He’s (Not So) Bad

VH1 offers up a treacly valentine to Michael Jackson.

Movies about real-life musicians tend to choose one of two options: They can land the rights to the performer’s original music in exchange for a rosy portrayal of their subject (like the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It?), or they can forego the authentic soundtrack in order to dish the dirt (like Nick Broomfield’s muckracking documentary Kurt and Courtney.) The Man in the Mirror, a new VH1 movie about Michael Jackson, settles for the worst of both worlds. It does without both Jackson’s infectious dance-pop tunes and the seedy details of his personal scandals. It’s unauthorized and juiceless at the same time.

VH1 should be ashamed of itself, really. Whose idea was it to slap together this cursorily produced valentine to Jackson on the eve of his trial? (The proceedings begin September 13, as the film announces in a closing title.) Jackson himself was not directly involved with the production of The Man in the Mirror, but for reasons known only to the producers and perhaps Viacom’s legal department, he has become the hero of the most cloying piece of propaganda since Uncle Joe Stalin beamed out from under his snowflake-encrusted eyebrows in some Soviet epic.

I don’t mean to impugn Jackson’s character before he’s stood trial. None of us have any idea yet what happened between the King of Pop and the boys he entertained at Neverland ranch, and my hunch is that the truth occupies some gray zone between outright abuse and the innocent, candy-fueled frolics depicted in this VH1 hagiography. But let’s face it: Whatever the details, MJ’s life story is creepy, and that’s why we want to make (and see) movies about it—which makes us a little creepy, too. To spackle over Jackson’s dark places (and ours) with this kind of ludicrous treacle is to cancel out the very reason for telling his story in the first place.

What kind of ludicrous treacle, you ask? Well, when The Man in the Mirror’s Michael finds himself in dire straits—undergoing a scalp graft after his hair catches fire on the set of a Pepsi commercial, or regaining consciousness after the first of many plastic surgeries—the spirit of Diana Ross, or an actress who vaguely resembles her, looms over him in a white fur coat, whispering, “Always follow your heart.” When Janet Jackson (whom her Peter Pan-obsessed brother calls “Tinkerbell”) gets a standing invitation to fly out to Neverland for a visit, she protests, “I’m all out of pixie dust.” (Not to worry, Tink. The producers of this movie should have a couple of wheelbarrows full to spare.) When Michael and Lisa Marie Presley (played by uncanny ringer Krista Rae) meet on the grounds of Neverland, it’s only moments till they’re twirling in a musical love montage (“Oh, look! Butterflies!”). Flex Alexander, of the UPN comedy series One on One, does a more-than-credible impression of Jackson’s crackerjack dance moves and fey, wounded voice, but he and his fellow actors are cursed with such atrocious dialogue (“You need to know the truth, and sometimes the truth is a bitch, and the bitch hurts”) that I’m surprised there wasn’t open gunfire on the set.

Sure, the movie dutifully checks off some of the less savory moments of Jackson’s life as well: the addiction to cosmetic surgery, the interest in boy-on-boy sleepovers, the now-infamous incident in which he dangled his third child, Prince Michael II, over a hotel balcony with a towel covering the child’s head. But the upshot of The Man in the Mirror is that Jackson is a fragile eccentric, a fun-loving man-child whose refusal to grow up is less a disturbing regression than it is a sign of artistic bona fides. Those frowny grown-ups—the money-grubbing business manager (Peter Onorati), the housemaid who quits in a huff when Michael builds a blanket fort to hide in with her young son—they just don’t understand that what makes Michael-the-artist tick is his freedom, the simple joy he takes in climbing trees and reading bedtime stories to cerebral palsy victims. The film brings us up to the present day, ending with Jackson’s dance for fans atop the roof of an SUV on the day of his indictment earlier this year.

Whatever the outcome of the Jackson trial, the testimony will no doubt bring forward revelations that will render this film a quaint relic. Given its short shelf life and limited popular appeal—only rabid Jackson fans and iron-stomached kitsch fetishists will make it through—why VH1 felt a need to engage in this 11th-hour whitewash job is a mystery as deep as the one between the man and his mirror.

Monday, August 2, 2004

Oedipus on Wheels: Robbie Knievel’s Paradoxical Success

As a child in the mid-1970s, at the height of Evel Knievel craze, I thought of the brash motorcycle daredevil as the incarnation of a living superhero, or rather—given his mysterious name and bad-boy public persona—a living supervillain. In the pretend games my siblings and I used to play, he was a constant looming threat, ever ready to roar in on his flying motorcycle and kidnap our stuffed animals. The mere invocation of Evel’s name was enough to scatter us, shrieking, across the yard. Who would have thought that, 30 years later, I would be clamoring to get as close as I could to a real-life Knievel—and loving every minute of it?

