Michael Beardon Interview, This Is it
MoviesOnline recently sat down with Michael Jackson’s musical director, Michael Bearden, to talk about his new film, Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT, which offers Jackson fans and music lovers worldwide a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the performer as he developed, created and rehearsed for his sold-out concerts that would have taken place beginning this past summer in London’s O2 Arena.
Bearden is an accomplished musical director/keyboardist/arranger/composer for a diverse range of musical superstars. He has performed and/or recorded with some of popular music’s giants including: Sting, Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Chaka Kahn, Patti Austin, James Ingrahm, Patti Labelle, Yoko Ono, George Benson, Natalie Cole, Yossou NDour, Boz Scaggs, Lenny Kravitz, Luther Vandross, Issac Hayes, Aaron Neville, Edie Brickell, Jon Bonjovi and legends Nancy Wilson, Queen, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Liza Minelli, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles and served as musical director for Madonna and Rod Stewart to name just a few.
His diverse musical skills have also been sought by younger artists including: Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Destinys Child, Brandy,India Arie, Fantasia, Neyo, Chris Brown, Rhianna, Ashanti, John Mayer, Faith Evans, Brian McKnight, Mary J. Blige, Da Brat, Mya,Marc Doresy, Joss Stone, Usher, Keisha Cole, Angie Stone and musical director for Jennifer Lopez , Anastacia, DAngelo,and The Veronicas, among others.
He has also written, produced, and performed for such notable jazz artists as: Rachelle Ferrell, Herbie Mann, Everette Harp, Will Downing, Nelson Rangell, Marion Meadows, Regina Carter, Noel Pointer, Special EFX, Pieces Of A Dream, Jonathan Butler, Victor Bailey, Stanley Turrentine and collaborated on Herbie Hancock's Grammy nominated album Possibilities.
An accomplished composer, Bearden’s feature film scores include Drop Squad produced by Spike Lee (starring Eriq Lasalle and Ving Rhames) and the indie film The Visit directed by Jordan Walker Pearlman (starring Rae Dawn Chong and Billy Dee Williams). Michael scored two debut indie features, The Arrangement for filmmaker H.H.Cooper and One Week for director Carl Seaton. In addition, Michael penned the score to Dense, the directorial debut feature film for Soul Foods Vanessa Williams. He scored the feature Constellation (starring Gabrielle Union, Leslie Ann Warren and Billy Dee Williams) as well as the feature film/doc America The Beautiful for director Darryl Roberts, and director Ian Inabas’ Sundance film/doc American Blackout, as well as the dark comedy "Redrum" starring Jill Marie Jones. Bearden recently performed with all acts at the historic Lincoln Memorial "We Are One" concert for the Obama inauguration.
Michael Bearden is a terrific guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his friendship and recent collaboration with Michael Jackson on his new film, Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT:
At what point did you know that one scene between you and Michael was going to be in the movie? And when you saw it for the first time, what was your reaction?
MB: Oh me and him? Telling him “More booty”? What happened was after MJ’s memorial, we had a few days off and then we get a call from AEG -- Kenny Ortega, our wonderful director, Travis Payne, our choreographer and Associate Director and Associate Producer of the film, and me, also Associate Producer of the film. They asked us to come down and see out of the 80, 90, 100 hours we had, maybe a 4-hour long string, so we saw that and that was the first time I saw that scene and I just laughed because that moment in the film is – MJ, that whole week, was supposed to come in with me and my band and he would either have something else to do or he didn’t so there was me being frustrated because he wasn’t there. He was asking for things and I was like “Well, if you had been here, I would have had them for you.” (laughs)
Q: He wasn’t coming?
MB: No, no. It wasn’t that he wasn’t coming. He was working. We were working. This tour was a massive undertaking. A lot of times Travis would have him or I would have him or Kenny Ortega would have him or we collectively would have him so he was just busy doing a lot of things so my time was getting cheated in the initial stage. It didn’t in the end as you saw in the film. It was glorious and all of that. I’m never one to back down and then MJ wasn’t either. But, it wasn’t a confrontational thing. It was just he wanted what he wanted and I wanted what I wanted. Together, he and I would call it…all of us would call it creative jousting. He would do something and I would go “Yeah, I like that but try this.” So what you see there is not tension so much and I’m always silly and as you can see, I made him crack up at the end. He says, “I knew exactly what you meant.” And we always embraced and we always said “I love you.” He’d say, “God bless you, Bearden. I love you.” He would call me by my last name because we had about 10 or 12 Michaels on the tour. (laughs)
Q: Was he not planning to do Bad?
