If Michael Jackson had lived to perform the concerts he was preparing for at London’s O2 Arena, and if those shows had been as extraordinary as the film “This Is It” suggests they could have been, Jackson would have pulled off one of the most remarkable comebacks in pop music history.
But not the biggest.
And he wouldn’t have been the first iconic star to come back in a blaze of glory after retiring from public view, or after years in which he’d faded as a vital force.
Elvis did it, and Sinatra, and Judy Garland, and other pop legends over the years. The comeback is part and parcel of any true icon’s story, and Jackson likely would have fit neatly into a long continuum if he had lived.
As it was, Jackson’s death put him into a slightly different category: the posthumous comeback. His return to prominence, which came first with sales of his back catalog and then with the release of the film “This Is It,” puts him in the same category as John Lennon, who was murdered just after the release of “Double Fantasy,” his first album of new material in six years; or Roy Orbison, who died immediately after recording the remarkable “Mystery Girl” album, and while enjoying a commercial resurgence as part of the mock-supergroup the Traveling Wilburys.
Depending on what happened afterwards, Jackson’s return after several years of seclusion and controversy could have been one of the top comebacks ever. But the bar is set awfully high in that neighborhood. Since Jackson always did love competition, here’s who he would have been going up against for the title of the ultimate comeback kid:
Frank Sinatra: Contrary to the implications in “The Godfather,” it didn’t take a severed horse’s head to give Frank Sinatra the role that sealed his comeback. But it wasn’t easy.
By the late 1940s, Sinatra’s status as the major teen idol of the era was fading – and worse, his voice was in decline as well. In early 1950 he suffered hemorrhaging of the vocal cords and had to leave the stage of the Copacabana; afterwards, the onetime phenom seemed to be washed up. His television show was canceled, and his record label dropped him.
But against the wishes of director Fred Zinnemann, Sinatra won the plum role of Private Maggio in “From Here to Eternity.” (In “The Godfather,” an Italian-American singer gets a key film role with the help of a mob boss; less fanciful theories say Sinatra’s then-wife, Ava Gardner, used her influence with studio chief Harry Cohn.)
Co-star Burt Lancaster attributed Sinatra’s performance to his real-life “sense of defeat and the whole world crashing in on him." Released in 1953, the film won Sinatra an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
That same year, he signed a new deal with Capitol Records, where he made the enormously successful recordings that would cement his status as the dominant male singer of his era.
Judy Garland: Drugs and heartbreak had taken their toll on the former child actress by the early 1960s, but her April 23 appearance at Carnegie Hall was not just a comeback. It was an event and a rebirth, with the album drawn from that show spending 13 weeks at No. 1 and 95 weeks on the charts altogether. It won five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.
Garland’s career had already been through numerous peaks and valleys, with high spots like her 1951 U.K. tour and the 1954 film “A Star Is Born” alternating with periods of despondency, vocal problems and suicide attempts. In 1959 she was hospitalized for acute hepatitis and told by doctors that she would never sing again, and likely had fewer than five years to live.
But she did triumphant shows at the Palladium in London in August 1960, and then topped that with her April 1961 Carnegie Hall show, of which Hedda Hopper wrote, “I never saw the likes of it in my life.”
Garland would live for another eight years, occasionally performing onstage and making a few movies. But she never again enjoyed that kind of success, or stood at the center of pop culture the way she had at Carnegie Hall.
The album drawn from that concert is still in print, and Rufus Wainwright recently did his own song-for-song re-creation of the entire evening.
Elvis Presley: Elvis didn’t really go away before his 1968 “comeback” special; he just became irrelevant and silly, until a black leather suit and a batch of lean, mean performances changed everything.
The problem was the movies. Elvis’ first few films, in the 1950s, were harmless bits of entertaining fluff that fit the tenor of the era and gave him and his manager a template for easy money: a scenic location, an attractive leading lady, an implausible plot, a handful of innocuous songs.
But after the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the British Invasion and the Summer of Love, material like “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” and “Song of the Shrimp” just made Elvis look colossally out-of-touch.
His manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted nothing more challenging than a suite of Christmas carols for Elvis’ TV special in December 1968 – but director Steve Binder persuaded Elvis to loosen up, to jam informally with other musicians, and to throw himself into what would be his first onstage performance in seven years.
He opened the show in black leather, snarling the opening lines of “Trouble”: “If you’re lookin’ for trouble, you’ve come to the right place.” This was a different Elvis: tough, committed, self-deprecating and neither silly nor irrelevant.
In the aftermath, the records got better, the movies stopped and Elvis returned to the stage with a vengeance. Then, over the next decade, it all went south again, until it ended in 1977 in a blur of prescription drugs and half-hearted performances.
And that’s the problem with trying to judge Michael Jackson’s comeback – because if he had lived to take the stage at the O2 Arena, we don’t know what would have come next.
It’s likely that the shows would have been dazzling, that he would have left the audiences dazed and the critics impressed. It’s likely that whatever came out of the shows – a CD, a DVD, a cable special, a pay-per-view event – would have been a big success as well.
But then what? Jackson had envisioned the 50 shows as his final performances, but would he have changed his mind? Would he have stayed off the stage, but been spurred to record fresh, vital music again? Or would he have taken the money and the adulation and retreated back behind the gates of his Xanadu, Neverland Ranch, to frolic in his artificial paradise and keep the world at bay once more?
One guess: He would have started the concert run with a bang, canceled some of the shows because of exhaustion or some other medical excuse, rallied for a big TV special and IMAX 3D theatrical release, and then gone back home.
He would have gone into the studio, and we would have heard glowing reports of the music he was working on, songs that would put him back in the forefront of pop music.
And then … nothing. He would have worked and reworked his music, but never quite felt it was ready to be released.
And by the time he actually put something out, maybe he would have needed a whole new comeback.