Watchin' Stuff: Michael Jackson Unauthorized!

This past Friday night, I spent the evening at a Japanese restaurant in the South Bay, where, after our seafood hotpots, tempura and Orion beer were all consumed, the owners busted out the wireless mics and karaoke discs, and we all sang for an hour or two as the night wound down. In-between playing karaoke tracks, the lady in charge of the place kept playing bits and pieces of Michael Jackson: This Is It on the flatscreen TVs littering the wall.

I’d seen This Is It when it came out theatrically; I had a great time. I’m not necessarily the biggest MJ fan on the planet, but I seriously appreciated the film’s rare and genuinely unique glimpse into the working methods of the most mysterious and meticulous pop performers of the past century (for those not in the know, This Is It was compiled out of gazillions of hours of rehearsal footage for Jackson’s final tour — one which never launched, due to his death.)

These snippets of This Is It in the Japanese restaurant half-drunkenly reminded me of another hard-to-find look into the realm of MJ — a strange tape that I’d viewed long ago called Michael Jackson: Unauthorized. Clad in a cover box featuring a generic Michael Jackson publicity photo, this tape contained only 20-25 minutes’ worth of interview footage shot on Jackson’s Encino estate in the early ’80s (sometime after “Thriller”, but before the Jacksons’ “Victory”.)

The tape starts out almost like a “Faces of Death” underground video, as a shot of Jackson dancing in silouhette (somewhere in the Twilight Zone, it appears) is accompanied by a sleazy, mustachioed voiceover stating “We have used the utmost care to present the following uncensored footage. However, you will experience technical problems at some points. So, for the next thirty minutes, sit back and enjoy extremely rare home video of never-before-seen glimpses of Michael Jackson”. Cut to — Jackson leading his pet llama on a leash down a courtyard.

The purpose of the pirated interview footage is unclear; it doesn’t appear to be for any kind of network newsmagazine, nor for MTV, in-house record company PR — or pretty much anything, for that matter. The majority of the footage is shot near a large fountain which continuously runs, rendering the audio unusable for any “professional” purpose. Maybe this was intended for some kind of fan club exclusive VHS…? We’ll never know.

The off-camera interviewer asks very, very few questions, so Michael ends up almost free-associating on a handful of topcs: children (what a shocker!), songwriting, and “magic”. Lots and lots of “magic.” Michael brings “magic” up often.

This is not to say that he’s taken a permanently flighty trip to NeverNeverLand, for even though he occasionally breaks into song when he gets bored with answering the threadbare interview questions, he also drops very subtle, slightly snide showbiz-y comments when there’s other lulls, such as the raised-eyebrow delivery of “Are we making magic here…?” about 10 minutes into the video.

And then there’s La Toya, who unexpectedly drops by towards the end. During their segment together, they do an impromptu duet — one which audibly demonstrates why Michael was an international superstar, and why La Toya was not.