He’s sold more records than virtually any performer alive, he’s recognized as much as anyone in entertainment, but Michael Jackson apparently needed to be convinced that people really like him. To that end, the self-proclaimed King of Pop decided to throw himself a party, one that took a good bit of time to build from the ridiculous to the near-sublime.
The rambling, late-starting show began on a decidedly disturbing note with a frightfully emaciated Whitney Houston barely making it through one verse of “Wanna Be Starting Something” — on which she shared the microphone with singers Usher and Mya, neither of whom seemed to be making any effort to be heard above the tinny backing.
Things got progressively stranger from there, with Marlon Brando slipping into his “Apocalypse Now” character to deliver a speech about “children hacked to death with machetes.” Even that sounded normal, however, when Liza Minelli doused Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” with an entirely unsuitable layer of piano-bar schmaltz before launching into an off-key take on her mother’s “Over the Rainbow.”
Audience restlessness was palpable as intricate stagings delayed numbers like a medley from “The Wiz” — keyed by Al Jarreau in full Tin Man regalia — and Destiny’s Child’s odd, Bob Fosse-derived prance through “Bootylicious.”
A few performers managed to cut to the chase, offering simple, affecting versions of Jackson favorites: Billy Gilman’s “Ben” had an agreeable undertone of cheese, while Marc Anthony brought the crowd to its feet — this time not to head for the exit — with “She’s Out of My Life.”
After more than two hours of build-up, the Jackson family finally took the stage and — as if fueled by some of Neverland’s own brand of magical pixie dust — turned the clock back two decades in a matter of moments. The reunited siblings’ 20-minute set was little more than a simple medley of hits from the Jackson 5’s heyday, but performances of “ABC,” “I Want You Back” and “I’ll be There” saw them hit every vocal mark — as well as many of the classic dance peaks they scaled way back when.
Following a superfluous footwork duel with the members of ‘N Sync — who joined the Jacksons for a goofy-but-garrulous take on “Dancing Machine” — it was time for another long delay. And then MJ finally took the stage alone, which he hadn’t done in these parts for more than a decade.
While the intervening years have clearly taken their toll on Jackson as a person, his skills as a performer haven’t eroded. His voice — lowered the slightest of notches these days, it still floats in the ether between alto and tenor — was as fluid as ever on versions of “Black or White” (which featured some white-hot soloing from Slash) and “Billie Jean.”
As a crutch — or, perhaps, a sop to fans pining for days gone by — Jackson chose to treat his solo segment as a series of set pieces, each re-creating one of his past video triumphs. While most of the stagings — including a duet with an under-miked Britney Spears on “The Girl Is Mine” — tickled the nostalgia bone, a few more nods to the modern world would have been welcome.
Perf ended, four hours later, with an all-hands-on-deck reading of “We Are the World,” which served to remind the cynics in attendance that the millions raised by the show went not to charity but to the King of Pop’s own coffers.