By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
He's been manipulated by his AK-47-toting dad, his nurturing-but-calculating mother, his meal-ticket-seeking siblings, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pepsi Cola, families of young boys who've shared his bed (repeatedly) and—worst of all—us. You see, Michael Jackson's adoring fans around the world just won't stop till they get enough.
That seems to be the point being made by the makers of the VH1 original movie Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story, which premieres Friday. It's as if writer Claudia Salter and director Allan Moyle (Pump Up the Volume, Empire Records) are arguing that Michael's the normal one—we're the problem. Jackson and his public-relations army, which have been trying to resuscitate his sagging career and shattered image through the media ever since he doled out his first $25 million settlement of a child-molestation case in 1993, certainly couldn't have asked for a better, ahem, whitewash.
The movie opens with young Michael sitting on a stoop, watching kids at joyful play. His wide smile suddenly disappears when his father, Joe (Fred Tucker), pokes a head out the door and sternly orders the boy to come back inside and continue recording a Jackson 5 record. A silent close-up of an enraged Joe is a scene the flick will constantly return to, along with one of an angelic Diana Ross cooing, "Michael, listen to me. Your music is beautiful, but you will feel hurt and pain. Always."
Anyone smell that standard biopic device, the totally made-up illuminating quote? Man in the Mirror has tons, such as "Michael, you're the biggest star in the world; you've sold millions of records; nothing is bigger than you." And "You've built yourself a fantasy land, Michael. Are you going to keep living in it?" And "Damn it, Michael, when are you going to learn you can't trust everyone?"
To lend credibility to these faux statements, the filmmakers cut in staged documentary-style footage and real news video and concert scenes. But they obviously missed the unintended humor of some, like when three dark-suited Jehovah's Witness officials walk up to the Jackson manse in slow-mo, à la the Reservoir Dogs opening. Or the foreshadowing of the infamous Pepsi-commercial explosion with a scared Michael shrieking backstage when a pyrotechnic accidentally explodes. Or the foreshadowing of his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley with him, years earlier, dreamily watching home movies of her as a little girl and saying, "She's so pretty." Later on, once the King of Pop and Princess of Rock & Roll are properly hitched, she returns the compliment by saying, "It's kinda bizarre how natural this feels. You're really normal."
Flex Alexander, as grown-up Michael, captures this normalcy with a too-high voice and an effeminate demeanor better suited for a Wayans Brothers' sketch. Add that to a preponderance of broad strokes—the first time Michael enters Neverland, he dispenses with the introductions to his new adult servants so he can latch onto the only kid present, his maid's son—and Man in the Mirror almost descends into farce.
But this is serious, people! Jackson's legal woes and freakish nature can be explained away with his unusual upbringing and public misconceptions created by an evil media. Of course, Michael has tried to cravenly shape his image as much as anyone, having studied at the feet of the master, Dame Elizabeth Taylor. So perhaps out of fairness, the filmmakers show Jackson exploding when news of his wedding to Presley is buried amid live coverage of the O.J. Simpson freeway chase; his triumphant, star-studded comeback (à la Lisa Marie's dad) is held on the worst of all possible days, Sept. 11, 2001; and his all-access interview with Martin Bashir backfires.
The fictional scene in which Jackson orders everyone out of the screening room after watching himself admit in prime time to frequently sharing his bed with children—an admission that led directly to his current battle to stay out of prison—gets to the heart of this fading pop star's troubled life. In the end, there's no one to blame for Michael but the man in the mirror.
MAN IN THE MIRROR: THE MICHAEL JACKSON STORY AIRS ON VH1. FRI., 9 P.M.