Jheri Curl Cinema: Moonwalker (1988)

Like most human measures of time, Jheri Curl June is intimately tied to the cycles of birth and death. The month opens with the birthdays of two of jheri curl music’s greatest architects, Prince and Jimmy Jam, and closes with the anniversary of the death of its most anointed practitioner, Michael Jackson. So, since we began this year’s festivities with a retrospective on Prince’s 1984 movie debut Purple Rain, it’s only right that we bookend it with a piece on 1988’s Moonwalker: the first full-length feature film dedicated to the music of Michael Jackson.

First, a word of warning. If you’ve been paying attention to my Jheri Curl Cinema series, you’ll have noticed one thing that these films all have in common: judged by conventional critical standards, they’re just not very good. And Moonwalker, quite frankly, is the worst so far. To get an idea of how “not-good”–one might even say “Bad”–Moonwalker is, please note that the film’s distributor, Warner Bros., cancelled a planned Christmas 1988 theatrical release in the United States over financial concerns; just under two years later, however, they apparently had enough faith in Prince’s filmmaking nadir, Graffiti Bridge, to inflict it on cinema audiences worldwide. When your film is considered to have less commercial potential than Graffiti Bridge, you know something is amiss.

"A Movie Like No Other"; © Warner Bros.
“A Movie Like No Other”; © Warner Bros.

But what is it about Moonwalker that made it, at least for Warner’s bean-counters, worse than Graffiti Bridge? Well, for starters, it isn’t a conventional concert movie or narrative feature, but rather an anthology film–or, less charitably, a collection of extended music videos, drawn primarily from Jackson’s most recent album at the time, 1987’s Bad. Because of this, watching Moonwalker today feels both weirdly disjointed and instantly familiar: if you had access to VH1 and a pulse in the late ’80s and ’90s, you’ve already seen a good amount of this movie. But what you haven’t seen pretty much has to be seen to be believed. If you’ve ever wanted to see a shot-for-shot remake of Jackson’s “Bad” video with the performers replaced by children, this is your movie. And if you’ve ever wanted to see Michael Jackson transform into a jheri-curled robot and have a Star Wars-style laser battle with Joe Pesci, this is definitely your movie.

The film opens with live footage of “Man in the Mirror” from Jackson’s summer 1988 European tour, meant presumably to lull the audience into a false sense of security that what they’re about to see is a concert movie. The next sequence, a musical retrospective of Jackson’s career featuring stop-motion animation by “Claymation” director Will Vinton, is similarly straightforward, tracing Jackson’s rise to superstardom from the Jackson 5 to “We Are the World” to, somewhat incongruously, Bad‘s “Dirty Diana.” After that, though, the film pretty much goes off the rails: next up is the aforementioned “Bad” parody starring Brandon Adams, later of The Sandlot and the Mighty Ducks franchise, as well as Wes Craven’s bonkers 1991 horror movie The People Under the StairsThere is, of course, no earthly reason for this sequence to exist, aside from Jackson’s caprice; but it at least gives us a funny exchange as Adams’ mini-Jackson exits the music video set and talks to his mini-handler: “Is Bubbles in my trailer?” “Yes, sir.” “What’s he wearing?” “He’s wearing a Prince T-shirt and red sneakers.” “Prince T-shirt?”

The literally infantilizing “Badder” sequence–and its reference to Jackson’s biggest rival–brings up an important point: in stark contrast to Prince’s film debut, which reportedly almost earned an “X” rating upon its initial release, Moonwalker is an almost aggressively child-friendly movie; from the preponderance of child actors to the Disneyfied score by Harry and the Hendersons composer Bruce Broughton, it’s Jackson at his most cloyingly wholesome. But an undercurrent of darkness runs through the film nevertheless. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to read between the lines of how Jackson becomes a child when he’s performing “Bad,” only to transform into an adult again in the following scene when he’s spotted and chased by a group of grotesque Claymation fans animated, again, by Will Vinton. This sequence, set to Bad‘s jheri-curl-on-amphetamines track “Speed Demon,” betrays a sense of paranoia and contempt for the public that no amount of Jackson’s aw-shucks demeanor and uncannily demure smiles can disguise. The fans are both ugly and vicious, their faces contorting and sprouting fangs as they close in on the star; also arguably ugly and vicious is Vinton’s attitude toward them, best exemplified by the pair of obese, bespectacled hillbillies wearing Mickey Mouse ears and riding motorized scooters, the sound of which is simulated by an obnoxious farting noise. It’s a weirdly mean-spirited sequence, but one that captures the anxiety endemic to Jackson’s extreme level of stardom: imagine A Hard Day’s Night directed by a collaboration between Chuck Jones and David Lynch and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the sequence.

