Fans, friends pay tribute to the King of Pop

Presented by AEG. Reviewed July 7, 2009.
Live from Staples Center; 20,000 seats; free distribution by lottery from a pool of 1.6 million
Performers: Ron Boyd, Kobe Bryant, Mariah Carey, Andrae Crouch Choir, Berry Gordy, Jennifer Hudson, Shaheen Jafargholi, Magic Johnson, Martin Luther King III, Bernice A. King, John Mayer, Lionel Richie, Smokey Robinson, Rev. Al Sharpton, Brooke Shields, Pastor Lucious Smith, Usher and Stevie Wonder.

There was Elvis, there was John Lennon, there was Princess Diana, and now there’s Michael Jackson, the first celebrity to inspire global paroxysms of grief in the 21st century. Measured by his media coverage as well as his posthumous legal and medical issues, not to mention his mourning fans, it’s possible that Jackson has topped them all.

On Tuesday morning, downtown Los Angeles was transformed into a humming mini-economy dedicated to the memory of the entertainer.

Amid something of a police state, with helicopters buzzing overhead and packs of officers stationed along Figueroa Avenue, the throngs of ticket holders, makeshift T-shirt vendors and wishful thinkers created an atmosphere that was almost friendly.

Jackson spokesman Ken Sunshine had said he hoped the lottery-based ticket distribution for the Staples Center memorial service would be conducted with “dignity” — a wish that might seem far-fetched for an event conducted in a space that would next host the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Certainly the numbers were impressive: 19,500 mourners at Staples and another 5,500 at the Nokia Theater simulcast. Meanwhile, Tuesday saw endless hours of TV and online coverage domestically and around the world.

AEG, which organized the memorial, said figures will be available today for global carriers and estimates of viewers. CNN estimated that the memorial yielded the second-highest live vid streaming day in CNN.com’s history, with the site serving up 9.7 million video streams. Hulu reported that Tuesday was its second-highest live vid streaming day after the Obama inauguration in January.

Clearly, it takes a global village to mourn a superstar.

While the memorial was a spectacle, it also offered no shortage of sorrow, genuine emotion and, yes, dignity.

Though predictions about downtown gridlock were ominous, less than 1,000 people showed up around the lockdown perimeter, and things went generally well despite the tight time frame in which this event was assembled.

However, the morning wasn’t without its glitches. An LAPD officer outside L.A. Live’s Club Nokia said, “We’re a little behind schedule for family considerations,” a reference to the family’s morning service at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

Inside Staples, Smokey Robinson appeared as the first speaker at 10:10 a.m. After reading statements of sympathy from Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela, Robinson returned to his seat, and the arena fell quiet for 20 long minutes, silent enough to hear the purr of the A/C system.

Finally, as the Andrae Crouch Choir filed on stage at 10:33 a.m., the Jackson family walked into the arena. Acting as pallbearers were Michael Jackson’s brothers (each wearing aviator sunglasses and one sparkly glove), wheeling in an enormous gold-plated casket covered in red roses. Given the ornate presentation, it was a moment that could have tipped into the baroque. Instead, the casket served as a valid reminder of what had been lost.

The first speaker was Pastor Lucious Smith, who, like those who followed him, came onstage without introduction. His words effectively framed what was to come, describing Jackson as a brother, son, father and friend who would be celebrated “in the space where, only days ago, he danced and sang.”

Punctuating the service throughout was audible sniffling from the audience along with cries of “I love you, Michael!” and “We all love you, Michael!”

Mariah Carey and Trey Lorenz provided the first performance with the Jackson 5 song “I’ll Be There.”

Queen Latifah introduced her remarks by saying that she was “representing all the fans,” a remark she underlined with a remembrance of buying the Jackson 5 album “Dance Machine” and trying to learn to dance the robot with her brother. She also read a poem by Maya Angelou dedicated to Jackson, “We Had Him,” which began: “Now that we know/we know nothing… We had him/He took a pose/on his toes/for all of us.”

Lionel Richie sang the gospel-tinged Commodores song “Jesus Is Love” with a choral backing. While his performance was heartfelt, the projected backdrop of anonymous church arches seemed strange in an environment that was otherwise deeply personal.

Former Motown head Berry Gordy said Jackson “raised the bar and broke the bar.” He also spoke of the “competitiveness” at Motown, perhaps alluding to the internal strife that led to the Jackson 5 leaving Motown in 1975.

“He had some sad times and some questionable decisions on his part, but he accomplished everything he dreamed of,” Gordy said. “He did have two personalities. He was another person onstage, a master showman who was ‘kill or be killed.’ ‘The King of Pop’ isn’t big enough — he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived.” This brought the audience to its feet for the first of a number of standing ovations.

Stevie Wonder’s voice was weighted with emotion before he launched into “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer.” “This is a moment that I wish I didn’t live to see,” Wonder said.

Kobe Bryant hailed Jackson for his charity work, while Magic Johnson said that one of the greatest moments of his life was a dinner with Michael that offered a private chef but culminated in “sitting on the floor and eating that bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

He also said that Michael’s children would benefit from “a most incredible grandmother” along with uncles, aunts and cousins — a list in which father Joe Jackson was notably omitted.

Jennifer Hudson provided a rousing, choir-backed performance of “Will You Be There,” inspiring the audience to clap in time.

In a moment that carried the power of a tent revival meeting, Rev. Al Sharpton hailed Michael for “creating a comfort level” that allowed the world to see African-Americans as worthy of attention and celebration. “It wasn’t strange to watch Oprah Winfrey on TV or to see Tiger Woods play golf … or to vote an African-American as president.”

He also nodded to the controversy that defined much of Michael’s life. “There are those who want to focus on his mess. It’s not about his mess; it’s his message.” To Michael’s children, he said: “Wasn’t nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with.”

John Mayer’s performance of “Human Nature” on guitar suggested an easy-listening take, with an outspoken melody line and whispered vocals by backing singers.

Brooke Shields’ halting, emotional speech described Jackson as offering “the most natural and easy of friendships … We both knew what it was like to be in a spotlight from a young age. I would tease him, ‘You were a slacker. I was 11 months old when I started. You were, what, 5?’ ”

Michael’s brother Jermaine then sang what Shields said was Michael’s favorite song, “Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin for “Modern Times.”

Martin Luther King III and his sister, Bernice A. King, described Michael as “the best of what he was,” while U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) announced Resolution 600, which she drafted and brought to Congress’ attention the day after Michael’s death. (HR 600 calls for the House of Representatives to recognize the performer “as a global humanitarian and a noted leader in the fight against worldwide hunger and medical crises; and celebrates Michael Jackson as an accomplished contributor to the worlds of arts and entertainment, scientific advances in the treatment of HIV/AIDS and global food security.” It’s since been referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.)

Usher descended from the stage to address much of his performance of “Gone Too Soon” to Michael’s casket.

The service ended with a group performance of “We Are the World,” followed by individual remembrances from Jermaine, Marlon and, most notably, Paris, Michael’s much-protected daughter. It was heartrending, if a little disturbing, to see grief displayed so clearly in a young girl whose life before now was entirely private.

The service was presented by AEG, produced by Kenny Ortega and Ken Ehrlich and directed by Ortega.

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