When Martin Bashir’s extraordinary documentary about the ‘real’ Michael Jackson first aired in 2003, it of course caused a storm of controversy which in turn was a catalyst for the many commonly held opinions of Michael Jackson, which are, or were, primarily negative ones.
Of course Bashir had no way of knowing that just six years later, Jackson would be dead in circumstances that have seen no let up in the mystery and controversy that surrounded the man in life too. Would he have treated him any differently I wonder had he known his life was to be so short?
There were some new bits of footage last night but overall, the majority of the show was as it was back then and showed Jackson as being a man who was deeply disturbed and whose grasp of reality was a tenuous one.
But actually, reality is only ever an objective thing; what was real and everyday to him was of course not even close to the reality of you and I, but there again, have any of us ever been members of one of the youngest and most popular bands of all time? No, we haven’t, so any judgement on what he believed to be normal and real can’t in truth be passed by anyone else.
As the Depeche Mode song says, “If you try walking in my shoes, you’d stumble in my footsteps.” Now granted, they may have been metaphorical clown shoes for Jackson who was obsessed with everything about childhood, but there again, he’d never understand why you and I worry about the falling value of our ISA’s. It’s all relative.
And I think it was a controversial decision to omit last night the footage of Jackson’s ‘friendship’ with a boy who was 13 years old at the time of the original film. In fact, there were a few scenes that were axed from the original film and I suspect that was a mistake. Only in presenting unbiased, truthful footage can the viewing audience make a similarly unbiased, truthful assessment of it, so cutting any footage, irrespective of the reasons for doing so, diminishes the impact.
Nonetheless, the footage of the man who was still mentally a child – and a disturbed, possibly abused child at that – still struck a discordant and worrying note. Jackson’s toys were expensive ones, but they were still toys. His entire personal life in fact was a hideous attempt to recreate a childhood he never had. And more concerning I think is the fact that everything Jackson allowed to be filmed and everything he said was, in his mind, presenting the best of him. The only problem is, what he considered acceptable was not necessarily what the rest of the world considers acceptable.
Martin Bashir was heavily criticised for what some termed his “heavy handed” questioning of Michael for the 2003 film, but the fact is, the man is a reporter. It’s his job to probe and to push and to quiz. Dieter Wisener, Jackson’s former manager squarely blamed this film for Michael’s drug dependency, but I feel that’s an unfair and sweeping generalisation. For all Jackson’s naivety and possibly mental or emotional retardation, Jackson knew who Bashir was and what he did when he agreed to the project.
I guess at issue could be the question, was Jackson capable of actually understanding the implications of what he was doing? I would argue that, just like a child, he was not. So perhaps the accusation of ‘using’ Jackson to some degree was just, but again, Bashir is a reporter and it would’ve been wrong of him to present a journalistic film in any other way. Censoring it or his questions would have negated the entire project.
And the fact is, had he been ‘gentle’ and not asked the questions that at the time, everyone wanted to hear addressed, he would’ve been accused of being cowed by Jackson’s fame and fortune and of presenting a sanitised version of the ‘real’ Jackson. Also, who really could’ve let the issues go by unaddressed? Could you have sat in the same room as Jackson and not asked him if he really thought it appropriate to have young boys share his bed? Could you have happily gone on rides at Neverland and not asked questions about the bizarre nature of it? I know I couldn’t.
Jackson, like Elvis, has had a premature death in potentially mysterious circumstances, and he, like Elvis and many other celebrities before and since, was made and ultimately in part broken by us and our voyeuristic love of celebrity. We gave them the things that they craved then, in Jackson’s case, we took them away again.
The last years of Michael’s life were clearly traumatic but again, Martin Bashir was a) one small factor in amongst many others and b) only the messenger here; he didn’t create the controversy, he only reported on it. Jackson created it by being all the things he was and he continued it by perpetuating the enigma and actively marketing it. Maybe not him personally but certainly those around him who advised him did so.
As to the question that we’d all like an answer to but many are afraid to say out loud now he’s died – that of, was he in fact a paedophile – we will probably never know. Only those closest to him know the answer to that.
What are indisputable facts are that he was unique, he was among the first wave of the ‘make ‘em and break ‘em’ generation of paparazzi, fame and money; he was troubled, damaged, talented and able to have, without much effort, anything he wanted. Anything. Other factors which are perhaps disputable are that his father was brutal, his mother not sufficiently nurturing, his siblings equally as troubled and to many around him, he was a cash cow and little more.
It’s a potent mix that fascinates us all, and I’m sure it will continue to do so, despite the fact he’s paid for all that with his life.
So was showing this film again for any other purpose than a sudden opportunity to get guaranteed viewing figures? I suspect not, but, again, can we really blame the makers and broadcasters for capitalising on that when anything with Jackson’s face on it right now sells like ice in a heatwave? Again, no. Our voracious appetite for gossip and scandal is why this was ever made in the first place, so we really aren’t in a position to criticise when someone else makes a fast buck at it.