In the 1980’s, Michael Jackson was a true music icon, and one of my favorite music artists. While his career and legacy is remembered in many ways, he was unparalleled in the fields of singing, dancing, and visual artistry. He was an eccentric genius with a more eccentric lifestyle.
Between “Thriller” and “Bad”, Michael Jackson ruled the ’80’s pop charts, and merchandising on the singer was equally as prominent, from fashion dolls, trading cards, school binders, and even an arcade and video game from Sega, based on his Moonwalker short film, “Smooth Criminal”.
The Moonwalker film itself is a collection of short films and vignettes based on that time in Jackson’s life. It’s a glimpse into that mania of the 1980’s. It’s also a glimpse into that madness. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker provides eight segments ranging from documentary to narrative. For the sake of this review, I will break each part into its own separate mini review.
Man In The Mirror – I fear 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie has slightly ruined this song for me, as the diminutive plastic superhero lays claim to having created the titular song’s lyrics, featuring it prominently throughout his own film. That aside, this segment shows how much a phenomenon Jackson’s concerts were: Incredible crowds, people fainting and being escorted out by security. His stage presence alone was mesmerizing. He certainly knew how to put on a show, and this piece highlighted one of his more uplifting and inspirational songs, coupled with prominent images of peaceful historical figures. It’s a true time capsule of how massive in adoration that Jackson once was.
A Retrospective Of 24 Years Of Hits – A young Michael Jackson narrates a hint of personal insight into his life through “Music & Me”, highlighting various awards and memorabilia (including a zombie Mickey Mouse inspired by “Thriller”). The retrospective highlights the Jackson 5 years, the MTV era, 1983’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, where he debuted his signature moonwalk move live for the first time, up to (then) present day.
Badder – A video recreation of the “Bad” music video, but performed by children. The kids in the segment are excellent dancers to be sure, and the mustache/beard make-up to make them look “mature” is well done and amusing, but segment feels a like filler, including an ending that just seems to drag out before the next segment. Michael never makes an appearance in this segment, save for a “Wanted For Questioning” poster. At the end, the “Young Michael” actor transitions into the real Jackson, which leads into….
Speed Demon – One of the more “cinematic” segments, Michael finds himself on the run from crazed fans and angry actors in a movie studio chase scene eerily reminiscent of the climax of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, released in 1985. Michael’s solution to avoid the mob is to put on a rabbit disguise (because why not), and avoid these Claymation headed stalkers (all animation was done by the Will Vinton Studios – can you spot the California Raisins cameo?).
The following motorcycle chase scene itself is really cinematic, with Claymation Rabbit Michael escaping his foes by transforming into Sylvester Stallone, Tina Turner, and Pee-Wee Herman before getting the whole lot thrown in jail. He then proceeds to take off the disguise, have a dance-off with the now alive rabbit, then get ticketed for being in a “No Dancing” zone. It’s as weird as it sounds, but absolutely imaginative.
Leave Me Alone – Another visually imaginative piece, Michael finds himself flying a rocket through a theme park version of himself, built on himself, dealing with tabloid scandals and his unusual personal life, all while avoiding dog reporters (news hounds, get it?). The song is very catchy with a great beat, and the special effects are excellent, from Pirates of the Caribbean and Gulliver’s Travels inspired scenes, to a dance off with the “Elephant Man’s” skeleton. If anything, it shows Jackson can poke fun at himself.
Smooth Criminal – The centerpiece of this film, you can tell Jackson’s love for film, from the very strong Spielberg influences that run throughout (complete with Spielberg’s trademark “shooting star” that grants wishes/powers throughout the segment), and the sci-fi and film noir inspirations. On one hand, the production value is solid. On the other hand, the film gets dark and weird in some surprisingly awkward ways.
