NEW YORK Despite all the auxiliary star power the "King of Pop" enlisted for the first of two massive tribute concerts to himself from Britney Spears and 'NSYNC to Liza Minnelli and Marlon Brando it was, in the end, an inanimate object that received the most thunderous ovation Friday night.
Standing in a spotlight just shy of center stage at Madison Square Garden, Jackson slowly, teasingly revealed one of the 20th century's most recognizable pop-culture artifacts from an old briefcase. He had already retrieved a familiar black jacket and fedora from it. Now he reached in for his silver-sequined glove, and the crowd went wild.
Adorned just as he was some 18 years ago, with the five-fingered prop now in place, Jackson assumed the stance that began his legendary performance of "Billie Jean" at the Motown 25 celebration. The next five minutes were pun intended thrilling, the crowd overcome by spine-tingling nostalgia as it watched a genuine superstar re-create a magical moment.
Unfortunately for Michael, and for the crowd, this nearly religious high point arrived almost three hours into a bloated show that largely offered the audience everything but Michael Jackson performing. When he did finally take the stage as a performer, Jackson provided a rousing and substantial reminder of why he's a legend in the first place. But first, the fans who paid as much as $2,500 a ticket had to wait, as the show started an hour late, and no one named Jackson hit the stage for another two hours after that.
The mildly surreal festivities began in typically eccentric fashion. Escorted by Elizabeth Taylor and joined by Macaulay Culkin, the honoree took a seat beside the stage. He proceeded to spend much of the night as a mere spectator, blowing kisses at a stellar, if curious, array of performers.
Kicking things off was the makeshift R&B trio of Usher, Mya and Whitney Houston. The three traded "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sas" on the apropos "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," the overture to Thriller. Further turning back the clock, country kid Billy Gilman and Latin crooner Marc Anthony belted out the ballads "Ben" and "She's Out of My Life," respectively.
Liza Minnelli warbled "You Are Not Alone" before serenading Michael with a few lines from "Over the Rainbow" (a signature song for her mother, Judy Garland). The standing ovation that followed this exchange was a far cry from the reception given a collection of songs from the 1978 Hollywood production of "The Wiz," which found Monica playing Dorothy to Jill Scott's Scarecrow, Al Jarreau's Tin Man and Deborah Cox's Cowardly Lion (all in costume). Unfortunately, the medley seemed like little more than background music for an exodus to the concession stands.
Shaggy and Destiny's Child paid little attention to the event's namesake or his music, save for quick dance interludes, opting instead to perform their own chart-topping hits.
Perhaps the evening's most bizarre moment came when reclusive icon Marlon Brando asked the audience to think about the hundreds, if not thousands, of kids "hacked to death by a machete" in an awkward minute during which he sat silently on a couch. Then he began a long diatribe on the ills befalling children worldwide. He scolded a clearly uninterested and bewildered crowd, exclaiming, "don't chat" before leaving to jeers. Brando's point soliciting donations for Michael's Web site in order to help him build a children's hospital in Florida was lost.
There were long bouts of downtime between numbers, presumably because the show was being taped for a two-hour television special to air in early November. An hour and a half into the spectacle, the crowd, still waiting to see a Jackson onstage, voiced its frustrations with a collective and emphatic round of boos.
Finally, after 17 numbers, and well beyond the two-hour mark, the audience got what it paid to see: Michael Jackson, and then some. Following Taylor's introduction, all six Jackson brothers took the stage together for the first time since their 1984 Victory tour.
With his brothers housed behind him on a set bearing five open doorways, Michael popped up, literally, emerging from beneath the stage in a space-age white suit and motorcycle helmet. For 23 minutes, the brothers worked the now-ecstatic crowd into a frenzy as they ran through vintage hits, including "ABC" and "I Want You Back," their performance of the latter mimicking the group's 1970 appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." 'NSYNC crashed the family reunion during "Dancing Machine," though it seemed hardly necessary even they couldn't upstage the brothers, who were so relaxed showing off their old-school Motown moves that they made the new-school boy band's ultra-choreographed routines seem, well, routine.
It wasn't until Michael bid his brothers adieu that he really shook his body down to the ground, turning his attention, and his footwork, to the solo career that the night was really all about. Dressed in black pants and blue shirt, M.J. began by dueting with current pop queen Spears on "The Way You Make Me Feel." Strutting back and forth across the stage in stilettos and a flimsy green dress, Britney posed and pranced more than she danced or sang.
On the flip side of the special-guest spectrum was ex-Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash, who riffed it up on "Black or White" (as he did on record in 1991), and a pyrotechnics-heavy rendition of "Beat It," a number that also boasted troupe choreography reminiscent of the classic video's dance-gang warfare.
The only new number of the night a night that was intended not only to remember Michael's past, but also to herald his future was a sparsely arranged rendition of "You Rock My World." The song is the lead single from the upcoming Invincible, Jackson's first all-new studio album in 10 years. It got a lukewarm response from an audience whose average age was slightly older than Madonna's fanbase and slightly younger than Barbra Streisand's.
The stop-and-start event concluded with most of the night's cast, plus a few celeb extras Kenny Rogers, Yoko Ono and Dionne Warwick among them gathered onstage for a new-millennial reprise of "We Are the World," conducted by Quincy Jones. The potpourri of celebrities danced a bit and hugged Michael farewell as the band replayed a rambling, milder version of "You Rock My World," which seemed designed more for the closing credits of the TV special than for the audience in attendance.
Jackson has been in career purgatory at least since 1995's poorly received HIStory: Past, Present and Future, and Friday night's extravaganza is widely regarded as a crucial step on his comeback trail, a prelude to Invincible.