Stars Turn Out for Michael Jackson Memorial at L.A.'s Staples Center

The scene from the Michael Jackson memorial service in Los Angeles.
By Tom Shales
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Say what you want about Michael Jackson -- and by now, almost everyone has -- he was always Good TV. Sometimes he was Great TV, like when he was a little kid fronting the Jackson 5 on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and later when he immortally executed the moonwalk and sang on "Motown 25" and then that final time, when his coffin lay at the front of a giant auditorium while other people did the singing for him.

It was fitting that "Michael," as everyone called him (sometimes "Michael Joseph Jackson," his full name), left us as he had come to us, through television, his memorial service and attendant hullabaloo taking up many hours on innumerable networks; it's fitting he and his brothers had a hit with "Never Can Say Goodbye," because the big memorial ceremony, in L.A.'s Staples Center, couldn't seem to end.

No one could be blamed for not wanting to see him go, which is what would literally happen when the casket was wheeled out at the end of the service. When Usher sang "Gone Too Soon," leaving the stage to stand near, and touch, the flower-covered coffin, that seemed like the end. But then back came Smokey Robinson, who had two hours earlier opened the program reading letters from Michael's pals Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela, to say a few more words.

Robinson then gave the stage over to a kid -- Shaheen Jafargholi, a finalist on a British TV talent show and scheduled to join Michael onstage during his forthcoming visit to England. He sang "Who's Lovin' You" and said a few words about Michael. Then came Kenny Ortega, the brilliant director-choreographer of the "High School Musical" movies and a longtime collaborator with Michael on his stage shows, including the "This Is It" Tour he was rehearsing when he died.

Ortega introduced the song that had to be sung at this memorial, "We Are the World," with a huge crowd of pop stars taking the stage. That was followed by Jackson brothers Jermaine and Marlon, Marlon fighting back tears, and a preacher to pronounce a benediction, so late in the proceedings that he wasn't seen on NBC or CBS but was seen on ABC, FNC and CNN.

"We're not going to go away," said Wolf Blitzer on CNN after the ceremony -- and it sounded like a threat. He meant that coverage would continue, along with delivery of all the other news that had been kept waiting since three or four hours earlier, when the channel became the Michael News Network.

Theorists and scholars saw the marathon coverage as not only a cultural landmark but also arguably a new tipping point in media history, with the Jackson memorial expected to be the most-viewed multimedia event since the inauguration of Barack Obama. Wandering consumers could catch coverage on a variety of Web sites -- Hulu, MySpace and many newspaper sites -- or opt for entirely different reports on Jackson's life and times elsewhere on the Web.

Along the way, viewers witnessed many moving moments, the kind that would touch even a skeptic's heart, and the anchors -- including trio con brio Katie Couric, Brian Williams and Charles Gibson -- kept suitably quiet. Occasionally, the TV director would wander off to a wide shot of the auditorium and miss crucial action onstage. Fortunately, when Michael's 11-year-old daughter Paris attempted to speak, and lost her fight with tears, the moment was captured in a poignant, heartrending close-up.

The little girl's painful tribute to her father cut through all the windy hyperbole that had dominated the proceedings and made the story intensely human and accessible. It was pure television, spontaneous and intimate.

Brooke Shields, of all people, came across as genuine, too, as she tried lightheartedly to recall hanging around with Michael when both were young stars ("we were two little kids having fun") and, her voice breaking, remembered that Michael's favorite song was "Smile," adapted from a melody that Charles Chaplin wrote for his film "Modern Times."

Before Jermaine Jackson stepped onstage to sing "Smile," Shields also compared her friend Michael to the (doomed) hero of the famous French classic "The Little Prince." Like the little prince, Shields said, "Michael saw everything with his heart." Unfortunately the pompous windbag Martin Bashir, who joined Gibson for ABC coverage, thought she was talking about "The Prince," the infamous 1515 classic by Niccolo Machiavelli. Nope, not even close.

Some of the issues commonly called "controversies" in Michael Jackson's life were touched on by speakers. Al Sharpton, orating in a roar as is his custom, at one point addressed himself to Michael's children, seated with Michael's parents in the front row: "Wasn't nothing strange about your daddy," Sharpton said. "It was strange what your daddy had to deal with." TV commentators later said that this remark got the loudest and most sustained ovation of the day.

No one mentioned by name the crime of child molestation, but Michael Jackson was never found guilty of that crime anyway, despite exhaustive efforts by Los Angeles lawmen to prosecute and imprison him. Outside the courtroom on one occasion, it was recalled by various celebrities over the past few days, Jackson jumped up on top of a car and danced in defiance of those who persecuted him.

Considering the various eccentricities of Michael's public life, and the private parts that became public, there was bound to be something of a circussy aura even to the memorial service. And yet for the most part, and considering the presence of so much media, an impressive dignity was observed.

ABC's Gibson tried to sound flippant and unaffected by the pageantry and the heartfelt sentiments and came off as haughty, while on Fox, Geraldo Rivera got hold of a microphone once again and railed against the friends and associates of Michael Jackson, unnamed, who "gave him drugs" and thereby allegedly hastened his demise. "I want those people held criminally responsible!" Rivera bellowed -- ever the demagogue, ever the clown.

CNN requested and received e-mail, text messages, twitter wit and other contributions from viewers. Although it was said that prepubescent children, and some even older, knew Jackson not as a musical genius but as a superstar of lurid tabloids, one of the text messages that CNN ran across the bottom of the screen suggested otherwise: "I'm only 15," it said, "and I will probably never get over this."

Viewers of any age who stayed with the story all day, whether via the broadcast networks or such cable channels as BET, MTV and VH-1, may have felt at the end as if they'd been run over by a truck -- or at the very least, emotionally exhausted. But such is the role pop culture plays in our lives, with Michael Jackson's legacy compounded by the notion that he'll prove to be the last of the true superstars with a huge, cross-cultural constituency. This was, then, a day of mourning for more than a star -- although considering the star, that would have been enough.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company