Smooth Criminal

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

Moonwalker is a weird, ambitious project by Michael Jackson. Released in 1988, the video is a collection of short segments all featuring Jackson. There’s no continuous narrative; just a lot of weirdness. The singer wanted the movie to be screened in theaters, but the budget fell through and was released straight to video instead. A video game of the same name was also released as a tie-in, but that’s for another day. To celebrate Jackson’s 59th birthday I wanted to look back on this movie, which is still one of my favorites.

It used to fill up many bored afternoons when I was a kid and it’s still something I love watching today. Whenever I need a good laugh or just want to smile, I put this on and get lost in Jackson’s weird, wonderful world for a little bit. It’s full of flaws and portions of it are ridiculous as hell, but it’s charming and a lot of fun. It’s hard to imagine this doing well in theaters since there really isn’t a plot. It’s more like a collection of segments all involving Jackson. Still, it’s an interesting project that reminds us what a visionary he was.

The film starts with a powerful performance of “Man in the Mirror” making you think that it’s a concert film. Then it goes straight into the best part, the retrospective. Following Jackson from the Jackson 5 all the way up to Bad, it’s a fun, creative look back at the music and career defining moments. This part has always been my favorite for the popping effects, different animation styles, and the great energy. Highlights include a Claymation Jackson 5 singing “ABC,” a stop-motion robot joining Jackson on “Dancing Machine,” a mini “Human Nature” video, and a creepy ode to “Ben.” Throughout, we also see related memorabilia, award ceremonies, and magazine covers showing what a big deal the singer was at his peak.

Once we reach the Bad era, we see condensed versions of “The Way You Make Me Feel” and “Dirty Diana” before getting to ”Badder.” The strange segment features a bunch of kids recreating the “Bad” video with scary accuracy. This has always been another one of my favorite parts. I still love separating the good kids from those who just don’t have it (looking at you midriff kid). Did we need kids to recreate this video? No, but it’s charming and cute. Try not cracking up at the ten-year old with a five o’clock shadow.

Once mini-Jackson is done with his dance off, adult Jackson returns and proceeds to be chased down by weird, unsettling big headed people. Again, a very weird part of the film, but it’s a blast to watch. Even Jackson looks like he’s having a good time with a big smile rarely leaving his face. While on the run, he runs into a talking Statue of Liberty, chubby twin bikers who he’s clearly disgusted by, Stephen Spielberg losing his shorts, and a bunch of screaming fans. It’s a creative romp taking the piss out of Hollywood and obsessive fandom.

So how does Jackson make it out of this situation? With the help of his friend, Spike. He suits up as a Jackson-esque bunny and leads into the “Speed Demon” video. This is where the Claymation shines. Spike turns into different celebrities of the era, like Pee Wee, Tina Turner, and Sylvester Stallone. And there are clever jokes throughout the segment, like a stop at “Frank in a Box” named after his manager Frank DiLeo and even Jack Nicholson in the car chasing him. The video ends with a memorable dance off between Spike and Jackson. Yes, the whole thing is weird, but it’s imaginative. You get so sucked into the world you don’t even question how a bunny costume came to life. It perfectly shows off the child-like wonder Jackson often flaunted throughout his life.

After an interlude featuring the stop-motion “Leave Me Alone” video, we get to the extended “Smooth Criminal” segment. Sigh. Even as a kid I never really liked this part. Though the segment does look pretty slick, it’s confusing, poorly acted, and makes no sense. It follows Jackson and a group of homeless kids as they go up against Mr. Big (Joe Pesci) because Jackson found his drug den…or something. It’s not really clear why Mr. Big is trying to kill him. Also, it’s never clear what kind of world we’re in. Why are the kids homeless? Where are all the other adults? Why exactly does Mr. Big want to get kids high? And we can’t ignore that Jackson is somehow magical in this world. During the video, he turns into a car, a rocket ship, and a giant fucking robot. And the kids never find this strange. They go along with it as if it’s not weird for a man to turn into a fucking car.

They’re also never sure how to feel about Jackson. At one point he’s their friend and are concerned with finding him. When Katie finds him and points it out the other kids respond “so?” When he turns into a robot they act a little surprised but never bother to bring it up again. And when he flies over them as the rocket ship at the end, they say “Bye Michael” as if he just got on a bus. And let’s not forget how Club 30 is an abandoned, dusty place when the kids find it. But Jackson walks in and it’s a hopping bar from the 20s, which he proceeds to start trouble in. What exactly is going on here?

