Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Look what you've done to the rock'n'roll clown"

To all you pimps makin' money on his name
How do you sleep, don't you feel ashamed?
He went through the test, he's outta this mess
Be my guest, and let him rest

We are coming up on a date that still manages to shock and sadden multiple generations around the world. The sudden and questionable death of Michael Jackson may have ended his life and body of work, but the speculations about that life will likely never abate, nor will we likely ever learn the true answers to those questions, which even the most otherwise indifferent spectators to this never-ending circus would certainly listen to when presented. Though that has not stopped, nor will it stop, dozens of authors, pundits, former acolytes, and anyone with a tangential connection to his life to weigh in and give you what they think is the real story, and naturally, those "real" stories will have to be filtered through multiple prisms of self-interest and intent, thus rendering their truths to the granules of sodium chloride.

That being said, anyone who has expressed heavy interest in Jackson, either for his staggering talent or as ugly symbol of celebrity culture unrestrained, would be better served by viewing a pair of movies that were made while Jackson himself was still a child, when he was famous but hardly the obelisk of polarized opinion he would become in adulthood. In short, both of these films frighteningly predicted the arc of Michael Jackson's life - before he even had a chance to live it.

PRIVILEGE, from 1967, is a documentary-like story about a futuristic London where government, church, and big business have quietly come to cabal-like agreements in regard to Steven Shorter (Paul Jones, former lead singer for Manfred Mann - the "Doo Wah Diddy" incarnation, not the "Blinded by the Light" Earth Band), the country's most popular singer. Shorter is used to sell all manner of products, to help to boost church attendance, and overall placate the youthful masses and divert them from any sort of real rebellion. Naturally, this takes a large emotional toll on the performer himself, who spends most of his time sullenly going through the motions, though he occasionally brightens in the company of an artist (Jean Shrimpton, an early "supermodel" then romantically linked to Terence Stamp, and later immortalized in "Behind the Wall of Sleep" by The Smithereens) hired to paint his portrait. Shorter will ultimately reach his breaking point, but the powers that be already have a contingency plan for that.

PRIVILEGE was made by a former documentarian named Peter Watkins, who arguably perfected the dramatic device of the "mockumentary," albeit for hard and serious storytelling, long before Christopher Guest spun the genre and made it synonymous with semi-improvisational comedy. Many elements in the film were liberally borrowed from a National Film Board of Canada documentary on pop star/songwriter Paul Anka called LONELY BOY, which depicted the gradual toll fame as business can exact on an otherwise well-meaning performer: thankfully, the short has been included on the current U.S. DVD of the film. Watkins previously made a nuclear war docudrama for the BBC called THE WAR GAME, about life after the bomb, that was so intense the BBC refused to air it; it was ultimately screened in some theatres in the U.S. and U.K. Another fiction film of his, PUNISHMENT PARK, took on the premise of youths isolated to play a kill-or-be-killed game for the benefit of polite society a good two decades before BATTLE ROYALE. [Watkins in fact was a guest professor at OSU while I attended their film program, although I never had a class with him--Rats!]

As such, PRIVILEGE is at its heart political agitprop drama rather than pop culture critique, and some of it now plays rather earnestly to modern tastes. But it is dead-on in its vision of how we would see rock co-opted by the establishment in the present day, and it's extremely perceptive about how easy it is to buy and sell both rebellion and people. And yes, its observation that rock stars at the height of their fame become less people and more corporate behemoth is very applicable to the later years of Michael Jackson. When the consortium decides to change Shorter's image from persecuted rebel to obedient choir boy, they position his "conversion" within a huge religious rally in Wembley Stadium, complete with a firebrand reverend leading the crowd in a chant for conformity, disabled children brought to the stage for potential healing, and pageantry reminiscent of images from Riefenstahl's TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Years later, Jackson employed similar "messianic" staging for a performance of "Earth Song" at the 1996 Brit Awards, leading Pulp lead singer Jarvis Cocker to cheekily disrupt the performance; while he considered himself a fan of his music, Cocker explained his actions by saying, "He was pretending to be Jesus - I'm not religious but I think, as a performer myself, the idea of someone pretending to have the power of healing is just not right."

