FLASHBACK originally published September 8, 2001.
You have to hand it to Michael Jackson. When everything else is stripped away – the kitsch, the rabbi, the chimps, the lawsuits, the revolving door managers and disorganized concert promoter – his talent is still there. On Friday night at Madison Square Garden, when it looked like his 30th Anniversary Solo All-Star show was heading into the toilet, it was Michael who saved the day.
The Solo show, which had tickets up to $2,500, did not have a good start. In fact, the level of cheesiness was so high the audience looked like it was going to need a drycleaner to get out the Velveeta stains. Michael, dressed in a glittering silver sequined top, sat in kind of a royal viewing box at stage left, after entering with actress Elizabeth Taylor, former child star Macaulay Culkin, and Jackson’s parents. Taylor looked ominously like the Queen Mum throughout the proceedings, with Jackson, I suppose, as Princess Diana.
The show almost ground to a halt quickly though after a painfully thin but energetic Whitney Houston – who was mysteriously not joined by husband Bobby Brown, scheduled to perform with her – concluded a rousing opening with “Wanna Be Starting Something.” The reason was the appearance, at stage right and sitting in a strange office waiting room set, of the extremely corpulent former important actor Marlon Brando.
Brando, at first wearing sunglasses, proceeded to expound, from his chair, for a ghastly ten minutes on subjects of little or no interest to the pumped-up audience. He said, “You may be thinking, who is that old fat fart sitting there?” At one point he actually removed his wristwatch and said, “In the last minute, 100,000 children have been hacked to death with a machete.” He concluded by instructing the audience to go to michaeljackson.com and donate money. The audience – many of whom came from Los Angeles in wheelchairs or on walkers – booed and booed, loudly, and with good cause.
Things did not get much better, as a series of acts shuffled on and off the stage with little purpose. Shaggy, the contemporary rap group, sang their two hits, and Shaggy himself did kind of a pelvic thrust for Jackson, which seemed to shake the guest of honor from his stupor. There was a duet by James Ingram and Gloria Estefan on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” a medley from The Wiz, a little boy singer named Billy Gilman did “Ben,” and so on. There were interminable breaks between sets, which caused more booing, and it seemed as though no one had rehearsed or timed the show in advance.
The pièce de resistance came almost toward the end of this section, when Liza Minnelli appeared on stage. Minnelli has either had the worst facelift since Jocelyn Wildenstein or was wearing makeup for the show Cats. Or both. She was frightening, and, to drive home the point, sported a fright wig. The effect was a Judy Garland drag queen impersonator and sent a chill through the room. After performing “You Are Not Alone,” a Jackson song, Minnelli launched into an uninspired version of “Never Never Land.” As it ended, a million soap bubbles started pouring over the stage, and Minnelli, without prompting, broke into the last two lines of her mother’s most famous song, “Over the Rainbow.” She said, “I love you, Michael” and the bubbles swept her away. This was just about the time Elizabeth Taylor hobbled out of her seat and went to the bathroom.
But all was not lost. Dame Elizabeth went on stage and introduced the reunion of the Jackson 5, which saved the day. For then, promoter David Gest’s turn at channeling late producer Alan Carr was over, and Jackson was in charge. The audience roared with approval as Michael took the stage with his brothers. Their short set included a medley of hits from “ABC” to “I Want You Back.” Altogether their much-vaunted reunion lasted about 20 minutes, with a nearly full length version of “Shake Your Body.” Michael actually seemed happy and relaxed as he and the brothers went through their old Motown dance steps together. The person who’d been sitting on the sidelines like a zombie suddenly seemed rejuvenated.
There were more surprises to come, including Michael performing “The Way You Make Me Feel” with Britney Spears (she struts, doesn’t dance, and doesn’t seem to sing, but the effect is very Sami Jo from Dynasty). Finally settling into an onstage rhythm, Michael then gave the audience what they wanted: moonwalking and his silver lamé glove in “Billie Jean,”; the great Jerome Robbins-like choreography in “Beat It,” and guitarist Slash on both “Beat It” and “Black and White.”
In between, Jackson, who looked winded most of the time, but exhilarated, shouted “I love you” to the audience many times. He said little else. He concluded the show with his new single, “You Rock My World,” and gathered all of the guest stars on stage, with Quincy Jones conducting, for “We Are the World.” Not satisfied with leaving the stage at that, Jackson re-started “Rock My World,” getting people on stage to dance with each other. The absolute best pairing was Yoko Ono, who shimmied around with Petula Clark. Yoko, symbol of death in the movie Let it Be, grinned from ear to ear and boogied around the stage with, believe it or not, Kenny Rogers. It was an extraordinary ending to a strange, magical, but often schizophrenic night.