After defeating Mr. Big and his faceless soldiers, Jackson comes back after Katie makes a wish and whisks the kids away to a precarious backstage area with sparking plugs never explaining to the kids what the fuck just happened. Suddenly, he’s on stage performing “Come Together” in front of John Lennon’s kid. What is even happening? No bothers to pull him aside and say “Michael, what are you exactly?” The kids just take it as is and we’re supposed to say “this is fine.”

Honestly, it was hard to sit through this segment again. The entire time I wanted to skip straight to “Smooth Criminal” and turn off the rest. While I was willing to never question anything in the first segments, I couldn’t suspend my disbelief here. Perhaps if there was a flowing story to follow it wouldn’t be so bad. But there is little explanation for anything we see. The “Smooth Criminal” video itself is great, minus the weird breakdown, but the “story” around it is mind boggling. Jackson isn’t the worst actor, but he’s by no means amazing. The highlight is when he turns into the ultimate transformer. The special effects haven’t aged all that well, but there’s something about it that’s still unsettling, especially when he starts shooting crotch rockets. Otherwise, it plays out like bad drug trip starring the King of Pop.

Moonwalker is a unique, yet weird experience tailor made for Jackson fans. For casual fans or anyone who doesn’t like him, it looks like a vain, unintelligible film. It’s a long ad for the Bad album, fans will find it a fun trek through Jackson’s career and his imagination. While the first half of the movie shows off the creative flair the singer had videos, even though it all falls apart with the bigger “story.” It makes sense for Jackson to come up with something so bonkers because it sounds like something a ten-year-old would dream up. This is a movie you don’t take seriously. You’re there to enjoy the cool visuals, Jackson’s dancing, and the kick ass music. If you take it for what it is, you’ll find an anthology that’s a blast to watch especially with friends.

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Top 10 Michael Jackson Covers

This Sunday would’ve been Michael Jackson’s 57th birthday. Instead of dwelling over the fact he’s no longer with us, it’s a time to celebrate his wonderful music. No matter what you thought of him it’s clear his music has inspired artists across a span of genres from R&B to rock. Some artists have even taken it upon themselves to cover their favorite Jackson song. Of course no one does it better than Michael, but some artists have come close. There are a ton of terrible ones out there, but here are ten of the best Michael Jackson covers.

10. “The Girl is Mine” – Richard Cheese

Richard Cheese is known for making lounge style covers out of popular songs. He previously covered Jackson’s “Beat It,” but it’s his version of “The Girl is Mine” that’s unique and hilarious. The song starts out like a standard lounge tune and Cheese sounds smooth and silky. Just imagine him snapping his fingers to the beat while listening to it. After the first verse he introduces a special guest, which is supposed to be Stephen Hawking. Yeah, you read that right. Of course it’s not actually him, but hearing an automated voice singing this Jackson duet is weird, but is sure to put a smile on your face. It’s a bit silly, but you gotta admit Jackson’s tunes sound pretty good in lounge style.

9. “Billie Jean” – Nonpoint

This song has been speed up to be a punk rock anthem and tuned down to be a metal nightmare, but Nonpoint puts a different spin on it. They slow things down to make a brooding, melancholy song. Singer Ellias Soriano sounds vulnerable, broken, and hurt as he wails “but the kid is not my son.” Any ounce of happiness or fun is completely stripped away from the track. We’re left with the underlying angst and anger that was masked by the catchy beats. It’s not until you hear the song in this style that you realize how somber it can be.

8. “Dirty Diana” – Bruno Mars/Christina Aguilera

Both of these artists covered the sexy song during live performances and they’re both excellent. Mars’ version is very faithful to the original. In the clip, he plays the dirty riff while the synth soars behind him. He didn’t go too far from the source material, but he at least sounds really good while singing it. I’m sure he could release this as a single and it would sell well. The same goes for Aguilera’s version, which she sang at a Jackson tribute concert. But her impressive vocals matched with the steamy lyrics will give you chills.

7. “Speed Demon” – Xerath

It may come as a surprise to learn how many metal bands love covering Michael Jackson songs. “Beat It” seems to be the favorite track, but this British band went for one of the underrated tracks from Bad. Everything about this version kicks ass from the riff given a dirty make over to the intense vocals screaming “Speed demon!” that sounds like singer Richard Thomson is ripping his vocal cords. This track captures the dangerous and edginess Jackson tried to give off on the original. This track has the same spirit of the original, yet has its own flavor that makes it unique.

