Speed Demon

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!