MB: See, here’s the thing. The set list, if MJ did every hit that he ever had, he would be on stage for 24 hours or at least a week. One of my earliest meetings with MJ, he actually went on line and, by going on line, I mean his older son, Prince Michael, probably got on line and he asked the fans what they wanted to hear. So he had a computer printout of a list from 1 to maybe 50 or 100 and he really wanted to give the fans and serve them what they wanted. He really loved the fans so much – more than any other artist I’ve ever worked with. I’ve never seen this before ever. One day we were having a meeting – he and I and maybe one of his young sons – and he showed me the printout, then he showed me his personal handwritten list. He’d take out his reading glasses which I thought was great and he showed it to me and said “What do you think, Bearden?” And I said, “You know, MJ, this is cool, but you have no J5 and you have no Off The Wall.” He says, “I don’t?” And he looked at it and went “Ahhh.” It was an angst ridden thing for us because he had so much material and so much great stuff and we really wanted to serve the fans but he also wanted to do his message pieces of Heal the World and We Are the World. That’s a big thing for him and to rescue this planet and help heal how we treat each other on the planet. So we couldn’t take those songs out. Remember the Time, there as Bad. There was so many things I wanted to do and he wanted to do them as well but we just… I said, “You know, if we do this MJ, we’ll be on stage for 3, 4, 5 hours. We can’t do that every night. You’ve got 50 days. He says, “Oh yeah, I don’t want to do that.”
Q: Are there some that will be on the DVD that aren’t in the film?
MB: Hopefully, there are some things. Obviously we couldn’t put everything in a film ‘cause you would be in the theater for 24 hours. There’s gonna be some extras, hopefully. They call it ‘added value’ now. It’s too fancy for me, but hopefully we’ll get to do some numbers on there that we didn’t do before.
Q: Do you know which ones?
MB: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Q: What was he planning for his finale and encore? Did you get that far?
MB: We sorta kinda got that far but not really. We were just on the way there. To this day we don’t have the set list. We were in the process of just chiseling. It was my job and his job, but towards the end he gave it to me. He wanted to put it on me. “Well you take out the verses ‘cause I don’t want to cheat the fans.” It was almost too painful for him. He would just go, “Oh.” I blew up a set list one day, poster size, put it in his dressing room, went in there with him. I said, “Okay, I’m going out here. You mark it up for me. You do it.” And I came back and it was still not touched. I said, “MJ, what are you doing?” He said, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. You have to do it. You have to do it.” So we would take some things out of it and literally he would look at me. I would put the marker by it and I would go, “Okay. Cut that out.” And he’d go, “No, no…” It was painful. So we kind of got there. We probably were gonna do Man in the Mirror, but maybe not. We didn’t know.
Q: As the finale?
MB: We didn’t know. We didn’t know.
Q: I always liked the song from Free Willy. I wonder where that ranks on his list?
MB: I don’t remember where that ranks. There’s a lot like that that he loved.
Q: In that scene in the movie between you and him where you’re talking back, Michael doesn’t come across as a diva. How did you see Michael and what did you discover about him after you really got to know him?
MB: I discovered that he was not a diva and he was not a perfectionist in the dictatorial sense where “You must do what I say” kind of thing. He was very collaborative and a lot of people, including me, didn’t really know. I worked with a lotta, lotta stars, big artists, and Michael just had a mystique about him that you didn’t think you could touch him. He was quite the opposite. He was quite probably the kindest, the most generous, the most gracious, the most approachable artist that I every worked with in my life, and you wouldn’t think he would be. We would say “God bless you” and then “I love you” every day. Now how many bosses tell you they love you? Okay? So that’s what it was to work with him. He knew what he wanted and he wasn’t afraid to tell you. But he was also not afraid of change if you could make something better, make his idea better. He was open to that and he didn’t mind being vulnerable in front of you and if you made something better, he would go “Oh no, that’s better. That’s better. I like that better.”
Q: Was he planning to do live vocals for every song?
MB: Yes, and I didn’t want him to.
Q: You didn’t? Because a lot of artists now when they…
MB: Absolutely and everybody does it. I’ll tell you what, I can do an experiment right now. Just sit in your chair and do this (bouncing up and down) and try to have a conversation. Now imagine dancing and doing that. And I would tell him and he would just resist it. “No.” I’d say “Well MJ, everybody knows you can sing. You’ve been doing it since you were 5. It’s not like a Milli Vanilli thing. It’s you. It’s you.” But he would not do it. I would say, “Okay. Well, at least let me lower the key some and then he would go, “Okay. But make it only a half step.” “Alright MJ.” Then, some pieces he would, just like on the J5, and then I’d say “What about a half step on this?” And he said, “No, you gotta do long. I’m too old to sing these songs.” So yeah, you’re right, I didn’t want him to, but he insisted. And to his credit and to his genius, that was Michael.
Q: For the Jackson 5 stuff, did you lower the register a little bit for him?
MB: Can you do things like he would do them? No, no.
Q: In the film he uses the expression “let it simmer” a lot. Were there any other Michael Jacksonisms?
MB: There were a lot of MJisms that we just – “simmer,” “bathe in the moonlight,” “I’m sizzling.” That is my favorite, “I’m sizzling.” I can’t think of it. There’s so many. There’s so many and we would just talk. There’s one moment in I Wanna Be Starting Something. You can see him talking to me. “I don’t hear that [beat boxing].” And he would talk to me like that. So one day he and I were in his room and he said, “Yeah, so you know that part? It needs to be louder.” And he said, “You know, that’s like his cousin. It goes through the guitar and his cousin is there. His cousin is running up right next to him. So you got to heavy him and then you have a cousin.” He would talk to me like that. That’s a Michael Jacksonism. Just regular, you know, nothing big, just something simple that everybody’s able to understand.