Continuing the theme of paranoia is the following segment, which should be one of those familiar even to readers who haven’t seen Moonwalker: an animated music video to “Leave Me Alone” directed by Jim Blashfield (who you may also recall as the director of Nu Shooz‘ “I Can’t Wait” video). This is easily the best part of the film: a clever, surrealist take on the growing “Wacko Jacko” tabloid mythology that remains visually stunning to this day, and has forever shaped my fantasies of what Neverland Ranch was like. It was a huge personal disappointment when I finally learned that Jackson’s estate and private theme park was not, in fact, built around a giant, sentient full-body likeness of Jackson himself and populated by anthropomorphic dogs riding rocket ships.

Finally, we come to Moonwalker‘s centerpiece: a longform narrative music video for “Smooth Criminal” that serves handily as a microcosm for all the stylistic tensions of the encompassing film. It’s easy to dismiss this segment as an attempt to replicate the success of the landmark 1983 “Thriller” video, with the obligatory diminishing returns that come with directorial duties shifting from John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) to Colin Chilvers (special effects coordinator for the Superman films). That, however, would be giving short shrift to the sheer outrageousness of the sequence.

Like the earlier “Speed Demon” sequence, the “Smooth Criminal” section of Moonwalker uses cloying sentiment to mask an almost shockingly dark undertone. It opens with a group of roof-dwelling street urchins–again featuring Brandon Adams, along with Kellie Parker and Sean Lennon (yes, that Sean Lennon)–who watch as Michael steps out onto his front porch and is immediately tommy-gunned at by a squad of waiting mobsters. The reason, we discover via a flashback, is because Michael and his young friends had earlier stumbled upon a plan by the mob boss, “Frankie Lideo”–played by a ponytailed and seriously slumming Joe Pesci–to sell drugs to “every kid in this whole world.” If all that wasn’t enough, there’s also a moment later on when the beloved moonwalker with the heart of a child picks up a tommy gun himself and rakes a nightclub with bullets.

Michael means business; © Warner Bros.
Michael means business; © Warner Bros.

I won’t even attempt to parse the rest of the story here; suffice to say that it was apparently part of Michael Jackson’s vision to portray himself as an immortal alien with a penchant for 1930s-style menswear and the ability to transform into a sentient car and, as mentioned before, a robot spaceship. It is, to put it mildly, completely fucking insane. But Chilvers’ direction and Broughton’s score try so hard to ape the aesthetic of family-friendly sub-Spielbergian Hollywood fare that the whole thing comes across as impossibly banal. About the only moment of life–aside from the aforementioned Mecha-Jackson-versus-Pesci robot battle, which is just too bizarre not to love–is Jackson’s performance of “Smooth Criminal” itself, which opens with that iconic shot of a quarter magically flying into a jukebox slot, and climaxes with a truly demented breakdown in which Jackson and the other exotic denizens of “Club 30’s” writhe and moan in the darkness for an uncomfortable two minutes. It’s basically a dry run for Jackson’s equally insane coda to the 1991 video for “Black or White”: wholesome family entertainment abruptly giving way to quasi-erotic psychodrama.

But then, that’s kind of Michael Jackson in a nutshell: at once innocent and perverse, funky and schmaltzy, Disney-respectable and Elephant-Man’s-bones nutty. His weirdness is, in its own way, even more striking than Prince’s, because it comes so suddenly and so far out of left field. Jackson may have presented himself as the middle-of-the-road family entertainer, while Prince was the outré libertine and violator of family values, but look beyond the P.R. images and the two are practically reversed; and for my money, there’s nothing anywhere near as strange as Moonwalker in even Prince’s storied body of work.

But let’s get down to the real question: why is Moonwalker from 1988 being highlighted as a work of Jheri Curl Cinema when just last year I suggested that 1987 was the year when Jackson largely left jheri curl music behind? Well, first, because the two songs we’re highlighting, “Speed Demon” and “Smooth Criminal,” are interesting case studies in the evolution of what we might call post-jheri curl music in the late 1980s. Jackson hasn’t made the jump to New Jack Swing (yet), and there are still recognizable jheri-curl elements in the songs’ pairing of sequenced drums and keyboards with traditional funk instrumentation; but they’re faster and harder-hitting, with a stronger rock influence than traditional jheri-curl.

The Jheri Curl of the Future;   © Warner Bros.
The Jheri Curl of the Future; © Warner Bros.

The real reason why I consider Moonwalker to be Jheri Curl Cinema, however, is a lot more literal. Simply put, this film is practically a love letter to Michael’s actual jheri curl, displaying it in all kinds of ways: sweat-soaked on the concert stage, painstakingly modeled in clay, drooping limply beneath a fedora, and finally cast in metal for the imposing Mecha-Jackson (pictured right).  Say what you will about Michael Jackson: his contributions to the history of jheri curl music are matched only by his devotion to the jheri curl as a hairstyle. And for that, we salute him.

“Speed Demon” and “Smooth Criminal” take their rightful place on the Spotify playlist below:


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