Nearly an hour past its scheduled 7:40 p.m. curtain time, Michael Jackson’s 30th Anniversary Celebration got underway at Madison Square Garden Friday night before a packed house, but its opening was less than auspicious. As the star himself watched from a stageside box that he shared with his parents, Elizabeth Taylor, Macaulay Culkin and Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola, R&B singers Mya and Usher launched into a slack rendition of the Jackson hit, “Wanna Be Starting Something.” Midway through the song they were joined by Whitney Houston, who tried to spark things up a bit by shouting her way through the final verses, but the three vocalists never meshed. Backed by a giant orchestra seated on an elevated platform above the stage, the singers labored mightily but never found the song’s snappy energy.
Then came the first of many bizarre moments the evening would bring. Actor Marlon Brando appeared on stage in a suit and dark sunglasses to deliver a diatribe castigating the audience about the world’s neglect of children in war zones. Referring to his recent visits to India and Africa, the thespian said, “Stop chatting and listen. If you had seen what I saw, children in the final stages of starvation, you’d do something.” When Brando’s rambling discourse approached the five-minute mark, scattered boos of impatience rang out from the rafters. The proceedings did not recover any momentum when tiny singer Billy Gilman took the stage to belt out a solo version of the treacly ballad “Ben.”
The first glimmers of life were brought to the show by hot pop reggae star Shaggy’s performance of his two beat-heavy hits, “Angel” and “It Wasn’t Me,” both of which lifted the by-then listless audience out of its seats for the first time. “Mike, you’re the original banger,” Shaggy shouted out as he exited the stage. Michael, whispering in Macaulay Culkin’s ear and watching passively, did not seem to understand what a “banger” is.
The next hour or so was mostly a torture session of long delays (as camera crews repositioned themselves and as costume changes took place backstage) and performances of drippy sentimentality that would have been better suited to a Broadway theater. A medley from the play The Wiz featuring Jill Scott, Al Jarreau, Monica and Deborah Cox — all unfortunately in costume — was disastrously out of place. A video segment — supposedly of Michael’s greatest hits — strangely featured two uncomfortable sequences of the star’s face dissolving into dust and turning skeletal. Gloria Estefan’s and James Ingram’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was ponderous, and Liza Minelli’s “You Are Not Alone” was positively stultifying. Only Marc Anthony’s “She’s Out of My Life” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious” saved the show from completely driving itself into a ditch.
It was not until over two hours into the show that Michael appeared on stage for a reunion with his brothers Randy, Tito, Jermaine, Jackie and Marlon. His arrival was appropriately in a space suit with a glittering gold helmet. He slowly stripped off the space gear, like some sort of visiting alien, to reveal the bleached skin and wan, damaged-looking visage that the world knows. But then the show got down to business. A wonderful medley of Motown hits, including “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There,” was what the audience came to hear, and the roars were deafening. Although Michael’s voice was rusty and a tad hoarse, his aerobic dance moves — many recycled directly from his famous “Bad” video — sent a thrill through the crowd. “I Want You Back” sounded exciting and sharp, and that portion of the set was nicely capped off with “Dancing Machine,” in which the Jacksons were joined by ‘N Sync.
The climax of the evening was a solo set by Michael that included “The Way You Make Me Feel” (joined by Britney Spears, who danced as Michael’s foil), “Billie Jean” (masterfully executed with dynamic moves by Michael), “Black or White” (with guitar by Slash), and “Beat It.” Michael performed only one number from his new album Invincible, “You Rock My World,” which received a lukewarm reaction.
The somewhat predictable finale proved that Michael is his own best friend and worst enemy. Filling the stage with an assortment of musicians and celebrities that seemed oddly selected — Kenny Rogers, Yoko Ono, Aaron Carter, to name a few — a performance of “We Are the World” brought the show to a close.
Michael Jackson had successfully tapped a friendly audience’s great hunger for nostalgia. But will they buy his new stuff? That remained an open question.