much Michael’s story as it is Bill Whitfield’s (and to a lesser extent, Javon Beard’s). Like most celebrity memoirs told from the perspective of another party (be it friend, former employee, lover, etc) we already understand that it is going to be filtered through the lenses of that individual’s perception. That is the nature of memoir, for better or worse. In Michael’s case, almost everyone who ever came into contact with him-for all of five minutes-has claimed at some point to have been his closest confidante. Whitfield and Beard are no exceptions. However, as a narrative frame device, it holds the film together well, and Chad Coleman (familiar to Walking Dead fans as Tyrese) gives a compelling performance as Whitfield, a man torn between his obligations to his own family and the surrogate family he has come to love.

There are some controversial aspects, however, although it’s not anything that anyone already familiar with the book won’t know. The worst, and I suppose the one still most difficult to grapple with, is when we see Michael obliviously piling a shopping cart with Christmas gifts for his own kids while supposedly knowing that the body guards had not been paid in months and were not even able to buy gifts for their own kids. But even here, it is not so much an attempt to portray Michael as selfish or disconnected from reality; instead, it is further evidence of just how little control Michael had by that point over his own finances, and indeed even his own life. (As in the book, Raymone Bain is quite villified). Scenes like this are not intended so much to belittle as to humanize, and I liked that the film seemed at least capable of walking that tightrope without tripping to the extremes of either condescension on the one hand, or mindless sychophantism on the other. In other words, Michael is allowed something in this film that he’s very rarely been allowed to have in any film portrayal up to this point, with the possible exception of An American Dream over twenty-five years ago: His humanity. It won’t please everyone, but it is what it is. And it did not detract in the least from the endearing sympathy already built for the character (if we keep in mind this is as much a story with a narrative as a depiction of a real life). If I had not already been in love with Michael Jackson before I watched this film, I certainly would have been afterward, and I think that is the power it has (and again, a huge credit for this must go to Navi’s affecting performance; terrible accent or not, he did manage to capture Michael’s essence without resorting to cloy sentimentality or childish caricature). I also appreciated that the film actually had a sense of humor. It enabled viewers to see a side of Michael rarely glimpsed in these types of films, as someone who could be a bit self deprecating and loved practical jokes. The humor here is endearing, as it was in real life; not in a way that simply makes him look foolish or immature.

This is still a long way from being the perfect MJ biopic (I’m not even convinced such a thing is ever going to be possible) but, as with An American Dream, it is a satisfying recount of one particular chapter in his life, and for bringing that story full circle, a fairly decent companion piece to that film. (This may not be surprising, considering Suzanne de Passe was the force behind both). Understandably, it still leaves gaping holes in the story, even with its two and a half hours’ running time. As some reviews have already pointed out, Conrad Murray becomes little more than a side player, and the insinuation (just as with so many projects both better and worse than this one) is that Michael’s death was more about the bigger picture: The intense pressures of facing the This Is It shows, in which succumbing to Murray’s “treatments” merely becomes symptomatic of a much bigger problem: An inability to cope with the pressure squeezing him from all sides. As usual, this will most likely leave viewers to merely surmise, again, that Michael was indeed a victim, but perhaps more than anything, a victim of his own inability to cope. This isn’t so much a critique of the film as of the source material (even in the book, Whitfield and Beard were irritatingly soft on Murray). However, as far as these things go, it isn’t a fatal flaw of the film. Most viewers are intelligent enough to know that any movie can only cover so much ground, and that frankly, it isn’t really this film’s purpose to faithfully recount the events of those final two months of Michael’s life, in which Whitfield and Beard were no longer actively involved. Indeed, their story with Michael ends when Michael leaves for Los Angeles to begin rehearsals for This Is It.  At any rate, that is another story perhaps beyond the present film’s scope. The events that transpired beyond those cloistered two years of Michael’s life spent in Vegas are certainly well documented enough for anyone who really wants to research further, and this is not a documentary.

For those who chose to condemn this movie out of hand, simply on principle, that is their right but in my honest opinion I think this was as good as a film of this caliber could be, given its limitations (low budget, no access to Michael’s music) and the generally low expectations most fans have come to expect from any movie made about Jackson’s life. Those trepidations don’t come lightly; they have been earned as per my previous post. I didn’t go into this one with high expectations, but within the first ten minutes, I had completely forgotten that I was supposed to be watching with a reviewer’s judgmental eye, and was simply caught up in a compelling story of an eccentric but beautiful dad struggling to keep together his beautiful family. Of course, it was a bit cheesy in places; this was a Lifetime biopic, after all, not an Oscar contender. But as these films go, it’s definitely a cut above some of the other recent Lifetime biopics, and as far as movies about Michael Jackson, it’s definitely a step beyond the usual drivel that we’ve been subjected to.

All in all, not perfect but certainly a very sweet and affecting film. Also, the follow up documentary that Lifetime is broadcasting, Michael Jackson: The Ultimate Icon, is excellent. I highly urge everyone to check it out. (For those still convinced they won’t be able to stomach the movie, at the very least fast forward to The Ultimate Icon-it’s well worth it!).

I can honestly say, however, that Searching For Neverland has at least redeemed my hope that a decent MJ biopic can still be made. All it takes is a little heart and respect for who the man was. Unfortunately, it will still be found lacking in some regards. Viewers still will not come away with any enlightened view of Jackson’s philanthropy or work as a humanitarian. And they won’t learn anything new about Michael Jackson, the artist (however, as mentioned, the follow-up documentary The Ultimate Icon pretty much covers that ground). What we’re left with is, quite simply, a poignant and tender tale of a father’s love. But maybe that is all it really needs to be.

Now if we can just work on Navi’s accent (lol) and if the estate would loosen the purse strings on Michael’s music, we just might finally get ourselves a halfway decent MJ biopic.

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