Picture this: Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando sharing a car to flee New York City on 9/11. Crazy? Not according to British television network Sky Arts that is currently producing a short film on this topic. Now imagine this: Michael Jackson helping fans stranded in New York City on 9/11 with accommodation and food until they can safely travel home. Even crazier? Not according to those who received Jackson’s help. Here’s what you need to know about the King of Pop, 9/11 and the road trip that never was.
Three icons in a rental car
As soon as the Twin Towers have collapsed, Michael, Liz and Marlon squeeze into a rental car to drive 500 miles to Ohio, as all flights in and out of New York have been grounded. Binging on all sorts of junk food along the way, the trio shares a cathartic journey. Voilà the main plot of the road movie Michael, Marlon & Elizabeth produced by Sky Arts as part of a series of comedies about unlikely stories from arts and cultural history.
Sounds hilarious? That’s exactly what the producers have in mind, according to Joseph Fiennes, the actor who plays Jackson. “It’s a challenge. It’s a comedy. It doesn’t poke mean fun but it’s a story, possibly urban legend, whereby Michael, Marlon Brando, and Liz Taylor were all together the day before 9/11 doing a concert. Airspace was shut down and they couldn’t get out and Michael had the bright idea to go to hire a car and drive”, he recently told WENN.
Comedy can be fun of course, and anyone with a high public profile is bound to become the butt of jokes sooner or later. In most cases, it’s harmless and no offense should be taken. But in Jackson’s case, the undertone of quips and jokes has too often been ridicule and contempt, leaving little or no room for truth and reflection – elements that make the difference between comedy and defamation.
Fully white cast
Very few film and documentary makers – besides Spike Lee – have produced serious work about Jackson’s music and visual art. Sky Arts, a network that claims to focus on arts and cultural history, hasn’t done so either. Instead, they have created a fully white cast in a production that simply ignores Jackson’s outstanding achievements in black music history.
Joseph Fiennes, a white British actor best known for his leading role in Shakespeare in Love, is cast as the African-American music icon. It seems an awkward choice in the light of the current debate regarding the ‘Oscars So White’. Sky Arts, however, “puts the integrity of the creative vision at the heart of all its original commissions.” According to the network’s official statement “we believe in giving producers the creative freedom to cast roles as they wish, within the diversity framework which we have set”.
Co-starring with Fiennes are American actress Stockard Channing – who played Betty Rizzo in Grease – as Liz Taylor, and Scottish actor Brian Cox – known for his roles in Rob Roy and Braveheart – as Marlon Brando. Together, the three have been asked to fill half an hour of comedy written by Neil Forsyth and produced by Ralf Little.
Jackson in New York City
Star-cast or no star-cast: what’s the point of this tale? Who cares what Jackson did on 9/11, who he was with, or how he got home? As the topic is under scrutiny, it makes sense to find out what happened when Jackson was in New York. Why was he there in the first place? What does this have to do with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando? And did they really take a road trip?
Jackson stayed in New York City to perform at his 30th Anniversary Special in Madison Square Garden on two specific dates, September 7 and 10, 2001. The concert was aired by CBS television as a two-hour special celebrating Jackson’s thirty years as a solo artist. Joining Jackson on stage were his brothers, a host of artists, and two of his close friends: Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.
On the evening of September 10, Jackson returned to the Palace Hotel where he was staying, which is located 30 minutes from the World Trade Centre. Frank Cascio, who worked for Jackson at the time, recalled the decision to leave New York soon after the attacks: “We packed up our belongings and met Michael, Paris, Prince, Grace [ed. Jackson’s two children and nanny], and my brothers Eddie, Dominic and Aldo at the car. I suggested we head to my parents’ house”, Cascio wrote in his book My Friend Michael. As Cascio’s parents lived nearby in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the trip took less than an hour, especially since Jackson was allowed – according to Cascio – to cross the George Washington Bridge which was closed to all other vehicles.
After spending a number of days with the Cascios, Jackson eventually wanted to return home. At this point, stories about Jackson’s departure start to differ. Two Jackson biographers, Randall Sullivan and Steve Knopper, quote controversial Jackson associate Marc Schaffel as their main source on this topic.
Schaffel tells a bizarre tale in which Jackson wishes to fly home on a private jet owned by his record company Sony. He is faced with a dilemma when actor Mark Wahlberg, who also happens to be in the area, wants to use the same airplane – a story that Wahlberg denied ever happened. Although Sony rules in favour of Jackson, he decides to skip the jet after all. According to Knopper, Jackson then takes a tour bus back to California, while Sullivan claims that Jackson’s entourage boards the Sony jet whereas Jackson arranges another private airplane to fly his children, his nanny and himself back to LA.
