A look back at Michael Jackson’s short-lived movie career
He may have been the King of Pop, but despite several valiant attempts Michael Jackson never became a King of Hollywood. That said, the singer, who unexpectedly passed away yesterday afternoon, did revolutionize the music industry by bringing blockbuster production values to the fledgling music video scene. Jackson’s best videos played like mini-movies and he hired A-list directors–including John Landis, Martin Scorsese and John Singleton–to give them that big-screen feel. But he never stopped thinking of movie stardom and he might have achieved it had he picked his film projects with the same care he lavished on his pop hooks. But from the beginning, Jackson seemed unable to find the right movie to showcase his considerable talents. His first onscreen appearance came in Sidney Lumet’s ill-fated 1978 adaptation of The Wiz, which famously miscast the then 34-year-old Diana Ross in a leading role intended for a teenager. Jackson was tapped to play the Scarecrow and while the performer sang and danced rings around the movie’s star, he wasn’t able to make up for Lumet’s tone-deaf directing choices.
After The Wiz flopped, Jackson focused his energies on his recording career, releasing his seminal albums Off the Wall and Thriller. Looking to capitalize on the enormous success of the latter album–as well as the revolutionary Thriller music video–Jackson aligned himself with none other than George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola in 1986 to produce a special-effects heavy 3D extravaganza entitled Captain EO to play exclusively at Walt Disney’s two theme parks. Jackson stars as an intergalactic explorer on a mission to deliver a special gift to the villainous Supreme Leader (played by Anjelica Huston of all people) of an alien world with the help of his trusty fuzzy pet Fuzzball and robotic bodyguards Major Domo and Minor Domo. Undoubtedly Jackson was hoping that the 17-minute film would function as a set-up for a feature film, but apparently audiences weren’t “thrilled” with the finished product. Still, Captain EO continued to be shown at both Disney parks until the mid-’90s.
Jackson’s next big-screen fumble came in 1988 with the concept movie, Moonwalker, a quasi-biopic covering the Gloved One’s career as well as a feature-length advertisement for his most recent album, Bad. Made up primarily of music videos for songs like “Smooth Criminal” and a cover version of the Beatles classic “Come Together” (featuring a very young Sean Lennon), the film is best remembered for inspiring a bizarre video game where Jackson wanders around saving children from bad guys and occasionally turning into a robot. Briefly released in theaters in late ’88, the movie debuted on VHS the following year but has yet to turn up on DVD (at least in this country–it is available in Europe for those with region-free DVD players), no doubt due to rights issues. Don’t be surprised if any legal problems get cleared up in the next month or so to allow for a special edition disc.
The commercial and critical failure of Moonwalker (Variety summed up the majority opinion when they wrote “the whole affair does not make for a structured or professional movie”) deep-sixed Jackson’s movie career for good. Still, as late as 1999, he was talking about returning to the big screen, playing the famously screwed-up 19th century author Edgar Allan Poe in an indie film tentatively titled The Nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe. That project never got off the ground though and Jackson’s last two film appearances were small cameos in the blockbuster Men in Black II and the direct to DVD comedy Miss Cast Away and the Island Girls. In the end, it’s probably just as well that his movie star dreams were never realized. Aside from potentially robbing us of some terrific music, it’s doubtful that he would ever have found a character to play who was as complex and contradictory as himself.