As if you needed proof Star Wars crosses every barrier in the universe -social, political, financial -comes this clip, proving it also crosses artistic and cultural worlds. It may be clumsy, it may be silly, but it’s earnest, and so clearly trying. Combining Charleston-esque dance moves with pseudo-Martha Graham waves and mixed with a super-hefty dose of 70s tacky factor, this has to be one of the most glee-inducing tributes to the beloved George Lucas flick.
There’s also a clearly discernible vibe from another movie that was huge in 1977: Saturday Night Fever. Dancing -good, bad, and everything in-between -combined with popular media like television was a big damn deal back then. Clips like this seem to echo this trend. After the painful, tumultuous times of the 1960s, I think people just wanted to boogie. Who can blame them? And… who knew Darth Vader could wiggle like that? I’m pretty sure the force has a beat -whether or not you can dance to it doesn’t matter. The point is, you should try -having a nifty cape or gold jumpsuit doesn’t hurt, either.
Lastnight, I came home to enjoy an old documentary called That’s Entertainment on television. The piece covers the bygone era of Hollywood musicals. Having sat through previews detailing the latest super-action-charged, effects-laden films, as well as the action-y, effects-filled main feature, I was struck by the simple, lovely pleasures of watching the human form move and pivot through space, to music. Somehow, the cinema of fifty-odd years ago seems purer -and for me, oddly more satisfying than many of today’s flashy offerings.
That doesn’t I’m a Luddite, however. I sometimes deeply enjoy the digital artistry on offer in modern films (Lord of the Rings was beautiful, perfect, and very moving), so long as it is in the service of a strong story and interesting characters. But I have to admit that I find the combination of simple, if carefully-choreographed, song-and-dance numbers from yesteryear thrilling to behold. Even with the reams of stylists, camera people, and dance captains, there is some kind of simple pleasure at work in watching old musical numbers. The mere act of watching a staged dance number -a la Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, or Kelly and Fred Astaire in Ziegield Follies -has a kind of magical aura that simply can’t be duplicated, even with modern Hollywood musicals like the recently-released Nine or the Oscar-winning Chicago. Call it glamour from a long-gone era; call it raw artistry; call it, as Kelly does in the telly special, a urge toward what he terms “perfection” … whatever it is, it’s magical. It re-awakens my love of dance like few others things do.
I’ve done a variety of dance -ballet, jazz, tap, and later on, bellydance -so that might be why seeing Astaire, Kelly, Rogers, Charisse, Miller, et al strut their stuff affects me so deeply. I’ve seen plenty of musical stage productions, but strangely, I never get the same feeling; it’s as if the musical on-film captures not just actual dance but a moment in time, when people actually went to the cinema to see other people move around and sing to music. Looking at it from our digital super-special effects era, there’s something thoroughly quaint about the whole thing -even if Astaire’s famous ceiling-dance is still jaw-dropping, decades later. This is what special effects looked liked in the early 50s. People made them special -and that human effort can be seen in all it glorious, frail, masterful glory in such classic movie gems. Cinematic magic doesn’t have to be complicated -at least not for me; so long as there’s heart, art, and commitment, I’m happy -dancing in the dark, or otherwise.
Today I bicycled down to my local summer jazz festival. This little girl caught my attention -and I imagine, the attention of the other onlookers, too. She did some fantastic free, interpretive dance to a jazz trio (a vocal-less jazz trio, I should add), shaking, twirling, hopping, and bobbing her head. It was incredible and inspiring to witness her visceral reaction to a form of music many people find obtuse and difficult.
Watching her also brought to mind the hoary old argument of to-have-kids or not-to-have-kids. I’ve heard a lot of this sort of thing lately, and though I’ve already made my choice, in no way did it take away from my enjoyment of watching this little one rejoice in the incredible flexibility of form and the wonder of sound.
Part of the jazz fest included a street dedicated to artisanal work. There was a section where children could craft their own clay sculptures. Tiny creatures, some imagined, some real, all done with the delicate grace only young fingers possess.
Looking at the sculptures, the dancing figures, the tiny hands on balloons and the wide eyes staring agog, amazed, delighted at the sounds floating through the air, I can’t say I felt any worse in my choice to remain childless, but I also acknowledge the special magic and unique, open energy children bring. They remind us to stop, to smile, and most importantly, to play.