6. “P.Y.T.” – The Wood Brothers

There’s a good chance you may not have heard of this Americana blues band, but they know what makes a good cover song. As part of the A.V. Club’s project where artists choose a song to cover from a list, these guys choose this tune from Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It starts out a little wonky with the jarring vocals and silly music, but it all falls into place by the time they reach the hook. They turn the song from an R&B dance track to a smooth, folksy tune that sounds just as silky as the original. The coolest part is during the refrain where instead of singing “Pretty young things/repeat after me” they freestyle riffs instead, but that doesn’t stop a chorus of people from responding with “Na-na-na-na.”

5. “D.D.” – The Weeknd

With comparisons to the late pop star, it’s no surprise that The Weeknd covered this sultry track from Bad. It starts out pretty faithful to the original, but once it gets to the chorus hard electronic beats take over creating a lush soundscape of pulsating rhythm. This version takes the grittiness and edge out of the song, but turns it into more of an atmospheric track that ends up sounding more sad than angry. It’s a subtle tweak to the song, but it’s effective at giving it a completely different vibe.

4. “Billie Jean” – The Bates

This German punk band, known for their cover tunes oddly enough, turns the R&B filled track into a raucous punk anthem made for moshing. Their version is pretty faithful to the original except when it comes to the music. Their gritty guitars and energetic vibe punches up the song and brings it into the rock realm. The best part is the chorus where you can picture them pogo dancing while singing “Billie Jean is not my lover.” Something about it is fun, upbeat, vibrant, and just really inviting. Whether you like Michael Jackson or not this song is sure to get you in the pit. They’re cover songs are pretty spectacular. Check out their version of The Cure’s “Wailing Wall.”

3. “I’ll Be There” – Mariah Carey

This Jackson 5 track was always kind of mushy and definitely got the feels going, especially when Michael performed it in concert. Carey does a very faithful rendition of the song that doesn’t hold back on the emotions. Her soft soaring vocals that made her a household name in the 90s, work perfectly with this slow track and turns it into something beautiful. She did such an amazing job with it that it became a regular in her catalog and many believe it surpasses the original. She was even nominated for a Grammy for the song in 1993. Of course it took on new meaning when she performed it at Jackson’s memorial service in 2009. Say what you want about Mariah now, but back in the day her voice was something out of this world.

2. “Smooth Criminal” – Alien Ant Farm

These guys proved it was possible to make a kick ass MJ cover without royally fucking it up. Jackson has always incorporated rock influences into his music and this proves how well his songs work when you replace the synth with gritty guitars. It turns this classic Jackson jam into a headbanger. What’s even better is the video filled with references to the singer’s videos from Bubbles to the “Thriller” ending. How many can you spot? Alien Ant Farm may not be remembered for anything else, but at least they gave us this awesome cover that shows how universal Jackson’s music is.

1. “Thriller” – Imogen Heap

Ever think the creep-tacular filled “Thriller” would work as a soft ballad? Somehow Imogen Heap makes it work. With a stark, beautiful piano accompanying her she sounds haunting, yet beautiful as she sings Jackson’s iconic tune. She sounds breathy and airy as she whispers “Cause this is thriller/thriller night.” It really catches you by surprise with how awesome it is. Who would’ve thought the song would work well at a slower speed and without Vincent Price’s eerie laugh? This is everything a good cover is supposed to be: a hint of the original, but different enough to grab your attention.

Which Michael Jackson cover is your favorite? Is there another great one I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Five Years Gone

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Today marks five years since Michael Jackson‘s death in 2009. It’s unfortunate that since then more controversy, accusations, and law suits cropped up to get a piece of the singer. But we shouldn’t be thinking about those things today or any other thing the media has written about Jackson in the past. Today should be about the music. There is no question that fans are still heart broken over his death, but at least we have his amazing music, wonderful videos, and out of this world dancing to remember him by. Also, his influence can still be found in so many popular artists today. Whereas before many didn’t want to admit they liked Michael Jackson for fear of ridicule, now it’s hard to find any pop artist who says they aren’t influenced by him.

He was an amazing man who had his share of problems that he never got worked out, but he managed to leave us with some amazing music that’s still being sampled, covered, and cherished to this day. I’m sure everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news of his passing, but think about happy memories of him. Maybe you were fortunate enough to see him live or maybe seeing his music videos never failed to put a smile on your face. Either way get out your favorite Jackson album, watch his best videos, and celebrate this man’s life because there will never be anyone else so deserving of the title The King of Pop.