Though quickly abandoned by Universal, PRIVILEGE did manage to find a devoted group of fans, most visibly the multi-gifted Patti Smith, who covered the film's signature song "Set Me Free" on her EASTER album, which also features her original version of "Because the Night." Another high-profile fan, writer/director Allison Anders, who has told much more hopeful stories of rock'n'roll living in GRACE OF MY HEART, SUGAR TOWN, and THINGS BEHIND THE SUN, and presented PRIVILEGE at her first "Don't Knock the Rock" film festival, explains her love of PRIVILEGE in this Trailers From Hell commentary.

STARDUST is a quasi-sequel to an earlier film called THAT'LL BE THE DAY, about Jim MacLaine, an aspiring rocker modeled on John Lennon and played by David Essex, singer of the glam rock standard "Rock On". However, you do not need to have seen that film beforehand: this film stands alone with or without its predecessor. Moreover, this movie so strongly builds and heightens upon the first, and has such an epic sweep, it's like THE GODFATHER PART II of rock dramas. Both films were written by novelist Ray Connolly, who began his career as a rock journalist, and before that, a schoolmate of Mick Jagger, and thus brings an insider's eye to the subject matter. The film is a sophomore narrative work by Michael Apted, who also began his career in documentaries by creating the epic 7 UP series (the latest installment, 56 UP, is expected in Spring of 2012), then moved on to acclaimed films as COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, and THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, and still returns to the documentary form in BRING ON THE NIGHT and INCIDENT AT OGLALA. While I was already a fan of Apted as director, when I finally saw this at the first "Don't Knock the Rock" festival in 2003, I sat there in awe, amazed that he had this kind of Scorsesian vision, and so early in his career.

Essex plays the same character from the earlier film, and tells a large if somewhat painfully familiar story of the rise of Jim MacLaine's career and the cost to his soul. It shows the path of going from living in a van playing from pub to pub, to eclipsing the original front man of his band, to record company corruption, to solo stardom and pretentious artistic ambitions, to public alienation and erratic behavior, and finally reaching such insane detachment that it eventually drives him to seclusion and possible madness. As we get the public tragedy writ large, we also witness the private tragedy, as MacLaine finds his bad choices enabled by those who stand to make money on him, or being unable to attend a family funeral without being beseiged by the tabloid press, and watching his longest friendship, with his road manager Mike, turn into a curdled, Albee-esque duet of cruel one-upsmanship. To paraphrase the poster above, it's not the story of John Lennon or Jim Morrison...or for that matter, Michael Jackson or Axl Rose or Whitney Houston, but it easily could be.

The supporting cast features a staggering amount of musical Who's Whos, including Keith Moon, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Marty "Abergavenny" Wilde, Paul "Heaven on the Seventh Floor" Nicholas, and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, along with Larry Hagman as a U.S. record company weasel. It has an incredible soundtrack of songs, including recordings by Carole King, The Beach Boys, and The incredible that to clear it all for DVD would be too cost-prohibitive for the likely demand, so a stateside home video release by Columbia is very unlikely. (In the U.K., StudioCanal did put out a double feature DVD with THAT'LL BE THE DAY, though it is currently out of print) However, it is currently available for streaming on Hulu and Crackle, albeit in an old monophonic, non-widescreen transfer. But like Smokey sang, beggars can't be choosey, I know.

So, if you're a genuine fan of The King of Pop, or if you just want some sort of explanation as to why the people who have everything always seem to be unhappy, you have a couple cinematic treatises to give you some insight on the pitfalls within the cult of personality.

For the record, I was a fan. Still am. And I wish life had not imitated art in his case.

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