I can’t say I have a first memory of Michael Jackson; it’s as if he was there all along, a ghost, crooning in his high-pitched wail and spinning through summers filled with popsicles, and too many pratfalls practicing a moonwalk.
I remember the mad hype that greeted Thriller at its release. As a child of the 1980s, Jackson was the entertainer of his day; with his cool white glove and slick dances moves, he made suburban kids like me want to boogie, shimmy, and shake. He was also safe enough for suburban parents to approve of, coming as he did from the squeaky-clean, sanitized pop of The Jackson 5. There was no come-hither dirtyness of James Brown (the crotch-grab had yet to make an appearance) or the spaced-out musings of George Clinton. Jackson was the epitome of America, and Motown especially, his sound pure soul, his countenance pure pop. His leanings to vanilla became physically more manifest as time wore on, but in the late 70s and early 80s, us kids didn’t notice or care. Michael could dance.
Of course, in retrospect, “Billie Jean” was –and remains –a nasty piece of business lyrically, but us kids had no idea what he was talking about. We were more interested in the groovy bass-meets-percussion beat, and that awfully cool video of Jackson making the floor bright with a footstep on the newly-created music video channel. He was cool, he was clean, and there was something we related to. Michael was our man, for our generation. He didn’t just sing for Pepsi. He sang for us.
Michael was also one of the forerunners of the music video generation. When MTV, and then MuchMusic, first came into being, Michael was one of the things we ran to see. As Jackson grooved in his pleather suit and magically lit up the squares onscreen, my friends and I would groove in a mad kind of tribal celebration. Michael lit up our little suburban lives with two shots of groove, one shot of sass –and a handy little white glove, a mark of class and coolness, nobility and untouchability, theatricality and vulnerability we understood on a grooving, unrealized primal level. Feet lead the heart back then. King, Child, Magician, Conjurer, Mr. Bojangles come alive without strings or tricks –and at that point, we knew nothing of Pappa Joe or the backstage tribulations that would come to haunt him. Time seemed endless and the electro-beats of Thriller were our lifeline.
When the fantasmo-zombie kicks of the “Thriller” music video made its debut on Halloween night, we ran to our television sets. Trick-or-treating got put off and we sat, in full make-up and wiggery, waiting, agog and twitchy, mute and shouty, waiting for our man. It was weird, it was creepy, it was a Very Big Event. It scared the crap out of me, but it was weirdly compelling. The video, with its assortment of well-choreographed corpses, captured the imaginations of a million suburban kids surrounded by newly-built malls and homogenous sprawl. Michael lit up the night brighter than any firecracker, crooning for us to “Beat It” -beat the system, beat the boredom, beat the monsters in the closet and lying in wait in shut-down hearts and minds. His feet beat out a morse-code only us kids heard: this isn’t the way is has to be. Beat it. Beat like poetry, like fighting, like music, all at once.
He was as ubiquitous in the burbs as Shreddies at breakfast. If you didn’t see him live, you could see him on the telly, his natural home, after all. He was everywhere. There were cheers at the Grammys. Squeals at the moonwalk. Big videos. Bigger live concerts. His dance moves were revolutions. Television –and by extension, Western culture –would never be the same.
High school came, and with it, guitars, amps, punk rock, metal, grunge. Michael who? Who cares? Who listens? Didn’t he used to be black? He pleaded for us to believe he was “Bad” but he tried too hard; rebellion makes no such pronouncements, nor has such outright desperation. It was, rather, a rebuke to his father, talking in the mirror, a sad state of affairs: “I’m bad! I’m bad!! I even got Martin Scorcese to direct!” “Martin WHO?” we all said in unison. The child-like wonder was gone, replaced with a harder awareness and more cruel assessment, but Michael was still living like Peter Pan, communing with chimpanzees and marrying the truck driver’s daughter. Boy, Wonder, Wannabe Rock Star singing to his Dirty Diana, with Slash at his side or Liz Taylor on his arm. Invading Heroes Square in Budapest, a relenteless narcissism, creative in-breeding, too many ‘yes’ people and hissing oxygen tanks, ranking himself among the mighty. He was pale and painfully self-unaware, a perenially smooth-faced boy-man, no “Smooth Criminal” and never the badass he so wanted to be. So he stayed young, or tried to. The perpetual innocent going head-to-head with the unabashed egomaniac. We turned our backs.