The other Knievel, in flight
The other Knievel, in flight

“Kaptain” Robbie Knievel, the second of Evel’s four children, is only five years older than me, but he has been following in his father’s suicidal footsteps since the age of nine, warming up the crowd by popping wheelies before an Evel show at Madison Square Garden. Now 42, Robbie has trounced all his father’s records and set 40 world records of his own, but his public persona has never quite gotten out under from Evel’s long shadow—a recent Chicago Tribune story about Robbie was entitled “A Chip off the Old Block,” while Sports Illustrated refers to him as “Evel’s Boy.” His very name—a diminutive version of both his and his father’s given name, Robert—seems to condemn Robbie to eternal childhood in the public imagination. Evel Knievel could have been famous for his name alone, but how scared can you be of someone named “Robbie”? How fitting, then, that Robbie’s latest neck-risking stunt was a promotion for his dad—an attempt to jump over seven vintage aircraft on the USS Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier docked on the west side of Manhattan, to hype the mediocre new TNT biopic, Evel Knievel. If Robbie hadn’t made it on Saturday night—an outcome that, standing a few dozen yards away from the seemingly endless lineup of planes, seemed perfectly plausible—he would have given his life for a crappy TV movie.

The trajectory of Robbie’s astonishing daredevil career can’t help but suggest a father-son crisis of Brobdingnagian proportions. A masterful athlete who has methodically landed every jump his father missed—most notably the leap over the Grand Fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas—Robbie is stuck in a strange Oedipal paradox: The better he does, it seems, the less publicity he gets, whereas Evel was principally known for his famous failures—the Caesar’s Palace jump in 1967, which left him in a month-long coma, or an ill-fated 1974 attempt to cross Snake River Canyon in a rocket-propelled device of his own design. Robbie makes no bones about the fact that, while Evel, 66, is alive and well and living in Florida, the ghost of his fame continues to haunts his son’s career, Hamlet-style. The younger Knievel once said in an interview, “It’s not enough to do what Dad did—I have to achieve more. I have to jump farther. I have to get higher. I have to do better than he did each and every time I mount my bike.” Elsewhere, he has confessed, “I always wanted to do the jumps my father missed, [but] with no hands.”

Taking the TNT press release at the letter, I arrived on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. for the 8 p.m. taping of Robbie’s live jump. I was the first member of the media there. (And perhaps in some unconscious tribute to the decade of the senior Knievel’s greatest renown, I had chosen to wear polyester. Black. Anyone who hasn’t killed three-and-a-half hours on the shadowless steel deck of an aircraft carrier in a black polyester dress in July cannot know the true meaning of wretchedness.) But when Robbie finally arrived on the Intrepid at 8:53 (accompanied by nerve-shattering fireworks), the hours of polyester-clad waiting melted (almost literally) away.

The hour’s worth of televised hype for an event that, at its heart, would last only three to three-and-a-half seconds, had worked its cheesy magic—resplendent in a blue-and-white leather jumpsuit and Evelesque flowing cape, Robbie seemed physically larger than anyone present, though he is not an especially tall man. He warmed up his bike (or, more likely, the crowd) with a few practice runs, gave a thumbs-up from the top of the 30-foot ski ramp where he would begin his jump, and proceeded to fly. In that instant, everyone present, even the jaded denizens of the press pen, must have felt that terrible, ghoulish, gladiatorial thrill of danger at the possibility that we were about to witness some sort of televised human sacrifice. I barely had time to hear myself shriek “Go Robbie go Robbie go Ro …”  before he was leaping clear of his bike, skidding on his side into the hay bales set up at the far end of the ship. Later, he would show the press corps a scraped arm and hugely swollen hand, tittering at our gasps of horror.

Where Evel was a glorious flim-flam artist, a born showman with a death wish, Robbie is a different, and to me, more touching breed: a hardworking craftsman whose family profession just happens to be risking his neck by what his father once called “jumping over weird stuff.” (For Robbie, that “weird stuff” has included an oncoming train in Palestine Park, Texas and a rack full of 10,000 dishes in an Irwindale, Calif. promotion for Dawn dishwashing liquid.) In the words of a teenage fan in attendance at a 1996 jump Robbie made at the Ho-Chunk casino in Baraboo, Wis., “He’s risking his life so I could have fun.”  What could be more American than that? 4:30 p.m