Well I’m not gonna start reviewing circus acts in my opinion but last Thursday I did go see the Michael Jackson themed one that’s touring around like a monster truck show so I thought maybe it would be worth writing down a few thoughts about it.
I’ve never seen a Circus of the Soleil before. Of course I’ve heard good things. But it seemed like if I was gonna ever see one in my life the one entirely based around Michael Jackson would be the one for me. ‘Cause I doubt they’ll ever do one on Clint Eastwood. The tickets were way more expensive than I’d usually spend for entertainment, but I figured it was cheaper than if I wait and have to go to Vegas to see it. So I took the plunge and sat in the third from last row in the Key Arena, in the section that’s not even usually open for Storm games except during play offs.
Cirque du Soleil definitely seems like something Michael would’ve been into, and a collaboration between them seems pretty natural. Apparently they had talked about it before, but I’m sure he talked to alot of people about doing alot of things that he never would’ve ended up doing. So it’s too bad it couldn’t happen until he died. But it does seem to me like a sincere and worthy tribute, a hell of alot more interesting to me than these tribute concerts they’ve had in Europe with modern not-as-good pop stars doing their own shitty versions of his songs. And the title is very appropriate: Michael’s songs, his iconic dance moves, his imagery, his fashion, and his “heal the world” sentiments all live on even though the poor guy doesn’t.
I’ve thought about that alot in the last couple years. I never saw the guy with my own eyes, he never even played a show in Seattle. But it took me a long time to get used to him being gone. It still makes me sad to think about it. One time I was listening to “Unbreakable,” the first track on his last album Invincible, and it was bumming me out. It’s one of his defiant “quit fucking with me” songs, and he sounds so strong saying “I know you hate it and you can’t take it / but you’ll never break me, ’cause I’m unbreakable.” And he works up to this peak and then changes the melody to sing “You can try to stop me, but it won’t do a thing / no matter what you do, I’m still gonna be here…”
But of course I was listening to this, and thinking that he’s not here anymore. And I’m not trying to make him into a victim for his own choice to medicate himself in reckless ways, but I definitely feel like all the hatred directed at him put his life at the place where it was that he felt he had to do that. When Kaddafi died and I was trying to see what was going on I stayed on Fox News longer than I could MSNBC because Martin Bashir was on and part of me can’t help but blame that dick for that sleazy fuckin hit piece he did that led to the accusations and everything else. Everything else that broke Michael.
Or that’s what I was thinking, but then Biggie comes on for a rap verse. And this album came out several years after Biggie died. He had met Michael but he didn’t know he was gonna be on this song with him. But there he was on Invincible.
So that’s when I understood it. The tragic death of Michael Jackson, the human being, made Michael Jackson the worldwide phenomenon “more powerful than you could ever imagine” or whatever the guy from Star Wars said. Suddenly the negative things that everybody always said when talking about Michael in those days mostly went away and people began to think of him as what they had loved about him at some point in his long career. He’s no longer a weird guy holed up in Las Vegas doing mysterious things, he’s a piece of our memories, so he can be the “King of Pop” that he wanted to be. He’s literally a shapeshifter, because we remember him with different faces and skin tones. He can dance and he can sing like a motherfucker and it makes kung fu sound effects when he whips his hands around. He’s a super hero. He’s ageless, timeless, in some ways faceless. He is unbreakable, and he’s immortal.
The concept of Michael Jackson: The Immortal is to sort of bring that Michael to life on stage. It has the loud sound and bombastic big screen visuals of Michael’s concerts, with a live band playing along with his recordings and a troupe of dancers of course doing the untoppable choreography from the videos to “Thriller,” “Beat It” and “Smooth Criminal.” I’m not sure if any of the dancers or musicians were gonna be in the This Is It shows, but I know that show’s choreographer Travis Payne worked on this. It feels like there’s a continuity.
There were definitely moments where it felt like all the hoopla of a Michael Jackson concert but missing the one main element that is not available. But luckily it’s not just a pretend concert, it’s a circus show, and they have a whole weird storyline going. The show centers around 5 weird mumbling dancer/mime dudes who I guess are supposed to just be MJ fans. They’re all wearing different types of Michael fashions, like one guy looks like teenage Jackson 5 era with an afro, one guy’s got a crazy horn-hairdo like one of the guys in the Ghosts video, and there’s a fat dude with a “Beat It” jacket carrying a boombox. (By the way the crowd reacted I thought these might’ve been repeated characters from other Cirque du Soleil shows, but after asking people about it it sounds like they’re not.)
The other two main characters are a guy who’s white from head to toe (I guess he’s called “The Mime”) and Bubbles (a guy in a chimp mask wearing overalls and a striped shirt – he moved like a real ape and somehow seemed to position his legs to look like they were short).
Anyway these guys go from a circular stage in the middle of the 1% seating section up to a main stage where they interact with animation on a screen and eventually come to a big 3-dimensional prop of the Neverland entrance, where cherubic statues come to life as performers in stone-colored costumes. And then various weird shit happens to the tune of many Michael classics (and a couple lesser knowns). The weird shit involves lots of great dancing, acrobats, aerialists, amazing costumes and optical illusions.
The various huge video screens sometimes flash imagery from Michael’s body of work (videos, performances, a cartoon snake from the Jackson 5 cartoon) but mostly new imagery designed to work as backgrounds to the performers. For example at the beginning the 5 fans interact with a cityscape, and animated water spraying from a fire hydrant causes the fat guy to be lifted in the air. Then the others are also suspended by cables and create illusions of running along a moving subway and flipping through animated backgrounds.
