Michael Jackson - Brett Ratner (Interview 2004)
Sunday, 01 February 2004
Interview by Brett Ratner February 2004. Volume. 34, Issue. 1; page. 92
Headnote: DECADES BEFORE ALL OF THE CHARGES AND COUNTERCHARGES, HE WAS A PINT-SIZE SINGER WITH A BIG DREAM
"Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it-don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist-but don't think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you."
Those words of advice, quoted in Robert Evans's The Kid Stays in the Picture, were given to F. Scott Fitzgerald by Hemingway, some 70 years ago. They are as relevant today as ever.
Speaking of life's desires, hurts, and euphoria! It ain't easy being a genius: You do pay the price, not unlike Mozart, who will be remembered far longer than Napoleon.
Michael Jackson understands this irony. No one I have ever met in my life has had such passion and love for entertainment. His work, brilliance, and vision will be remembered far longer than any of those who now think of him harshly.
Michael and I have shared many a day, week, and month together. Our relationship is based on our love of films. We have watched many films together, and our personal favorite that we enjoy most is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory! A few months before the latest drama, he and I were on a little vacation. In the past he has often put a video camera to my face and asked me questions. This is what Michael does with his friends: He becomes a scientist and dissects them through questions in order to learn. Many times he has asked me how my childhood dreams became a reality, about why I wanted to become a director. So I decided it was time to hear from him about his childhood dreams.
After my interview, I went out and bought all the records he mentioned and listened to them, understanding a little more about Michael. What you are about to read is a very private and personal conversation between two friends.
BRETT RATNER: Do you have a. mentor or someone who inspired you?
MICHAEL JACKSON: Yeah, I do: Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, James Brown, Jackie Wilson.
BR: And what did you learn from them?
MJ: I learned a lot from them-about how to be a visionary, how to be creative, how to be persistent, how to be determined, how to have a will of iron and to never give up no matter what. You know?
BR: What was your first job in the music industry, and how did you get it?
MJ: First job, probably . . . Gee, I don't remember back that far. I was around 6 years old. Maybe it was Mr. Lucky's. I think it was a club-yeah, Mr. Lucky's. We performed there.
BR: And how'd you get the job?
MJ: I don't know; my father would know. I was too little.
BR: What was your first break and the first great thing that ever happened to you?
MJ: The real big break was when Motown signed us. We auditioned in Detroit, and Berry Gordy invited all our favorite stars that we saw as kids to this little town in Indiana: Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder-everybody was there. And it was next to this indoor pool at this huge mansion, marble everywhere. We performed, and they just went crazy. They loved it. And [Gordy] says, "Boys, you're signed."
BR: And you remember that day?
MJ: Oh, I remember it.
BR: What elements of your job make you want to go to work every day?
MJ: I want to work every day- just the idea of creating worlds. It's like taking a canvas, an empty canvas, you know, a clean slate. They give you paint, and we just color and paint and create worlds. I just love that idea. And having people see it and be aweinspired whenever they see it.
BR: What qualities of yours helped you get where you are today?
MJ: Faith and determination. And practice.
BR: Right. Practice makes perfect. What would you have done differently in your career if you knew then what you know now?
MJ: What would I have done differently? Let me see . . . Practice more.
BR: Practice more?
MJ: I practiced a lot.
BR: You practiced a hell of a lot! [Jackson laughs] But you would have practiced more? [Jackson nods] What's your greatest lesson learned?
MJ: Not to trust everybody. Not to trust everybody in the industry. There're a lot of sharks. And record companies steal. They cheat. You have to audit them. And it's time for artists to take a stand against them, because they totally take advantage of [artists]. Totally. They forget that it's the artists who make the company, not the company who makes the artists. Without the talent, the company would be nothing but just hardware. And it takes a real good talent that the public wants to see.
BR: What are some of your favorite albums?
MJ: My favorite albums would be Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Claude Debussy's greatest hits, which is, you know, "Claire de Lune" and "Arabesque" and The Afternoon of a Faun. I love Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, James Brown's Live at the Apollo, The Sound of Music [soundtrack]. I love Rodgers and Hammerstein. I love the great show-tune writers very much, and I love Holland-Dozier-Holland from Motown they were geniuses. So many great writers. So many great ones.
BR: Any other great albums, like contemporary albums?
MJ: Great albums . . . It's hard because albums today have one or two great songs and the rest stink.
BR: Or older style-it could be like Marvin Gaye or Sly.
MJ: Sly & the Family Stone-I like everything they do. Stevie Wonder is a genius.
BR: Which album?
MJ: Every one. Talking Book. I love when he did "Living for the City." I forget the name of it [the album]. Fantastic. I think that was Innervisions-fantastic. Hearing this music made me say to myself, "I can do this, and I think I can do this on an international level."
MJ: Really, and then when the Bee Gees came out in the '70s, that did it for me. I cried. I cried listening to their music. I knew every note, every instrument.
BR: [sings] "This broken heart . . ."
MJ: [sings] "How can you mend . . ."