The film starts with a shootout, seemingly killing Jackson before transitioning into a cheery flashback of Michal romping through sunny fields playing ball with a bunch of kids. Michael and the girl (Katie) have to find their missing dog, and end up in a spider-filled cave with drug lord Frankie Dileo “Mr. Big” (Joe Pesci), who wants to get all the children in the world completely addicted to drugs. With their cover blown, Michael and Katie escape.
Back to “present day”, Michael survives, goes on an incredibly long chase sequence, and eventually uses one of those “lucky stars” to transform himself into a high tech sports car. Again, it gets weird. Michael instructs his kid friends (one of which is Sean Lennon, as in John Lennon of the Beatles’ son – this is important to remember later) to meet him at Club ’30’s, which starts out deserted, but comes to life thanks to Michael.
Thus starts the “Smooth Criminal” song. As a side note, it’s impressive how many elements from this film were effectively translated into the companion video game (especially the first Club ’30’s section). “Smooth Criminal” is an excellent song, with a driving beat that is comparable to “Billie Jean”. This segment also has one of Jackson’s best dance choreographies outside of “Thriller”. The only thing that stumbles this sequence is that Jackson is notorious for halting videos to a dead stop to “grandstand” with a few deliberately slow moves and screams. The later “Black or White” comes to mind as a comparison, and it kills the pacing. Still, that “lean” move he does….
While dancing, Katie gets kidnapped by Mr. Big, and here’s where the film goes off the rails. Michael heads back to the evil lair, where Mr. Big appears holding Katie. And he promptly proceeds to beat the hell out her in front of Michael.
I’m not kidding. I get Pesci is known for his “tough guy” roles, but either his acting is incredibly convincing, or he’s working out some serious anger issues. This scene originally used to be worse in original VHS copies, where the beating sequence was extended to an incredibly uncomfortable length, and Big threatens to inject her with heroin as well. Even edited, this is a moment of “Holy shit” disbelief. Shortly after, he beats the hell out of Michael as well. As much as the viewer is wondering what just happened, it’s not over yet….
Another star comes, and Michael turns into a giant “Transformer” robot, that starts firing missiles at the henchmen, and emitting sonic screams that make enemy heads explode (the latter didn’t happen in the video game). While you’re likely still scratching your head at what just happened, Robo-Michael transforms into a jet and fights Mr. Big, who is now manning a massive laser cannon. Again, you’re now wondering how this seemingly “simple” drug dealer has a world destroying death cannon to prepare for robo jet pop stars. Anyway, Michael kills Big, abruptly bails on the kids, then comes back later….
Come Together – To take the kids to one of his concerts. The weirdness now enters “WTF” territory, and this is why remembering Sean Lennon is the son of the Beatles John Lennon is important. In the early 1980’s, Jackson and Paul McCartney collaborated together several times, and were good friends. Sometime during the course of their friendship, Paul tipped Michael off about the value and money making opportunity of music publishing. So in 1985, Michael bought the Beatles catalog out right under Paul’s nose. Not only did this end their friendship, but in this segment of the film, Michael is singing one of Sean’s dead father’s songs that he now owns the rights in front of the son. While I like Jackson’s music overall, and it’s a decent cover, that whole saga suddenly “clicked” during this last viewing, and as baffling as the ending of “Smooth Criminal” is, this is the darkest thing I’ve ever seen in a music video.
Moon Is Walking – The credits roll, with a unique music piece performed by Ladysmith Black Mombazo. The singing is highlighted with clips of the segments that we’ve just seen, a little bit of music follows, then end.
While I never got to see Michael perform live (the closest I got to “seeing” him was the holographic version of him that had a performance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards), this was one of his more ambitious concert films. It’s hit and miss, primarily with “Badder”, the pacing elements and confounding ending of “Smooth Criminal”, and the saga disbelief that “Come Together” generates.
Still, the music is excellent, and the special effects are impressive. Outside of VHS, Moonwalker has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in America. It’s a fascinating artifact of pop culture history, though be warned that once the “Smooth Criminal” dance segment ends, the viewer starts traversing dark territory until the end of the film.