In another scene aerialists waved around costumes that implied some sort of exotic fish fins, and the screen was sort of a water background that then doubled them from other angles so it looked like there was a whole school of them. Probly the best use of projecting the live performance onto the screen was when The Mime danced on stage and his gigantic image was on the screen with animated musical notes shooting out from his feet every time they hit the ground.
From the nosebleed seats we had a bird’s eye view of the computer people overseeing the video, lighting, pyrotechnics and all that. It looked like a mission control room at NASA.
Because of the multiple stages and the elaborate production there were a bunch of times when I was watching something and almost missed something new popping up somewhere else. During the great “Smooth Criminal” number I was watching the fedora-wearing dancers on the stage and almost didn’t notice the whole other row of dancers above them until right before they did the famous leaning move. For “Beat It” one of the fans was playing the part of Michael’s glove (yes, he was inside a giant sequined glove and making it move like a disembodied hand) and didn’t notice for a while that two other guys were on the center stage playing Michael’s shoes. In another scene with just The Mime dancing I was startled by the LED lights that revealed the forms of several bodies curled up on the stage right at his feet. They had been there for who knows how long covered head to toe in black. Then they performed an aerial act to “Human Nature” while the lights on their bodysuits changed colors.
Some other highlights;
* “Smooth Criminal” incorporated some of that great black and white footage they made for This Is It. Michael’s character is referred to in newspaper headlines as “Polecat Cane,” something I don’t remember hearing before. One headline says “The Glove – too smooth to catch.”
* During “Beat It” a female guitarist and a woman playing some kind of crazy electric standup bass type deal traded off on an excellent version of Eddie Van Halen’s solo. The guitarist had a giant mohawk and from where I was sitting looked like the woman that toured with Michael in the ’90s, but it turns out she’s some 18 year old prodigy.
* For “Can You Feel” some dudes were swinging back and forth on rings and doing flips and shit, and I can’t understand how they were able to do it all on beat
* An “Is It Scary/Threatened/Thriller” horror medley not only had stylized mummies coming out of graves to do the “Thriller” zombie dance, it also had crazy bat people flying around. They had glowing eyes and when they lowered their heads I could see that the lights were attached to grey Michael-style fedoras.
* One of the dancers that the crowd flipped for was a guy with one leg who did all kinds of acrobatics on crutches. During “Thriller” he used big skeleton arms as crutches.
* “Dangerous” was a woman doing a crazy pole dance act. It seemed almost like Cirque du Soleil saying “Fuck you, I know you’ll bring your kids anyway” because I can’t believe how clearly you could see this woman’s crotch even from the cheap seats. But I guess the painful looking contortion took away some of the lust factor and made it more family appropriate?
* As the last act ended, before a “Man In the Mirror” curtain call, Bubbles left the center stage to go to the backstage area. The lights were up on the stage drawing your attention to other performers and he was in the dark, but I happened to watch him run off still in character as an ape, using his hands to run, and he ran under a rope like an out of control animal and ran up to some viewers on the floor. Not like he was gonna rise of the planet of the apes, it was cuter than that. But I appreciate that Disneyland type attention to offstage detail.
(Since I mentioned Disneyland I should note that there is a remixed version of “Another Part of Me” in the show, but no Captain Eo imagery.)
* Oh, and “Billy Jean” used light-up suits like in STEP UP 3!
A few times toward the end they actually had a guy wearing Michael’s sequins, his hat tilted over his face, holding a microphone and standing in the middle. For me it didn’t really work, it seemed like all the performers around him had already established Michael’s presence in their own ways, and to try to portray it that literally was not convincing. I was much more impressed by the climactic Michael silhouettes that appeared in the center of the stage, as if he’s behind there watching, or his shadow is projected down from wherever he is.
I read a while back that they hope to have a holographic Michael in the permanent Vegas version of the show. Maybe that will work better. I’d like to see it.
So it was a great show, and probly even better immersed in it down in the rich people seats, where people fly above you and monkeys could bite your face off. My only real complaint is the disconnect I felt back there. Not really the fault of the show, and might not happen at all the dates, it was just this particular crowd, Seattle, November 10th. Every once in a while somebody would scream “We love you Michael!” and there were a couple isolated incidents of dancing, but almost everybody remained politely in their seats. Maybe I wanted some kind of wake atmosphere, but that wasn’t gonna happen because many or most of these people just went to see Cirque du Soleil and not necessarily to have a group welcoming of Michael Jackson to Immortality.
So that’s fine, but the show was so much modeled after a huge, exciting rock concert that it felt wrong, like they were putting on a show and nobody was very into it. There’s even a part where they simulate excitement by playing a recording of the audience at an actual MJ concert, and most of the crowd didn’t take the cue to join in the chant of “Michael! Michael!”
Other than that I got what I wanted out of the show. It paid tribute to Michael’s music, his obsessions, his ideals (“Earth Song” and “Heal the World” are in there, all kinds of corny Lion King animal shit during “Ben,” etc.) It gave me a small piece of the spectacle I would’ve liked to see if I ever got to see him live. I felt pretty sure that Michael would’ve loved it if he could’ve seen it. He would’ve been the guy in the crowd wearing a fat suit disguise, dancing like James Brown.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.