Here are some articles from this site about Michael Jackson you may enjoy:

Bad 25

Guide to Unofficial Jackson DVDs

Michael Jackson Facts

Live at Bucharest Review

Bad 25 Film

Four Years Ago…

 

Bad 25 Documentary

Bad_25_film_posterRelease Year: 2012

Rating: 9.5/10

This Spike Lee directed film premiered last year on TV and only came out on home media mid-2013. When it was first released, the response to it was overwhelming and it’s easy to see why. The film is focused and well put together. Rather than trying to talk about Michael Jackson‘s entire career, it focuses on the Bad era. Unlike other documentaries that have been released since his death, this one feels authentic since Lee speaks with several people who have worked extensively with the singer. It’s an awesome film that gives fans an inside look at the making of Bad.

With Bad being my favorite Jackson album, I was all over this film. I think it’s safe to say that this is the best documentary released since his death. Hell, it may even be one of the best ones out there. What I really like is all the footage that’s included. Some of it has been seen before, but there are so many others from around the world that have rarely been seen. What’s even better are all the behind the scenes and candid footage from the era. I can’t tell you how much I loved the making of the “Bad” and “The Way You Make me Feel” footage. I was surprised that I hadn’t seen it before since most of these films recycle interviews you can easily find on the internet. Fans get to see rehearsals for scenes from “Smooth Criminal” to “Bad.” There’s also a segment on the “Speed Demon” video where it is revealed that it was Jackson’s idea to have a California Raisin commercial based on his image. It was amazing to see how he was involved with every step of the commercial.

I also love the way the film is set up. It actually goes through the entire Bad album track by track. It begins with the title track and ends with “Man in the Mirror.” There are some songs that get longer segments than others, but at least they have something interesting to say about each track. If anything I wish they would’ve looked more at “Another Part of Me.” Much wasn’t said about the song and then it goes on to show the entire video released for the single. While it was nice to see it should’ve been left off, especially since that space could’ve been used for more interesting facts and candid footage. One of the most interesting songs the filmed looked at is “Just Good Friends.” What made this segment so memorable is that just about everyone Lee spoke with agreed it’s a throwaway track, which is how I feel about the song as well. Not only do these segments provide information about the songs themselves, they also look at things in pop culture that found its way into Jackson’s music.

While most music documentaries have interviews with people who only worked the artists maybe once or speak with people who claim to know them, this one actually gets people Jackson worked with on a regular basis. We get stories from people who worked with him in the studio, to some of the video directors, like Martin Scorsese and even the model who starred alongside Jackson in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” They had so many great stories to share about the singer it will make you fall in love with him even more. There are also some interviews with current artists who were influenced by the King of Pop, such as ?uestlove, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and Mariah Carey. By hearing these people speak about their experiences with Michael the whole film feels authentic and truthful. It doesn’t feel like bullshit or someone just trying to make money off of him. You can tell they really loved and cared for him. This feeling is brought even more to life when Lee asks them where they were when they heard about his death. Just about all of them begin crying and it makes you remember where you were when the news came out. Not only is there information about Jackson’s songs, there’s technical information regarding music and choreography as well.

Since we do hear from studio musicians, engineers, and even choreographers who worked with the singer during this time, a lot of them take the chance to explain some of the more technical aspects of the songs. They’ll break down certain effects and techniques, such as a drum shuffle. There’s even one part where we see his vocal coach and plays some of Michael’s singing exercises where we get to hear his low range. It’s really freaky to hear, but interesting nonetheless. The choreographer shared some great information as to where the King of Pop got some of his dance moves, such as the moon walk or his infamous pop lock. It really makes you appreciate what he did for music and dance and even more.

Overall, the film gets 9.5/10. It’s an amazing documentary that gives you so much information you have to watch it several times to keep up with it. Part of what makes the movie so great is every time you watch you’ll find something new to focus on. It’s great to hear from so many people who worked with Jackson and even some current artists who have been influenced him. Thanks to this and a lot of the information given the film is more genuine than most of the ones released since his death. This is one Jackson film you will never get tired of.

Happy Birthday Michael Jackson!

Today would’ve been Michael Jackson’s 55th birthday. Rather than mourn the loss of a great pop star, let’s celebrate his birthday by enjoying the legacy of music that he left behind. Forget all the bad things you heard and forget all the sadness. Just put on your favorite Jackson album and boogie down. Whether it’s “Beat It,” “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough,” or “Thriller,” there’s a MJ record out there that is bound to put you in a good mood. As a way to honor his birthday, I want to share with you some of my favorite Michael Jackson moments, which range from interviews to his mind blowing music videos.