And then came the charges he’d taken the Peter Pan too far, directing wishes to hands to children. A step too far, and so far removed. I remember being in Copenhagen listening to ZOO-TV live from Dublin on the radio, and hearing Bono say, “you’re not Bad… you’ve been deemed guilty before being given a chance…” Vulnerability recognized itself and saluted. On a cold, late-summer Copenhagen night, tears welled up and suddenly the dance moves and memories of one-gloved Halloweens and television-squealing came back. The joy, the exhileration, time stopping in the moments between the beats. Concern for being cool, for being angry, for or kicking out… vanished, and was replaced with joy. No ego… just sound and light and wonder. I remembered dancing in my empty garage with the ghetto blaster blaring for hours on end, pointing at cobwebs as if they were sets of eyeballs, staring at me. Michael would go on tiptoe and the world would stop. I remembered those days amidst a starry Scandinavian night.
But time moves on from its heroes. “They want you to be Jesus / you’ll go down on one knee…” Michael never bowed, except to his own image his handlers presented back. What happened to the boy I loved who crooned “I wanna rock with you”… ? He turned his face into something I didn’t recognize. We loved him the way he was -but he didn’t, and he posted his heartbreak across his ever-changing mug. His Motown-meets-modern world sound morphed into music for the dental office. He moved on, or tried to. “You’re a big smash… you wear it like a rash… ” Court dates, threatened bankruptcy, a Neverland that never was, revealing interviews and backstabbing friends. Failed marriages. Children. Baby-dangling. The spotlight became Michael’s cocaine, and we were his rolled-up $100 bill.
I don’t remember when I Michael left my consciousness, but I wrote him off as an eccentric a la Howard Hughes. For his children, I felt grief; for his relatives, I felt contempt. For his die-hard fans, always a sense of wonder. How did they maintain such faith, such commitment? A school acquaintance had seen Michael multiple times, had a trophy case filled with mementoes which she showed off to me during a party, as if it was her own child. She and her sister ran the Canadian MJ fanclub. Even through the scandals, the skin dyes, the sensationalism, they never lost their faith. What was it –is it –about this man, this boy-child, moonwalking between the worlds of black, white, dance, disco, rock, pop, art, image and sound, that captures our heads and hearts?
I’m still trying to work it out. But a piece of my past died today. And along with it, a piece of America and its past –a piece worth celebrating, remembering, and most of all, dancing to. Rumours or not, “Billie Jean” has the greatest bass line in the history of music. Thriller, killer, pumped up and maxed out with a pink bow tie, his beautiful black self commanding the world with a wiggle of the glove –that is the sound of America, the groove of a nation, the rallying call for every suburban kid who saved up to buy a copy of Thriller. Michael’s my generation’s man, and we’ll always remember him this way.
There’s something really, really cool about Madonna unabashedly dancing with herself, telling her man (in her head, through her hips), “Seriously dude, this isn’t on.” It has resonance for me, and I would imagine, for many women.
Amidst a day filled with news of job loss, bombings, and gloomy predictions, I found myself meditating over the final scene in Radio Play. Dancer Peggy Baker and actor Michael Healey sit together, on a raised table, their faces nearly touching, their hands joined. It’s the end of a beautiful, poetic journey, and a powerful symbol of connection.
Though I’m not well-versed in modern dance, I found myself entirely entranced with the movement-meets-theatre piece. It asks nothing more than turning off that part of your brain that constantly seeks to understand, to make sense of, to explain. As Marcel Duchamp said, “This desire to understand everything fills me with horror.” Like art, there’s something resoundingly primal about dance -particularly modern dance. One either reacts by shutting down at its confounding nature, or opens up entirely to its instinctual roots. I found myself willingly knocking down my walls of intense rationalism watching Radio Play, frequently relating to the trials and frustrations faced by Marnie (played by Peggy Baker); the changing nature of her relationship with Angus (played by Healey) was equally compelling, and was expressed with brushes of subtlety and grace.
I also found myself connecting some of the issues Radio Play raises -namely the idea around how artists make a living -with yesterday’s layoff of the members of the B.C. Ballet. There is still a predominant attitude, at least in certain circles, that working as an artist doesn’t constitute “real art.” I’d argue that a dancer is every bit as vital to the economy as a Magna employee. And after seeing a piece like Radio Play, I’m more convinced than ever of the importance and vitality of culture in harsh times. It’s only by turning that needling, analytical voice off, and allowing a few subconscious realizations, that one finds any sense of clarity. If you’re in or around Toronto, run -there are only three more performances.