Redemption Songs: Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits


Story by Keith Murphy


ON JUNE, 27 1999, Michael Jackson nearly died for his music. But the 70,000 screaming fans packed inside Munich’s sold-out Olympic Stadium that night had no idea he had just cheated death. They were all too caught up in the spectacle that was Michael Jackson & Friends, a televised extravaganza with elaborate staging.

While his fame in America had waned since child abuse allegations cut short his Dangerous tour in 1993, Jackson’s ‘96-’97 HIStory trek played to a record 4.5 million spectators, grossing more than $165 million. But only a few of those 82 concerts were staged in the United States. Taping this all-star concert in Germany was Jackson’s way of showing gratitude to the loyal European subjects who still revered him as the same King of Pop who sold more than 51 million copies of 1982’s Thriller.

After a greatest hits medley, Jackson launched into an 11-minute version of his green anthem “Earth Song,” which would culminate with a tank rolling on stage and Jackson standing in its path like a protester from Tiananmen Square. “Where did we go wrong?” he wailed from atop a metal platform 30 feet above the stage. “What about us?” a mighty choir answered as the audience wept and cheered. And then, somewhere in mid-song, the wires supporting the sturdy platform snapped.

“The local crew evidently put the wrong cable wire on the metal and the bridge came crashing down into the orchestra pit with Michael on it,” recalls the show’s producer Kenny Ortega, who would go on to direct Jackson’s critically-acclaimed concert documentary This Is It. “Michael felt the fall. He knew it was happening and timed his jump as the bridge hit the ground,” Ortega says, incredulous. “And he continued to do the show!”

The scrambling stagehands and tour executives were horrified. “Weren’t you trembling in fear?” Ortega asked him minutes after the gig. Jackson responded like he was reading a script from one of those endearingly cheesy 1930s’ musicals: “Well, Kenny, I always was taught that the show must go on.”

Jackson survived that fall just like he survived all the others—through a combination of talent, luck and fancy footwork. But the worst was yet to come. The first time allegations of child molestation threatened to tarnish his brilliant career, a private settlement of a reported $20 million between the singer and his young accuser was reached. (No charges were ever filed in the case.) But that was just one of many incidents that contributed to his so-called “Wacko Jacko” persona: the battles with addiction; the extreme plastic surgeries; the day he dangled his infant son Prince Michael II over a Berlin hotel balcony. But after his sensational 2005 jury trial in which Jackson was acquitted on a second accusation of child molestation, he appeared to be a broken man.

Michael was reportedly hundreds of millions in debt, resulting from lavish spending and legal problems. Michael Joseph Jackson had hit rock bottom. Ominous reports circulated that he was juggling doctors to sustain his addiction to prescription pain medicine—after a pyrotechnical accident during a Pepsi commercial burned his scalp—and that he would end up like another tragic music icon: Elvis Presley. At one point Jackson even told his then wife Lisa Marie Presley that he was afraid he would die of an overdose like her father.