7 Movies That Could Have Starred Michael Jackson

Getty
Getty

While his personal life was a perpetual source of controversy and speculation, singer, songwriter, and entertainer Michael Jackson (1958-2009) had an unchallenged run as the most successful recording artist of the 20th century. According to Billboard, Jackson has sold more than one billion albums. (Thriller, his most successful venture, moved more than 100 million copies alone.)

Jackson, however, harbored ambitions beyond creating music. Throughout his career, the musician made several attempts to become a movie star. Owing to his distinctive appearance and persona, disappearing into a role was an uphill battle—though he continued to pursue it, even taking acting lessons from longtime friend Marlon Brando. In honor of what would have been Jackson's 60th birthday, take a look at seven projects the singer tried his best to get involved in.

1. WILLY WONKA // CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)

When Jackson learned Warner Bros. had hired Tim Burton to reimagine Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—which had been previously filmed with Gene Wilder in 1971—the singer became so preoccupied with being considered for the role of eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka that he recorded a soundtrack to surprise studio executives. Although they loved the music, no one was behind the idea of casting him as Wonka. When they offered to pay an exorbitant sum for the soundtrack and give him a small supporting part, an offended Jackson dropped out of participating entirely. The role eventually went to Johnny Depp, who denied he based his portrayal on Jackson.

2. SPIDER-MAN // SPIDER-MAN (2002)

For years, Jackson had attempted to acquire Marvel Comics, which was experiencing financial issues in the late 1990s and had even filed for bankruptcy in 1996. In 1999, Jackson met with writer Stan Lee to discuss the possibility of an acquisition—though Lee had no direct involvement with Marvel at the time—and to get Lee’s thoughts on the potential for Jackson starring as Spider-Man in a feature film. According to Lee, Jackson felt buying the company would be the only way he’d get the part.

Jackson was unable to gather the financing needed to buy Marvel; Sony produced a Spider-Man feature in 2002 with Tobey Maguire. Curiously, Jackson also lobbied to be Professor Xavier in Fox’s 2000 adaptation of X-Men.

3. UNNAMED MIME // STREET DANDY

In 1984, Jackson was circling a script by Flashdance writer Tom Hedley titled Street Dandy, a musical about a New York café where a group of aspiring performers congregate. The “street dandy,” People magazine explained, was a mime and “fashion sensation." In 1987, producer Lynda Obst said the project was dead because the role was “too fanciful” for the singer. 1978’s The Wiz remains the only feature musical Jackson ever starred in.

4. PETER PAN // HOOK (1991)

Jackson, who had long been obsessed with the idea of flying, took a special interest in Peter Pan, author J.M. Barrie’s boy who never grew up. According to director Steven Spielberg, Jackson was close to being cast as Pan in Spielberg’s 1991 film Hook, which examined Pan’s life as a world-weary adult who discovers the young man he used to be. That twist was apparently disagreeable with Jackson, who didn’t envision a revisionist Pan in the same way Spielberg did. The role went to Robin Williams.

5. QUASIMODO // THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

Jackson was so infatuated with the Victor Hugo story about deformed cathedral occupant Quasimodo and his love for a street dancer that he screened the 1939 film adaptation countless times. Screenwriter Tom Hedley recalled that he and Jackson spent many nights discussing the possibility of Jackson taking over the role of the hunchback. The project never got off the ground; Hugo’s story was later the basis for a 1996 Disney animated feature.

6. JAR JAR BINKS // STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

The critically maligned Star Wars prequel took a particular drubbing over computer-generated comic relief Jar Jar Binks. According to motion-capture actor Ahmed Best, who was recalling the controversy surrounding the role for a Vice interview in 2015, Jackson had petitioned director George Lucas for the role. “[Lucas] said, ‘Well, Michael wanted to do the part but he wanted to do it in prosthetics and makeup like Thriller,” Best said. “George wanted to do it in CGI. My guess is ultimately Michael Jackson would have been bigger than the movie, and I don't think [Lucas] wanted that.”

7. MIDKNIGHT

Jackson’s closest brush with a major starring role came in 1991, when Sony Pictures was actively developing a film titled MidKnight. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sony was heavily invested in the action-adventure film with an undisclosed plot rumored to involve a boy who can transform into a dancing knight at 12 a.m. Oscar-winning production designer Anton Furst (Full Metal Jacket, Batman) was rumored to be the studio’s choice for a director. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson told Vice in 2009 that part of the appeal for the studio was the idea that, as a knight, Jackson’s face would be obscured by a helmet for most of the running time. 

The project was part of a contract Jackson had signed with Sony, which also included projects like Jack and the Beanstalk. Owing to the negative publicity surrounding Jackson at the time, none of the proposed ideas ever got off the ground. During a meeting to discuss his film opportunities, Jackson allegedly "inexplicably placed his head on the table and began to cry uncontrollably.”

All images courtesy of Getty.

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The Many Lives of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"

Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Leonard Cohen in London in June 1974.
Michael Putland/Getty Images

In the late 1970s, Leonard Cohen sat down to write a song about god, sex, love, and other mysteries of human existence that bring us to our knees for one reason or another. The legendary singer-songwriter, who was in his early forties at the time, knew how to write a hit: He had penned "Suzanne," "Bird on the Wire," "Lover, Lover, Lover," and dozens of other songs for both himself and other popular artists of the time. But from the very beginning, there was something different about what would become "Hallelujah"—a song that took five years and an estimated 80 drafts for Cohen to complete.

