Michael Jackson & The Jackson Five

A Message From Dr. GuyDr. Guthrie Ramsey Headshot color

The recent release of the film This Is It documenting rehearsals leading up to a series of ill-fated concerts—his first in ten years—brings into sharp relief all of the things that his fans want to remember.  In a word: the dude was bad.  One of the most amazing aspects of this story are the millions of fans across the widest demographic spectrum that Jackson’s musicianship attracted.  The movie begins with young dancers from all over the planet converging on auditions for the show. In testimonials reminiscent of A Chorus Line, they recount what an impact MJ had on their lives and artistry.

And I can’t forget about my own generation and me.  Michael and I were born one month apart in 1958.  As a young person interested in music, I (and many of my generation) identified strongly with the Jackson 5 when they burst on the scene.  The little prodigy at the helm of ship Jackson quite specifically blew us away.  We were then in the high years of the Black Power Movement.  Everyone in the black archipelago of working class, urban Afro-America was “bigging up” to all things “black”—culture, pride, potential, solidarity, mobility.  There was plenty of “Yes, We Can” in the air though expressed in shorthand: “Black is Beautiful.”  When I was a kid, the size and shape of our newly grown “naturals” or Afros were compared to one of the Jackson brothers.  As we talked about MJ’s passing, my aunt recalled that she had bought my cousin, her pre-teen son, a special birthday present: a Jackson 5 outfit.  She explained her joy to purchase the last one in the department store and still remembered how proud he was to sport it.  “They made us proud,” she said, and gave us some to aspire to for our own family.

Jackson Five – I Want You Back & ABC

These palpable yearnings for social equality were expressed both explicitly and symbolically in musical practice.  The Jackson 5 embodied these aspirations at this historical moment for a number of reasons.  First, there’s always been something fascinating about family musical groups.  Indeed, this talented, courteous, visible and loving nuclear family was just what the “black is beautiful project” needed at the time.   Our interest in them might also support a widely held belief about the mysteries of musical talent itself—that it is “natural,” and that there are those among us who inherit the gift and don’t have to work as hard as others to achieve excellence.  Add to this idea the fact that music making is an extremely social matter, binding musicians and listeners together in powerful relationships, and you begin to understand some of the reasons why watching MJ in action, looking strong and in control, is such a powerful experience.

With the King of Pop gone, this film retrospective of him in rehearsal allows us a precious opportunity to peak behind the heavily mediated curtain of his huge celebrity, a glimpse however edited and calculated for entertainment value.  The film itself is organized around footage of him diligently preparing one or another of his powerful hit songs, each of them defining anthems of their moment, enduring in their appeal.  Watching a master pull the strings of the production, coordinating—together with his choreographer, producer, music director, and technical staff— each element of the show, the dancing, the singing, the dramatic contours, the instrumental accompaniment, ones gets true sense of a person doing exactly what he was put on earth to do.  Gently exhorting and correcting his fellow musicians “in love,” MJ appears to be at home in his skin, a metaphor that I find sadly ironic to write, especially given the river of ink that’s been spilled about his appearance.

Any artist will find this film fascinating, as it seems to intentionally focus on creative process.  Split screens allow us to see him on different days working over the same piece, providing a theme and variations, a quality that one associates with jazz and not the hyper pop in which he specialized.  MJ explores the potential of each groove, vamp, and move for all of its emotive potential and dramatic potency.  Another takeaway for anyone who tries to create new music—or any other art form for that matter—is the degree to which MJ’s aesthetic palette was a complex mosaic of American art forms from Ziegfield Follies, classic Hollywood cinema, a heated dance contest during a black block party, a 4th of July fireworks display, or even the high wire, high voltage performance cadences of African American preachers.

To my ears, he could never achieve the stunning vocal acrobatics of his very early years.  His note choices, grown-up oral declamations, subtle rhythmic play with the timeline, his shout chorus improvisations together with his controlled, evenly distributed timbre solidified his reputation as a soul strutting-Wunderkind.  But no matter how much his comparatively diminished vocals brought to a performance, he obviously conceived of performance events as multi-faceted, approached from every visual, kinetic, musical, and dramatic angle possible.   As this film shows us, this was very, very hard work.  And work that meant understanding how to build a team of collaborators whose job was to infuse into the power of his brand the best ideas and unsurpassed execution.

With the illusion of “pop ease” removed and the mortality of this uniquely endowed star framing our experience of this film, This Is It offers up some lessons that will hopefully linger as the years roll on and the critics contemplate the long haul of MJ’s body of work.  Most importantly, it was not the trappings of his pop star machine nor how the larger media responded that should totally shape our musical impressions of the man.  Although we understand that his celebrity allowed him to make his gifts larger than life, it should not have the last word.   One is left wondering if could we could ever imagine a musical landscape where a man could be at home making poly rhythms visible and pop grooves nourishing might possess a popularity that would not become cannibalistic and self-afflicting?  Perhaps, one day.  While it might be difficult to succeed as this seemingly impossible goal, as MJ stated more than once to his killer band in the film: “that’s why we rehearse.”

Michael Jack ‘This Is It’ – Official Movie Trailer

Dr. Guy Ramsey