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By: | Posted: 03/28/2012
With Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour, brought to you by Cirque du Soleil, the Gloved One has begun his ascension from tragically over-adored celebrity to ridiculously revered rock god. True Michael Jackson fans may be confused, however, because it appears that MJ is going to have to muscle past Cirque’s legion of acrobats, contortionists, and costume designers if he wants to seize Elvis’s throne.
The Immortal World Tour isn’t so much a tribute to Michael Jackson as it is a Cirque du Soleil show performed to MJ’s videos and music. There are a few cursory attempts to establish a narrative arc based on Jackson’s life, but that pretense is slowly shed as the show progresses and Cirque’s creative team runs out of ways to connect the circus of MJ’s life with their own.
The show is said to be “inspired” by MJ’s genius and passion, immersing viewers in a fantastically imagined version of Michael’s inner world, the well-spring of his creativity. If this is true, MJ’s troubled id is even scarier than you might imagine. Who knew that Michael Jackson was inspired by bikini-clad electric cello players, freakishly flexible pole dancers, female punk-guitar shredders, feather-headed jungle pygmies, a one-legged gymnast, and an army of synchronized robot-acrobats marching toward doomsday? As always, Cirque du Soleil keeps your eyes and ears busy, and their spectacular routines are performed flawlessly, but it’s sometimes difficult to figure out what’s going on and why. If your brain keeps asking, “and this is related to Michael Jackson how?” don’t worry, you’re not alone.
The over-riding themes of the show slingshot back and forth between gothic and often disturbing or erotic imagery to child-like visions of peace and harmony. During “Dancing Machine,” the backdrop is a giant steampunk machine full of spinning wheels and cogs, while onstage a dancer is strapped into a literal “dancing machine” that looks like some kind of S&M torture device. The poor guy then proceeds to dance himself to death. Next is a bit devoted to the song “Ben,” which starts with two bejeweled elephants parading down the center aisle, followed by a video of all kinds of jungle animals. A cartoonish rat crawls across the screen at the end of the song, but only after three minutes of WTF?
The most moving parts are at the beginning, when video is shown of Michael as a kid belting out sugar-pop soul tunes with his brothers in the Jackson 5—a seven-year-old with the charisma of a much older child, singing about passion and love in ways he can’t possibly understand. These snippets of MJ are sad because we all know what happens to that adorable little kid, and we all recognize on some level that everyone who loved him had a hand in his undoing.
As the gates to Neverland are opened and the audience is welcomed into Michael’s world, MJ’s voiceover asks, “Have you seen my childhood?” It’s a bit jarring to see the central pathology of Michael Jackson’s life—a stolen childhood—layed out so bluntly. But then again, Jackson wasn’t trying to hide it; in fact, he made it the central theme of his adulthood. The older he got, the more he regressed and the sadder his plight became.
In the end, Michael’s life became an iconic American tragedy, as full of mythical pathos as William Randolph Hearst and as scarred by vulnerability as Marilyn Monroe. He never got the chance to re-invent himself as the triumphant hero-king, so his fans must do it for him.
Cirque’s creatives understand this, I think, and it’s hard to fault them for trying so hard—but this attempt to immortalize Michael Jackson feels like it came too soon (MJ’s only been dead for less than three years), and the urgency to “put on a show” appears to have pushed Cirque toward excesses it might otherwise have avoided. Toward the end, during “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” is a montage of marching Nazis, starving children, race riots, the KKK, and exploding bombs, interspersed with images of Martin Luther King and Ghandhi. Yes, Ghandhi. The original music video is didactic too—it’s shot in the streets of Rio de Janeiro with hundreds of street kids banging on drums—but it shows Michael dancing in the streets, connecting with the people in a way that the Immortal World Tour does not.
From a marketing standpoint, this show must look like a gold mine: the most popular entertainer in history joining forces with the most popular entertainment franchise in history. It’s an odd fit, though, because MJ’s fans do feel a deep personal connection to him—that was his gift. Conversely, no one has a deep personal connection with anyone in Cirque du Soleil. Cirque’s performers are anonymous and interchangeable by design, because shows based on the charisma and talent of one person eventually fold. Cirque wants its shows to grow and multiply forever, so its business plan doesn’t allow for heroes.
The trouble is that, to many people, Michael Jackson was a hero. Cirque du Soleil needs to find more ways to let Jackson’s true spirit shine through, or its own artistry, however stunning, is going to continue to clash with the people’s desire for a fitting tribute. A show in Vegas won’t do it. A show about Michael Jackson might.
Tad Simons is a contributing editor for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine's arts and entertainmenet section. See bio
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