BR: [sings] "This broken heart . . ."
MJ: And [sings] "How can you stop the rain from falling down?" I love that, [sings with Ratner] "How can you stop the sun from shining? What makes the world go 'round." I love that stuff. And when they did Saturday Night Fever, that did it for me. I said, "I gotta do this. I know I can do this." And we hit with Thriller. And I just started writing songs. I wrote "Billie Jean." I wrote "Beat It," "Startin' Somethin'." Just writing, writing. It was fun.
BR: Any posters up in your room when you were a kid?
MJ: Yeah. Brooke Shields, everywhere. My sisters would get jealous and tear them off the wall.
BR: What are the great shows that you've seen, concerts?
MJ: James Brown. Jackie Wilson. The real entertainers, the real ones, make you get goose bumps.
BR: It was James Brown? Where'd you see him?
MJ: We used to have to go onstage after him because he would come on and then we would come on amateur hour. So I'd be in the wings studying every step, every move
BR: -On TV?
MJ: No, at the Apollo [Theater],
BR: Amateur Hour at the Apollo. And you saw him perform?
MJ: Yeah, and Jackie Wilson. All of them-the Delphonics, the Temptations.
BR: But do you remember one show? You saw the Temptations, too?
BR: But was there a show when you said like, "Oh, my God"?
MJ: James Brown, Jackie Wilson.
BR: At the Apollo?
MJ: Yeah, they made me cry. I've never seen nothing like that. That kind of emotion, that kind of fever, feeling-it was like another higher, spiritual plane they were on. They were, like, in a trance, and they had the audience in the palms of their hands. I just loved how they could control them like that, that kind of power. When they'd sing they'd have tears running down their faces. They'd get so into it.
BR: What are some of your favorite songs?
MJ: Favorite songs of all time? I love Burt Bacharach very much. Any Motown. The Beatles, like "Eleanor Rigby," "Yesterday." Any of the Supremes'. All that stuff is great. I think the '60s had some of the best melodies of all time between Peter, Paul, and Mary, and you know, all those people. The Mamas and the Papas were wonderful. And the Drifters go a little further back, but I love that song "On Broadway"-it's genius. The simple ones are the best, I think. I love "Alfie"-so beautiful. There are so many. Like movies, there are so many great movies.
BR: So list a few things that could be helpful to someone breaking into the music business.
MJ: Believe in yourself. Study the greats and become greater. And be a scientist. Dissect. Dissect.
BR: You said something else before: Don't give up.
MJ: No matter what. I don't care if the whole world is against you or teasing you or saying you're not gonna make it. Believe in yourself. No matter what. Some of the greatest men who have made their mark on this world were treated like that-you know, "You're not gonna do it, you're not gonna get anywhere." They laughed at the Wright brothers. They laughed at Thomas Edison. They laughed at Walt Disney. They made jokes about Henry Ford. They said he was ignorant. Disney dropped out of school. That's how far they went. These men shaped and changed our culture, our customs, the way we live, the way we do things. And I think God plants those seeds through people on the earth. And I think you're one, I'm one to bring some bliss and escapism, some joy, some magic. Because without entertainment, what would the world be like? You know? What would it really be like? It would be a totally different world for me. I love entertainment. And my favorite of all is film. The power and magic of movies. It's the greatest, it's the most expressive of all the art forms. I think it touches the soul. Music and movies are the most expressive. It's almost like religion: You get so involved, so caught up. You go in the theater a different person than you come out. It affects you that way. That's powerful. I think that's strong. I love that.
BR: When you can make an audience feel.
MJ: Yeah, yeah.
BR: They relate to it.
MJ: Yeah, they live it. They're a part of it. They forget they're sitting in a seat.
BR: The experience of watching a movie affects their life.
MJ: Their whole life. It could change your life.
BR: Yes, I remember seeing Star Wars in the theater when I was 7 years old. It's a different experience for Paris or Prince [Jackson's children] seeing it today on DVD, 27 years later. I saw it when it first came out, with all the shock and awe of the time. No one had ever seen anything like it. There were lines for blocks, and I didn't even get in the first time. I had to go back the next day to try again. The memory of being so desperate, at 7 years old, to see that movie makes it an even more unforgettable experience. The first time you see something like that, it permanently affects your life. It's like listening to a song or seeing an artist perform for the first time. Getting to see James Brown, and that moment of tears coming out of your eyes, is different than listening to it on the radio 20 years later.
MJ: I can't tell you how incredible it was. I just love the great entertainers, the great performers, the great showmen, the great storytellers. just watching them, you're just mesmerized. You're caught up in it. I love it. One spotlight, baby.
BR: Frank Sinatra.
MJ: Yeah. Those guys are cool. And Sammy Davis. I just love it, the whole thing. It's magic, it's real magic.
Sidebar: “I’m one to bring some bliss and escapism, some joy, some magic…Without entertainment, what would the world be like?”
Author Affiiliation: Brett Ratner is a director living in Los Angeles. His first photo book, Hilhaven Lodge.