“Smooth Criminal”

For some reason, this has always been one of my favorite Michael Jackson videos. It has so many amazing moments from the coin flip at the beginning to the infamous and mind boggling anti-gravity lean that we’ve all tried to do at least once. Everything about the video is iconic and features the King of Pop at his best. There are a few different versions of the clip floating around, but the uncut one from Moonwalker is by far the best.

1995 VMA Performance

This has got to be one of Jackson’s best performances, especially for an awards show. Not only did it feature a medley of his hits with his buddy Slash coming out to help, it had the best version of “Dangerous.” Slick dancing, dancers with blood red gloves. and Jackson  miming to his sister’s songs are just some of the reasons why this sticks out in everyone’s mind. He closed his set with a bittersweet rendition of “You Are Not Along,” which is almost too hard to watch now.

Diane Sawyer Interview

This may be an odd pick to some, but this is one of the most tense interviews I’ve ever seen with Michael Jackson. It’s this part in particular where you can see he’s tired of Sawyer’s questions. You can read the annoyance all over this face and it’s just interesting to see this reaction from the normally subdued King of Pop.

Speed Demon/Moonwalker

I love the entire movie and can recite the whole thing from memory, but it’s this part in particular that I like the most. It’s right before the video for “Speed Demon” starts where Jackson runs into terrifying stop motion clay people who all want a piece of him. The best part is when he runs down an alley and two fat guys on scooters drive up to him and ask “Will you autograph my tummy?” Just watch the look of disgust on his face; it’s priceless.

Michael Jackson Private Home Movies

This was a special on Fox years ago and if you haven’t seen it, you should really take the time to check it out. It’s full of awesome footage from video shoots and even at the Neverland Ranch where Michael hangs out with his family. There are so many funny moments it’s hard to pick just one. Here you can see Jackson being pushed into the pool by his niece and nephew, see him dance to R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix,” and even see his eyes light up on Christmas when he receives several Super Soakers for Christmas. It’s sweet and heartbreaking at the same time.

Oprah Interview

I actually remember when this first came on and how the world was on edge to find out what the King of Pop was really like. At times funny, at others either heartbreaking, such as when he’s talking about the abuse from his father, or painfully awkward like when Oprah asks him whether or not he’s a virgin, it’s still one of his most memorable interviews ever. Also, what kid who watched the special and saw the carnival at the Neverland Ranch didn’t want to go there and ride the ferris wheel? The moment that always sticks out in my mind is when Oprah asks him to do some dancing. He gets up on stage, says “I’m a little rusty” and proceeds to do a cool ass pop lock. He always made it look so easy.

“Thriller”

This is probably the greatest music video ever. It showed that videos could be more than just the artist pretending to play in front of a crowd. Awesome make up, effects, and costumes made this a groundbreaking clip and one that never gets old to watch. While I can watch the entire thing with ease now, when I was younger I used to get scared when Jackson turned away and screamed “GO AWAY!” with those yellow eyes. Speaking of “Thriller”…

Making of Thriller

This is the home video that made shows like “Making the Video” possible. We get to go behind the scenes of every aspect of the video from the make up process to rehearsals and even to filming the video itself. It shows the home audience how much work went into making the 14 minute clip and every minute of the process sucks you in. One part that sticks out in my mind is when Jackson is in were-cat mode and is trying to sound anguish as his hand changes form, but ends up sounding like an injured cat.

Michael has the giggles

This clip comes from an interview Jackson did overseas, but what’s notable about it is the fact that he can’t stop laughing. We’re never really sure what he’s laughing about; even the reporter doesn’t know. He does his best to look around to see what Jackson is talking about, but just smiles and nods politely. It may not be spectacular but if you’re looking for a good, quick laugh, this what you should watch. Besides, Michael’s laugh is so cute!

“Bad”

Another favorite of mine, everything in the video is awesome. The dancing is cool, the outfit is badass (I still want it), and it’s one of his best songs. There are times when I like to watch the full version, which begins with Jackson coming home from school back to his old stomping grounds where his troublesome friends don’t really get him anymore. While the story itself is pretty interesting, there are times when Jackson just can’t be intimidating, like when demands “Gimme a quarter” from a passerby or when he yells “You ain’t bad, you ain’t nothing!” It’s these moments that always make me smile or laugh just because it seems so out of character for Michael. Then again maybe that was the point.

Share your favorite Michael Jackson moments in the comments below.