More to see in ‘Official Michael Jackson OPUS’
The black-and-white photos of Michael Jackson are remarkable not only as previously unreleased images of one the last half-century’s most photographed men. They also reveal much about the pop superstar’s abiding impulses: his impish sense of humor, his fealty to yesteryear’s master showmen and his concern about his own place in the pop culture firmament.
FOR THE RECORD:
Michael Jackson: An article about a new Michael Jackson coffee table book in Wednesday’s Calendar section stated that the performer won five American Music Awards last month, including artist of the year. Jackson won four AMAs, and Taylor Swift won artist of the year. —
Sporting a threadbare black suit, pancake makeup and a miniature brush mustache, Jackson is a doppelgänger for Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character from 1921’s “The Kid.” The photos, taken in 1994 by Steve Whitsitt, were originally intended as a companion piece to the Chaplin-inspired video the director-photographer was shooting for “Smile” -- the cover of the silent comedian’s famous song that appears on Jackson’s “HIStory” album. But when the Chaplin estate issued a cease-and-desist order to stifle “Smile’s” release as a video and single, Whitsitt abandoned the photos to his archives.
Until earlier this year, that is, when the photographer received a surprise phone call from photo editor Deborah Wald, who was working on a new Jackson omnibus. “I asked him if he had something special, something of Michael that hadn’t previously seen the light of day,” Wald said. “And he said, ‘I think I have something.’ ”
Whitsitt’s seven photos, as well as some 300 other images of and for the King of Pop that have never before been seen publicly, provide the backbone for “The Official Michael Jackson Opus”: a lushly produced coffee-table book that came out Monday. The price is lush too: $249.
Intended as a “visual greatest hits” of the singer’s career, the leather-bound, 400-page tome is the only publication officially sanctioned by the Jackson estate since his death by acute propofol intoxication in June.
It is composed of long-lost photos by a number of the pop superstar’s personal photographers -- some 80% of the never-before-published images are courtesy of Wald’s archival research and dealmaking -- and provides an arresting glimpse of many of the extravagant artworks and eye-popping murals Jackson commissioned for his Neverland Ranch and Las Vegas mansion -- some of which already have critics cackling, such as a painting of him nearly naked (and quite white).
As well, “The Opus” includes personal essays about the performer written by a select group of Jackson intimates, a crazy quilt of boldfaced names that includes Shaquille O’Neal, Motown founder Berry Gordy, magician David Blaine, choreographer/ex-"American Idol” judge Paula Abdul, former backup dancer (and ex-husband of Jennifer Lopez) Cris Judd, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and “Thriller” director John Landis.
Turns out that three months before his death, Jackson began negotiating with Kraken Opus, an imprint specializing in top-quality, small-batch, elegantly bound titles that typically cost between $2,100 and $40,000 apiece. Shortly after the announcement of “This Is It,” Jackson’s planned sold-out, 50-date concert comeback series in London, the publisher approached him about producing two books: one to showcase the concerts and another, more comprehensive one that would encompass the entertainer’s entire life in the limelight.
At a meeting at Sony studios in April, Jackson revealed himself to be a savvy consumer of coffee-table books.
“I remember him asking about how the paper was made and the hand-stitching on the binding, the colors we used in the printing process,” said Jordan Sommers, executive vice president of Opus Media Group. “He was asking about the paper stock by name.”
“He had an overall command of what he wanted,” he continued. “But there was nothing cynical about him. What struck me was his combination of childlike wonderment, that sort of curiosity that comes from innocence, yet being so focused and confident and self-assured.”
Opus President Jeff Wald, Deborah’s husband, had known Jackson off and on since he was a teenager and retains long-standing ties to the special administrators of Jackson’s estate, John Branca and John McClain. So after the singer died, “The Opus” was among the first Jackson-related intellectual properties to be approved by a Los Angeles County Superior Court.
As Jeff Wald points out, unlike the deluge of quickie Jackson books rushed to market in the immediate aftermath of the pop star’s death, “The Opus” always was intended to be distinguished by a higher level of Jackson access.
“All these books were cut-and-paste jobs, retread garbage,” Wald said. “Our goal was original writing, not red carpet sound bites, things that hadn’t been seen by anybody before. And every word in here was vetted by the estate.”
Weighing in at 26 pounds and measuring 30 by 18 inches, “The Opus” arrives as the rare coffee-table book that is almost as big as a coffee table. But the book might be as notable for what the editorial team chose not to include as for what “The Opus” contains.
Absent is the kind of imagery that made Jackson such a galvanizing figure in the final decade of his life: the entertainer dangling his infant child Prince Michael II over a Berlin hotel balcony in 2002; Jackson treating frenzied fans to an impromptu dance routine outside a 2004 arraignment after pleading not guilty to felony child molestation charges (for which he was acquitted the following year); Jackson dressed in a woman’s traditional Islamic veil and robe, shopping in a Bahraini mall in 2006.
“Because all the photos and information of the last dozen years focused on the negative, the mandate for all of us was to do a high-end scrapbook for his kids,” Sommers said.
Still, some of Jackson’s art and murals, which sum up his fairy tale worldview more than any personal testimony ever could, have given the performer’s critics pause.
Most notably, a 1999 portrait the superstar commissioned from painter David Nordahl already has garnered no small amount of lurid fascination among Jackson’s detractors. In the artwork, Jackson appears with alabaster-hued skin, nearly naked à la Michelangelo’s “David” (save for a strategically placed drape of fabric) and being attended by a bevy of naked, winged cherubs.
The New York Post’s tactless topic sentence in its story about the “weird art” featured in Jackson’s “Opus”? “Thank heaven for little boys.”
Nonetheless, for the last half-year, everything Jackson-related has sold like gangbusters and there is no reason to expect differently for “The Opus,” released just in time for the holidays. The Sony-distributed backstage documentary “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” has become the top-grossing concert film of all time. And the performer continues to rack up posthumous accolades, winning five American Music Awards last month, including artist of the year.
Likewise, “The Official Michael Jackson Opus” has become Kraken Opus’ bestselling title to date with pre-sales of more than 20,000 copies -- a major sales figure for the small-run imprint.
But according to the brain trust behind “The Opus,” the publication’s primary objective was met before a single copy sold. “We wanted a tribute that’s positive and fair,” Sommers said. “He was not only a brilliant dancer-singer-fashion icon, he was a fascinating human being.”