In the 35 years since it was originally released, "Hallelujah" has been covered by more than 300 other artists in virtually every genre. Willie Nelson, k.d. lang, Justin Timberlake, Bono, Brandi Carlile, Bon Jovi, Susan Boyle, Pentatonix, and Alexandra Burke—the 2008 winner of the UK version of The X Factor—are just a few of the individuals who have attempted to put their own stamp on the song. After Burke’s soulful version was downloaded 105,000 times in its first day, setting a new European record, “Hallelujah” soon became a staple of TV singing shows.

It's an impressive feat by any standard, but even more so when you consider that "Hallelujah"—one of the most critically acclaimed and frequently covered songs of the modern era—was originally stuck on side two of 1984’s Various Positions, an album that Cohen’s American record label deemed unfit for release.

“Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen recalled CBS Records boss Walter Yetnikoff telling him, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

 

Yetnikoff wasn’t totally off-base. With its synth-heavy ’80s production, Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” doesn’t announce itself as the chill-inducing secular hymn it’s now understood to be. (Various Positions was finally released in America on the indie label Passport in 1985.) Part of why it took Cohen five years to write the song was that he couldn’t decide how much of the Old Testament stuff to include.

“It had references to the Bible in it, although these references became more and more remote as the song went from the beginning to the end,” Cohen said. “Finally I understood that it was not necessary to refer to the Bible anymore. And I rewrote this song; this is the ‘secular’ ‘Hallelujah.’”

The first two verses introduce King David—the skilled harp player and great uniter of Israel—and the Nazarite strongman Samson. In the scriptures, both David and Samson are adulterous poets whose ill-advised romances (with Bathsheba and Delilah, respectively) lead to some big problems.

In the third verse of his 1984 studio version, Cohen grapples with the question of spirituality. When he’s accused of taking the Lord’s name in vain, Cohen responds, hilariously, “What’s it to ya?” He insists there’s “a blaze of light in every word”—every perception of the divine, perhaps—and declares there to be no difference between “the holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Both have value.

“I wanted to push the Hallelujah deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world,” Cohen once said. “The Hallelujah, the David’s Hallelujah, was still a religious song. So I wanted to indicate that Hallelujah can come out of things that have nothing to do with religion.”

 

Amazingly, Cohen's original "Hallelujah" pales in comparison to Velvet Underground founder John Cale’s five-verse rendition for the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Cale had seen Cohen perform the song live, and when he asked the Canadian singer-songwriter to fax over the lyrics, he received 15 pages. “I went through and just picked out the cheeky verses,” Cale said.

Cale’s pared down piano-and-vocals arrangement inspired Jeff Buckley to record what is arguably the definitive “Hallelujah,” a haunting, seductive performance found on the late singer-songwriter’s one and only studio album, 1994’s Grace. Buckley’s death in 1997 only heightened the power of his recording, and within a few years, “Hallelujah” was everywhere. Cale’s version turned up in the 2001 animated film Shrek, and the soundtrack features an equally gorgeous version by Rufus Wainwright.

In 2009, after the song appeared in Zack Snyder's Watchmen, Cohen agreed with a critic who called for a moratorium on covers. “I think it’s a good song,” Cohen told The Guardian. “But too many people sing it.”

Except “Hallelujah” is a song that urges everyone to sing. That’s kind of the point. The title is from a compound Hebrew word comprising hallelu, to praise joyously, and yah, the name of god. As writer Alan Light explains in his 2013 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of "Hallelujah,” the word hallelujah was originally an imperative—a command to praise the Lord. In the Christian tradition, it’s less an imperative than an expression of joy: “Hallelujah!” Cohen seemingly plays on both meanings.

 

Cohen’s 1984 recording ends with a verse that begins, “I did my best / It wasn’t much.” It’s the humble shrug of a mortal man and the sly admission of an ambitious songwriter trying to capture the essence of humanity in a pop song. By the final lines, Cohen concedes “it all went wrong,” but promises to have nothing but gratitude and joy for everything he has experienced.

Putting aside all the biblical allusions and poetic language, “Hallelujah” is a pretty simple song about loving life despite—or because of—its harshness and disappointments. That message is even clearer in Cale’s five-verse rendition, the guidepost for all subsequent covers, which features the line, “Love is not a victory march.” Cale also adds in Cohen’s verse about sex, and how every breath can be a Hallelujah. Buckley, in particular, realized the carnal aspect of the song, calling his version “a Hallelujah to the orgasm.”

“Hallelujah” can be applied to virtually any situation. It’s great for weddings, funerals, TV talent shows, and cartoons about ogres. Although Cohen’s lyrics don’t exactly profess religious devotion, “Hallelujah” has become a popular Christmas song that’s sometimes rewritten with more pious lyrics. Agnostics and atheists can also find plenty to love about “Hallelujah.” It’s been covered more than 300 times because it’s a song for everyone.

When Cohen died on November 7, 2016, at the age of 82, renewed interest in “Hallelujah” vaulted Cohen's version of the song onto the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time. Despite its decades of pop culture ubiquity, it took more than 30 years and Cohen's passing for “Hallelujah”—the very essence of which is about finding beauty amid immense sadness and resolving to move forward—to officially become a hit song.

“There’s no solution to this mess,” Cohen once said, describing the human comedy at the heart of “Hallelujah. “The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say 'Look, I don't understand a f***ing thing at all—Hallelujah! That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”

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