Michael Jackson memorial kept focus where it belonged: on the music

July 8, 2009

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

Though questions about Michael Jackson’s tawdry end and troubled life are certain to linger — possibly forever — most of the 2˝-hour memorial service broadcast from the Staples Center in Los Angeles Tuesday kept the focus where it should have been: on the music.

Yes, some of the speakers waxed hyperbolic when assessing the singer’s legacy. The Rev. Al Sharpton credited Jackson with making people “comfortable enough” to vote for an African-American president. And Motown Records head Berry Gordy went beyond the title Jackson claimed for himself, the King of Pop, to call him “the greatest entertainer who ever lived.”

Those comments seemed over-reaching and unnecessary in light of the best of the musical tributes, which began with the Andrae Crouch Singers, part of the gospel ensemble Jackson put together to record the backing vocals for “Man in the Mirror.”

Two of the highlights came from former Motown labelmates: Stevie Wonder played a heart-rending, piano-and-vocal version of his song “They Won’t Go When I Go,” while Lionel Richie delivered his touching modern spiritual “Jesus Is Love.”

Smokey Robinson spoke but unfortunately didn’t sing. He recounted how Jackson outshined him when he recorded “Who’s Lovin’ You.” But then the tune was rendered by 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi, who rose to fame by performing on the TV contest “Britain’s Got Talent.” It’s a sad irony that no one questioned whether this boy was any more prepared to be thrust into the global spotlight than Jackson had been.

The renditions of Jackson’s own songs underscored how they could be simple on the surface but complex at the core, and how they could be both deeply soulful and cloyingly saccharine.

While performing “I’ll Be There,” Mariah Carey handled the high register while Trey Lorenz sang the lower parts. On his recording, Jackson sang both parts, covering a three-octave range.

And while Chicagoan Jennifer Hudson gave her all on an uplifting version of “Will You Be There” from “Dangerous” (1991), it was marred by the taped monologue from Jackson’s version of the song, which added unneeded melodrama. (“In our darkest hour / In my deepest despair / Will you still care? / Will you be there?”)

While Usher is one of the most famous modern showmen influenced by Jackson — Justin Timberlake would be the other — he kept things simple and straight while singing “Gone Too Soon,” another song from “Dangerous” that didn’t quite work.

More moving was Jermaine, the only Jackson sibling to perform, pouring his heart into “Smile,” the song Charlie Chaplin wrote for the 1936 film “Modern Times,” and which actress Brooke Shields had moments earlier noted was Michael Jackson’s favorite song. (He recorded a version of it on the “HIStory” album in 1995.)

As was probably inevitable, the memorial closed with an all-hands-on-deck sing-along of “We Are the World,” needlessly extended into Jackson’s second attempt to write a saccharine globe-hugging anthem, “Heal the World.” Leading the vocals were members of the band assembled to back the singer at the London comeback concerts that were to start next week.

While introducing the finale, choreographer Kenny Ortega noted that he and the band had been working with the star at the Staples Center just before Jackson’s death. In the end, it was curious that the promoters of the concerts and the memorial, AEG, chose not to include any of the footage of Jackson himself shot during those rehearsals.

If enough of that tape exists to release a full concert DVD, it could be the most valuable document to settle whether Jackson retained some measure of the talents that drove him to the peak of stardom with “Thriller,” or whether his artistic unraveling tragically followed his physical decline.