What about the road trip?
So where does that leave the road trip with Taylor and Brando? The source for this tale is a 2011 Vanity Fair interview with an assistant of Liz Taylor. Creating a story in which Jackson, Taylor and Brando hit the road, the scene is set for a surreal story about Jackson’s life. Although the tale is debunked by yet another aide of Taylor in the same Vanity Fair article, other media pick up the peculiar story to spin an even more elaborate tale. In 2015, for example, New York Post writer Zadie Smith published ‘Escape from New York‘, a piece of fiction based on what by then had become the urban legend of Jackson’s road trip.
But that still doesn’t answer the question what Jackson did on 9/11. Jackson’s nephew TJ Jackson, speaking on behalf of the family, told Entertainment Tonight: “It’s offensive to me and my family for my uncle Michael to be portrayed in a comedy taking place around 9/11. Like everyone else, he was distraught, saddened and trying to process what had just happened. Following the events of 9/11, my uncle, Michael, stayed with a family friend in New Jersey for a week before flying back. The rest of our family immediately took buses back to Los Angeles as planes were grounded. There was no road trip with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando.”
A different light
And that’s not all. There are more stories shedding a different light on Jackson and 9/11. Apparently, Jackson didn’t simply leave the city, but sent his bodyguards back with his credit card to make sure that his fans were able to eat, sleep, and get home. One fan posted the following account on her blog.
“Michael left the Palace Hotel, where he’d been staying, that morning, but sent his security guards back to the city every evening to check up on us and make sure we all had enough money and a safe place to stay. About a week after the attacks, the security drove Michael’s tour bus into the city to collect the remaining fans, which consisted of about a dozen of us from Europe.”
“On Michael’s orders – and his dime – they took us to McDonalds and the movies and then drove us to the hotel in New Jersey where he was staying. We didn’t get to see Michael that evening but he kept calling to see how we were and invited us to spend the night on the bus, which had rows of bunk beds, each with its own DVD screen. At a very frightening time and place in history, Michael made us feel safe and protected.”
Another fan shared a similar story: “Just before we leave for the night, we see Michael’s bodyguards walking across the street towards us. They tell us that Michael has told them to check we are all OK. They tell us he and the children are safe, that they are in New Jersey and that Michael is worried about us. We tell them most of us have a hotel room and that we are looking after those who don’t.”
“When we get to The Palace Hotel, we see most of the fans are there. We find out that after everyone left last night, some fans were left, who had no hotel room. They tell us that Michael’s bodyguards came back out and when they heard that they had nowhere to go, they rang Michael. Unbelievably, Michael told the bodyguards to bring the fans into the hotel and let them stay in his suite. (…) In the afternoon Michael’s bodyguards come back out to see us. They bring us food from the hotel; try to help us get airline information. They tell us Michael has told them to stay and make sure we are OK until the airports have opened and we can go home.”
Stranded but not forgotten
The picture emerging from these first-hand stories is quite different from that of a freaked-out Jackson going on a road trip with his two BFFs. Yes, Jackson left New York to bring his children and himself to safety. But rather than driving around with Taylor and Brando on the back seat, Jackson assisted his fans stranded in the aftermath of 9/11. What’s more, one month later he organised the ‘United We Stand’ benefit concert which raised $3 million for various charities supporting the victims and families of the 9/11 attacks.
Now, wouldn’t that be a wonderful story to tell instead of a road movie based on a ludicrous tale that never happened?
Hands on the wheel
It all starts with those who have their hands on the wheel. Perhaps Sky Arts could begin by taking a closer look at the sources on which they base their ‘integrity of creative vision’. Integrity is not about a mindless tale in Vanity Fair. Integrity is not about ridiculing music and movie icons in the context of 9/11. Nor is integrity about a movie concept that is far from original. The idea was already explored in the unsuccessful 2007 comedy Mister Lonely, in which a Jackson look-alike hooks up with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator and her extended family of odd characters.
So what does Michael, Marlon & Elizabeth bring to the table? A good laugh? Viewer ratings? Plenty of pounds? Or perhaps all three? What a shame. Sky Arts could do so much better. All it takes is the courage to accept Jackson’s story for what it is: a 9/11 tale of kindness amidst disaster. It may be just one of many such stories, but it’s not one to simply dismiss or turn into grotesque fiction. The ‘freak narrative’ of Jackson’s life has long passed its sell-by date. Move on, people. Move on. There are better stories to tell.
© Annemarie Latour
Note: This article is also available in German (translation kindly provided by all4michael.com)