Monday, June 29, 2009

RIP Wiz-kid of Pop

It's hard to say what the scene would have been like if Michael Jackson hadn't died on Thursday night. Would people still have been lining up an hour beforehand to secure their seats, or would they have succumbed to the siren call of Top Gun (showing in the Before They Were Scientologists screen downstairs) or the tripped out Smiley Face next door? As it was, Cinema 3 at BAM's all-night movie fest turned into the most raucous of celluloid wakes, fuelled by nostalgia and Brooklyn lager and a desire to remember Jacko before the Wacko; to see him again as the kid who eased on down the yellow brick road.

I'd never seen The Wiz before, unlike the majority of the mostly young, mostly black audience, who sang along with the cast and cheered on Diana Ross as she transformed from a shy Bronx kindergarten teacher ("24, and never been south of 125th street" to a kick-ass heroine who could sprint in vertiginous sparkly heels. There was something magical about being there in the heart of Brooklyn, and watching the action unfurl amidst a dystopian Coney Island playground (the Tin Man's comment that there's "nothing amusing about the closure of an amusement park" was met with howls of agreement) and to see the yellow brick road span across a neon-lit Brooklyn Bridge.

But it was Michael we were here to see. Almost unrecognisable until he let rip into song, his nineteen year old face is covered in make-up and his dancer's frame is padded out with straw and apt quotations. It's a more benign disguise than the one that the singer later carves out of his own skin, and it doesn't hinder the mad capering and knife-like physical precision that makes him so mesmerising to watch. There are whoops and screams and hollers throughout, but it's near the very end that the crowd explode. After discovering that the great Wiz is a fraud Michael, as the supposedly brainless scarecrow, finally comes up with his own aphorism: "Success, fame, and fortune, they're all illusions. All there is that is real is the friendship that two can share." It's a painfully, preternaturally apt realisation from a man who seemed so miserably alone in his own glittering Emerald City.

After the credits role the crowds surge upstairs to the 'all-night dance party', many belting out showtunes on the way. It's only then that I realise that people have been stood up at the back throughout the two and a half hour movie. Upstairs it's back-to-back Michael Jackson hits. With all the media hype about collective emotion and false grief there's something genuinely touching about watching a room full of people - most of whom were too young to remember Jackson as the revolutionary black artist to break through MTV's racial apartheid - dancing to Billie Jean and singing their hearts out.

You could tell we weren't in London anymore, because there wasn't a single joke about blowing bubbles.

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