I recently read Randall Sullivan’s new book Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first attempt by a journalist at a comprehensive review of Jackson’s later years and all the controversies during this period, as well as the posthumous legal wrangling for control of his estate and custody of his children.
Sullivan’s book mainly focuses on the legal and financial issues which dominated Michael’s life during the final two decades or so of his life, beginning with the Jordie Chandler scandal in 1993 through his death in 2009. There is some reporting about the making of the Jackson 5 and solo albums, as well as the tours, but it’s secondary reporting that comes across almost as an afterthought at times.
This is not an easy read. The sheer volume of information Sullivan had to go through and write about – collected from interviews, police and court records – is comparable to drinking water from a fire hose. There are also a lot of characters and moving parts to keep in mind throughout the course of the story that make it difficult to for a reader to keep up. Also making it somewhat tricky to follow is that Sullivan occasionally jumps back and forth in terms of the chronology of events, from Michael’s childhood to the Jackson 5 to his solo years. Ultimately, this is editorially necessary not just because of its relevance to Michael’s life story, but to see how he grew up in the business, how it shaped his worldview, and how he built the massive financial juggernaut that he eventually became.
Very few people come out looking good by the end of the story – not Michael’s managers and handlers, his doctors, the people in his entourage, the media, the police and prosecutors who investigated him, the people on the inside or the periphery who tried to exploit their connections to Michael for financial gain, members of the Jackson family, and even Michael himself. The impression one comes away with repeatedly is that he never knew who he could really trust. He was simultaneously enabled and exploited by the people around him, from a very early age and even after his death.
This is not to say Michael was a naive and innocent victim, either. He could be shrewd, manipulative, and even show flashes of brilliance when it came to his business affairs. It was after a casual conversation in the studio with Paul McCartney that he got the idea to buy the rights to the Beatles catalog. In the late 1990s, he developed a proposal to buy Marvel Comics for about $1.4 billion and develop a Spider-Man movie. The deal fell through when Sony wouldn’t let him use the Sony/ATV catalog as collateral for the deal. Michael’s business instincts were ultimately proven correct a decade later, when Disney bought Marvel for $4 billion and four Spider-Man movies had grossed hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.
One of the few who does come across as a decent and honorable person that was truly looking out for Michael’s interests was Tom Mesereau, his defense attorney during the Gavin Arvizo trial from 2003-2005. Not surprisingly perhaps, he was also a key source for Sullivan.
Perhaps the most tantalizing details in the book for fans of Michael Jackson’s music are the comments from musicians, producers, and record executives hinting at just how many songs he had written and recorded – potentially in the hundreds – but ultimately shelved, for a variety of reasons. If released, those songs could potentially generate millions, if not tens of millions of dollars for the estate. Example: When Michael Jackson found out Tim Burton was working on a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he went into a studio and wrote and recorded a soundtrack for the movie to offer to the studio, on the condition that he be offered the lead role of Willy Wonka. The studio didn’t want to give him the lead role, but were willing to work him into the movie for any other role. Michael turned down the offer and wound up shelving the album. Whether it will ever see the light of day or not remains to be seen.
Bottom line: it’s a terrific read, but it requires an attention span because it’s not the easiest subject matter to follow. It’s not a hagiography for Michael Jackson’s fans either.