On Wednesday, Michael Jackson‘s estate issued a statement condemning ABC’s special The Last Days of Michael Jackson. “We believe the special to be another crass and unauthorized attempt to exploit the life, music and image of Michael Jackson without respect for Michael’s legacy, intellectual property rights or his children,” the statement noted.
The Last Days of Michael Jackson aired on Thursday, and it has other problems the singer’s estate failed to identify. The special is rife with trite, clunky segues – “It seemed like the sky was the limit, but there was so much more to come”; “this was a man who knew no limits when it came to spending, and in the end, it cost him.” More frustratingly, The Last Days of Michael Jackson offers little in the way of new revelations or reporting and at times seems heavy on armchair psychoanalysis and unsupported conjecture.
The special provides a broad overview of Jackson’s life, covering all the predictable bases: early stardom in the Jackson 5, stepping out on his own, creating Thriller, struggling to top Thriller, facing child-molestation charges (twice), beating the charges, struggling with drugs, plotting a comeback that was cut short by a fatal dose of those drugs in 2009. Here are five takeaways from the controversial doc.
1. Jackson combined intuitive musical talent with savvy commercial strategy.
It’s easier to dig into Jackson’s music – even without the participation of collaborators, who either refused to appear in this film or weren’t asked to – than it is to unpack the murky details of the star’s personal life, so the documentary tends to be most assured when discussing the singer’s recorded output. Jackson used musicians to help him flesh out rhythmic and melodic ideas that he had in his head; footage of the singer beat-boxing to illustrate his creative process is riveting.
Later, the documentary discusses the way Jackson and his team sequenced the singles for Thriller to cross over to white radio stations, which mostly refused to play any music by black performers in the early Eighties. To get around that bias, Jackson led his album cycle with the Paul McCartney–featuring “The Girl Is Mine” and later went to rock stations with the Eddie Van Halen–assisted “Beat It.” To get “Billie Jean” onto MTV, CBS president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to withhold his roster’s white artists – Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen – from MTV unless they played Jackson as well.
2. Nothing was good enough for Jackson.
The documentary presents Jackson as a driven perfectionist facing more and more seemingly insurmountable hurdles of his own making. “The next [album] is always the toughest one, because people always expect more,” Jackson says in an old interview. “No matter how good it is, they go well, it wasn’t as good as … that type of thing. When I did Off the Wall, people always said, you can’t top Off the Wall – you had four Top 10 singles and it sold 10 million albums. You can’t beat that!”
Even Jackson’s legendary performance at the Motown 25th anniversary special didn’t live up to his own high standards. “I don’t think I’m ever pleased with my performances – never,” Jackson said. “And after that performance I wasn’t happy either. I wanted to do the five spins and go on the toes and freeze there, just hold it and stay there. And I didn’t. I was angry about that, really disappointed.
He was pleased, however, when his idol, Fred Astaire, called him after the show and complimented his dancing.
3. A burn might have introduced Jackson to painkillers.
While filming a Pepsi commercial, a spark caught Jackson’s hair – extra-flammable at the time due to the quantity of hairspray he was wearing – and lit the singer on fire. The documentary includes grainy, hard-to-make-out footage of Jackson continuing to dance before he’s suddenly engulfed in flames. “He was in pretty bad physical pain really from the Pepsi commercial on, and he started to have trouble sleeping,” the film notes. The Last Days of Michael Jackson positions this moment as the first where the singer might have started using painkillers. He went to rehab to fight addiction to painkillers in the Nineties.
4. Jackson planned to return to the road to get out of debt.
The Last Days of Michael Jackson becomes increasing tragic as it progresses. By the end, Jackson is over-leveraged, and he hasn’t put out an album since 2001’s Invincible. So he decided to plan a tour – which the documentary dubs “the greatest comeback in rock & roll history” – to bring in some income.
But this plan soon backfired. “Michael Jackson realized he had boxed himself in,” the film explained. “He owned AEG money; they had given him a hefty advance. He had to perform these concerts or they could take some of his valuable assets from him. What was he gonna do? He was in no shape to do what he had signed up for.” “It was like the world was crashing down on him,” the documentary adds. “And he didn’t have a way out.”
5. Jackson turned to the drug Propofol as a fix-all.
Jackson’s doctor kept giving the singer Propofol, which the film describes as “anesthesia,” “every night for 30 straight days.” The dose was reportedly around 50 milligrams, “what you might see given to a patient before they have surgery.”
“I did to say to Mr. Jackson, I don’t know who told you that Propofol is safe to take for sleep, but it isn’t,” a nurse explains. “That’s when, he assured me, my doctor said I’ll be safe.”
Jackson was pronounced dead on June 25th, 2009, at age 50. His doctor, Conrad Murray, was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter, though you won’t find that out in the documentary.