Q: Well you’re probably the last person I can ever ask this, what did Shamon mean?
MB: Shamon is, it’s just a combination of “come on” and some things that he got from his Motown days and it’s just…if you notice, MJ would never do anything regular, especially when he was on stage. So, every moment, there was no wasted movement. So every time, if you watch the film again, you’ll see if he’s standing there and the singer is singing, if he’s doing a duet with Judith, he’s always animated and he’s always doing something. He’s always gracious and he’s always doing this. Every moment means something. I asked him one day “MJ, why you have tape on your hands?” I always wanted to know that and it was a great gig for me because I would have him personally and it was one of those gigs where he would say, “If you had this person alone, what would you ask him?” and I took full advantage of it. And to his graciousness, he would say to me, “You really want to know?” and he would just honestly tell me and he never turned me down. The tape on his fingers he says “Well, ‘cause it feels good.” It was like a batter in a batters box. The hands have to feel a certain way. But then it was also that if he throws his hand that way, the white, your eye goes to it. So there’s no wasted moment. It’s a show biz thing. You just go “Bam!” You’re looking at his movement but that eye, that white will always catch you. You just … So you’re on stage doing that. It’s just one of his show biz tricks that he learned when he was a kid.
Q: We saw him in the auditions with the dancers, how involved was he with the band? The Australian guitarist, Orianthi (Panagaris), was amazing.
MB: I’ll tell you that story. One of my first meetings with MJ was about the band. We chose his drummer. We call him Foot. His name is Jonathan Moffett. He’s been working with MJ for 30 years. I said, “Okay, you can have…” My thing was I wanted to come in and clean house, just do everything like a new start. We’re going to be together for two years. It had to feel like a family. So I didn’t want any agenda, any fire starters, anything like that. If you want to be on the road for two years, with an extension of may 3-5 which is what MJ wanted, you’d better like the people that you’re going to be around and so that’s how we chose them. I asked him “How did you choose Foot” and he said “Well, when Jonathan plays, he makes me want to dance.” Anytime a dancer says that to you, that’s the highest endorsement ever. So he was put there. My bassist, Alex Al, was also put there. We had worked with Michael on the 30th anniversary at the Garden right before 9/11 so he really liked Alex. He pretty much trusted me and let me put the band together but he wanted a guitarist. He wanted a female. He wanted her to be blonde. I put the feelers out and her name came back five times so I actually went on MySpace, sent her a note – “I am Michael Jackson’s musical director” – this is true. And, of course, she did not believe it. Her manager called me and he was not – her former manager (laughs) – he was sort of rude. So I said, “You know what? You’re going to blow an opportunity for your client. Just give me her personal number. I will call her.” I called her personally and then I said, “Come down. I’ll let you meet Michael.” She met Michael. Of course, she knew it was real then. She just couldn’t believe she was found on MySpace. And then the rest…our other guitarist, Tommy Organ, he was the only one that auditioned. He came in and he just blew Michael away. Michael’s regular guitarist, David Williams, the great Davey Williams, had passed away maybe about a month before we were going to start. So we needed somebody to get that kind of flavor and Tommy came in and just did his thing. MJ handpicked everybody and blessed what I brought in and that was that. He was hands on in everything he did. There was not one thing that he didn’t touch – wardrobe, lighting. He even designed the ticket for the show. We were there when he did it. He was amazing. I don’t see how he did it. There was just so much going on.
Q: Was he specific about why he wanted a woman in the band?
MB: He always had one and he just liked that energy on guitar. It’s not that traditional. His prerequisite was “She’s got to really be able to shred. She’s got to really be able to play.” He didn’t just want a woman there. He wanted somebody that could really play. And Ori can really play. She’s an artist on Geffen (Records) now and her career’s about to launch. I’ve seen videos of her and her record and she’s amazing. You will be hearing about her. He just liked that energy. That’s all.
Q: Are you on his album? Someone mentioned that he was working on an album at the same time as the concert. Was it going to be separate?
MB: We were working on an album and it was definitely going to be separate. He was working on an album, new material, all of that.
Q: And that’s going to be released at some point?
MB: I don’t know. Will.i.am was going to do some things. There were a lot of new producers too. MJ never sang anything. He just had it in his head so I don’t know. We never got that far.
Q: Are you planning a tribute concert tour? There was an idea for one but it was cancelled a couple months ago.
MB: Well that particular one was something that Jermaine (Jackson) was trying to do on his own and that wasn’t really sanctioned by all of us so we had nothing to do with that. Hopefully, sometime next year around his birthday we’ll do something but it’s not definitive.
Q: From your perspective, what is Michael’s legacy?
MB: Michael’s legacy from my perspective is love. That’s what he wanted the world to have. He said we need more of it in the film. That’s what we were able to do with this honor project that his children will be able to see in perpetuity. They will love it. They will appreciate what daddy did which is why he wanted to do it. He said he wanted to do it while he was still young enough to do it and his children were old enough to appreciate it. And his legacy is secure. He loved his fans and he loved the world and he wanted to put more love in it
Thanks loveforever for this.