Glitz and glamour at Jackson's final show
In death as in life, Michael Jackson was the hottest ticket in town. Guy Adams reports from a star-studded send-off
Wednesday 08 July 2009
They promised a circus, and a circus they got. First, Michael Jackson's gold-plated coffin was taken from a peaceful cemetery in the Hollywood Hills to the chaotic heart of downtown Los Angeles. Then, with all the sadness, sensation, and pantomime excess that defined his topsy-turvy career, the King of Pop's famous story was given a show-business ending.
The first city of entertainment staged its royal funeral yesterday, with an impromptu, star-studded celebration of the music and the man. It brought the world's media to LA's streets, clogged its freeways, filled the sky with helicopters - and in the early hours of yesterday morning, saw a procession of elephants wander past the arena where the memorial was staged.
A global television audience estimated at one billion witnessed all trimmings, good and bad, of an all-American bunfight. Paparazzi and rolling news crews were everywhere; two thousand shouty, gun-toting policemen glared menacingly from street corners; despite the event's mid-morning scheduling, celebrity guests came dressed-up to their nines.
The serious business of Jackson's memorial was held at the Staples Centre, a sports and concert venue where the fifty-year-old singer had been rehearsing a series of comeback concerts on the eve of his fatal cardiac arrest. According to choreographer Kenny Ortega, who spoke towards the end of the service, he had come to regard the auditorium as a sort of home.
Yesterday's abiding image came during a tearful finale, when Jackson's immediate family put on a unified front to come onto the stage during a rendition "We are the World." After emotional speeches from brothers Marlon and Jermaine, Paris Jackson, Michael's 12-year-old daughter, stepped to the microphone. "I just wanted to say, ever since I was born, daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. I just wanted to say I love him so much."
The atmosphere throughout had veered between saccharine-drenched cliché and the genuinely moving. At the start, a gospel choir sang "we are going to see the King," as Jackson's shimmering coffin was wheeled in front of the stage where it would spend the two hour service in the middle of a sea of flowers.
It was an impromptu show, pulled together in a few days, and characterised by the mixture of splendour and oddness that marked Jackson's life. Stevie Wonder played piano, Jennifer Hudson and Usher sang, and a sometimes-odd procession of musicians, sports stars, and race-relations campaigners trooped up to the microphone to deliver sermons, speeches and prayers.
Earlier, Mariah Carey stole the opening portion of the show, singing a duet of "I'll be there." Then Queen Latifah read a poem composed by Maya Angelou, America's unofficial black poet laureate, whose last such commission was for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Tributes were led by Berry Gordy, and a typically fiery Al Sharpton.
"He created a comfort level, where people that felt they were separate became interconnected with his music," said the Rev Sharpton. "Those young kids grew up from being teenage, comfortable fans of Michael's to being 40 years old and being comfortable to vote for a person of color to be the president of the United States. Michael did that. Michael made us love each other. Michael taught us to stand with each other."
In the audience, and an overflow arena next door, were 8,750 members of the public, who had been granted two free places from a lottery for which 1,700,000 applied, together with 9,000 "family friends". They wore a mixture of black suits, Jackson-style fedora hats and surgical facemasks. The Jackson family wore single white sequined gloves, by way of a tribute.
Tickets, and wristbands enabling access past police barricades protecting the surrounding streets, had been changing hands for $10,000 [£6,100] on the black market.
To justify the hype, and send-off a performer who bestrode the world of pop for more than four decades, won 13 Grammy Awards, and in the shape of Thriller recorded the best-selling album of all time, the showbusiness community pulled out some hefty stops. A heavily-pregnant Jennifer Hudson and Lionel Ritchie delivered musical numbers. Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela sent elegant tributes, read by Smokey Robinson.
There had been little time for rehearsals, and proceedings had an occasionally chaotic spirit. Fans hoping for a pop spectacular were instead given a colourful tribute concert. As Randy Phillips, the AEG impresario who pulled the show together with Dirty Dancing producer Kenny Ortega, and Grammy producer Ken Ehrlich, said this week: "It won't be a show; it's a service. There will be a time, in the future, to celebrate him. But now is the time to bury him."
Despite a prevailing atmosphere that was therefore respectful, Jackson's memorial was at times as confusing as the man himself. Though Al Sharpton spoke of his pioneering role as one of the first black pop stars who white people adored, his tribute was somewhat confused by the nature of Jackson's relationship with his own race.
Jackson famously sang that it didn't matter if you're black or white. But the large portraits projected above the stage laid bare the ravages of the plastic surgery with which the singer disfigured his body, in a seemingly-bizarre rejection of his ethnic background.
It was also overshadowed by Jackson's tangled private life, which had been so distorted by the excesses of fame. Among those paying tribute was Brooke Shields, the actress who was the singer's first girlfriend, and who met him when she was 13. Yet before the service, she admitted to Rolling Stone magazine that she hadn't actually seen Jackson since 1991.
A performance by the teenage Britain's Got Talent finalist Shaheen Jafargholi, who shot to fame impersonating Jackson, served as a reminder of both the singer's stratospheric talent, and his ill-fated fascination with children, underlining the reality of the ongoing, possibly never-ending legal battles that will in future surround his estate and musical legacy.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, which drew three million members of the public to the streets of London 12 years ago. But in truth, this was a strangely-exclusive rendering of a public event. Anyone without tickets was kept several blocks from the Staples Centre by police barricades. During the service, surrounding streets were eerily deserted.
Earlier, Jackson's family had accompanied his coffin from a small private funeral service at the Forest Lane Cemetery, in the shadow of the Hollywood Sign, to a public memorial service in Downtown LA. Local police had told the public that no funeral procession would take place – a lie intended make Jackson's fans stay at home.
There was something sad about this failure to create a truly public celebration, just as there was sadness inside the arena at the loss of a star who invented the moonwalk, but died a physical wreck, ravaged by the raw, destructive power of fame. But perhaps that was the best way to mark the passing of a man who, in the eyes of his mentor Berry Gordy, was "not just the King of Pop, but the greatest entertainer that ever lived."
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