“Immortal,” the new Michael Jackson-themed Cirque du Soleil show touring North America may sound grandiose but the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” was undoubtedly a larger-than-life character. While immortality was out of Jackson’s reach, the singer’s family are doing their best to keep his memory alive with musical extravaganzas.
Two “Michael Jackson Tribute Live” concerts will take place Dec. 13 and 14 at Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo. The event is the culmination of a year of preparation for the second memorial of its kind following the one in Cardiff, Wales, on Oct. 8. That show saw major acts such as Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera and even Jackson’s children come together to pay tribute to the singer, who died on June 25, 2009.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s three children will not be attending the Tokyo concerts, but a slew of other acts from here and abroad will. They include: U.S. singer Macy Gray, J-pop stars Crystal Kay and Juju, singer Tortoise Matsumoto and many more. But more importantly for Jackson fans, three of the superstar’s brothers — Jackie, Marlon and Tito — are on the bill.
Speaking to The Japan Times from his Los Angeles home just prior to rehearsals for the upcoming shows, Jackie Jackson explained that it was only natural to organize the second tribute event in Japan.
“Japan has been very supportive of my family over the years so it feels like a second home to us just as it did for Michael,” he said.
Jackie, the eldest of the Jackson sons at 60, was a member of The Jackson 5. That group was an R&B phenomenon during the 1970s and also included brothers Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, Michael and, later on, Randy.
“We were kids starting out, so all we wanted to do was make something that was fun, to have a good time with, and hopefully have hit records,” said Jackie, who was the high tenor of the group. “The music stretched around the world in a broad way and we were able to catch fans who happened to like what we were doing. We are very happy and thankful that people liked our music that way.”
One of those fans is Youichi Endo, an executive from Music On! TV. In fact, if it weren’t for him, this whole tribute might not have happened. In 2010, Endo took fellow superfan Ai Uemura, better known in Japan as pop singer AI, to Los Angeles as part of a Music On! TV program. In that show, AI interviewed the Jackson family and the team behind the abandoned “This Is It” series of concerts that were to be held in London and were billed as Michael’s comeback performances.
“Michael was extremely sensitive about everything,” says Endo, reflecting on what could have been a string of remarkable performances. “I assume he had to hide his own feelings when he communicated with others. That’s why he could explode with emotion on stage or in recordings, which were so powerful.”
AI developed such a rapport with the family that Michael’s mother, Katherine, wrote her a letter to show her appreciation of AI’s love for Michael and his music. AI returned a letter to Katherine, which began an exchange that eventually led to the announcement of the Tokyo tribute shows.
“Naturally, I was nervous when I first met them,” AI says of meeting the famous family. “It was totally unexpected that they would participate in the show and I’m full of gratitude toward them. The whole family has been wonderful.”
The path wasn’t completely smooth, though. Jermaine Jackson posted on his website that the show wouldn’t happen. Jermaine and younger brother Randy also voiced concerns about the show in Cardiff as well, saying the concert was “ill-timed” as it took place during the criminal trial of Conrad Murray, Michael’s doctor who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the singer’s death. Though that trial is now over (Murray has filed an appeal), Jermaine and Randy still will not take part in the Tokyo event.
While those shows were still up in the air, AI went in the studio to record a new song with the three brothers who remained committed to the shows. The result, “Letter in the Sky feat. The Jacksons,” is set to be released on Dec. 14, the second day of “Michael Jackson Tribute Live” in Tokyo.
“We had a wonderful time,” Jackie said of the recording. “It was the first time we’ve ever rolled cameras in a studio at the same time as doing the vocals — like a reality (TV) show. Right after that, we shot (the rest of) the music video on the same day, so the spirit in the room was great.”
Conceived as a theme song to the tribute shows and co-composed by the Jackson brothers, AI describes the piece as “rather than being a sad song, we took the lyrical concept of writing a letter to Michael and then backed it with an uplifting melody.”
Though the global star power of the singers set to appear at the Tokyo event doesn’t match that of the Cardiff show, the lineup puts more focus on Michael’s impact on the world of dance and will include lengthy dance elements. Dancers Kento Mori and Yuko Sumida Jackson (no relation to Michael), as well as “This Is It” choreographers Travis Payne and Stacy Walker, are all scheduled to appear.
Also from “This Is It” will be singer Judith Hill, who is of half-Japanese decent. Her and Macy Gray, a singer-songwriter who first came to worldwide attention in 1999 with her distinctive raspy voice on songs such as “Do Something” and “I Try,” are the sole international acts on the bill.
Besides the large role expected to be played by AI, other Japanese stars of note include pioneering interracial Japanese singer Crystal Kay. She credits Michael as the inspiration for her own career, fondly recalling listening to the Jackson 5 hit “ABC” as a child.
“I love Michael despite all of those things people say about him,” Kay says. “(He’s why) I became a singer.”
Kay hopes that if the audience is able to take away a message from the tribute event, it will be that “Michael and his music will forever be in our hearts.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Jackie.
“I want the audience to realize the type of person Michael was,” Jackie said, referring to his brother’s generosity. “We hope they walk away feeling the magic and Michael’s presence.”
In terms of finding that presence within the show, Jackie is confident.
“We all pretty much know what to do when it comes to Michael’s spirit,” he said. “He was part of us and was in this group, so his spirit is in the room with us wherever we go. He was with us in Cardiff and he will be with us in Japan. We feel it.”
The show also includes a charity element to help raise funds for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11. All profits from the merchandise, including T-shirts, towels and gloves, will be donated to projects such as a fund for scholarships for those orphaned by the disaster.
“We were devastated by the tragedy,” Jackie said. “I know lots of people lost homes and children were left without parents and family, so we can’t wait to go and see the youth centers and hospitals and extend our love to them. Hopefully we can bring some of them to the concert.”
“Michael Jackson Tribute Live” will be followed by an after-party at the opulent Shangri-La Hotel in Tokyo, organized by luxury magazine Pavone. Various DJ and live-music performances are planned as well as a mini-exhibition by American Apparel and sponsored booths by Ray Ban and Tom Ford. Tickets are ¥15,000 each and are available only via a fax application from the Pavone website.
“This might be the last tribute show for a while,” said Jackie, who then hinted that the family estate may yet also approve one in Los Angeles. He added that the Jacksons are hoping to organize a full East Asia tour further down the line, together with AI, playing throughout Japan and China.
Trying to match the power and emotion of an actual Michael Jackson concert will be quite a feat, especially considering Japan was tagged as the pop star’s second home because of the fans here. Endo agrees that it will be difficult to live up to the superstar’s reputation, and that he still can’t quite put his finger on how to recreate the singer’s magic.
“I’ve listened to Michael’s music at least 100 times,” Endo says, “but I’m still looking for the answer.”
“Michael Jackson Tribute Live” takes place at Yoyogi National Stadium on Dec. 13 and 14 (7 p.m.; ¥11,000). For information, call (0570) 064-708 or visit www.mjtribute.jp.