Michael Jackson, Live in Bucharest - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Michael Jackson, Live in Bucharest

Michael Jackson, Live in Bucharest

By Shannon Sims


A peak, caught on film.

By Shannon Sims

In 1989, a swell of Romanians wanted just one thing for Christmas: the death of their leader. And as the 42-year-old communist regime was swept away in a flood of violent unrest, on Christmas Day, wrists bound in a wintry backyard, Nicolae Ceaușescu was executed. Just a few short years later, in 1992, 70,000 desperate, agitated Romanians gathered at the National Stadium in Bucharest, screaming for something different: “Michael! Michael! Michael!” Mr. Jackson was in town.

He enters the stage and freezes for an exaggerated amount of time, wearing gold lamé briefs over pants and a visible bandage on his arm: the ever-complicating details now familiar in Jackson’s legacy. As the seconds tick by and smoke swirls around the still figure, as much a mirage as a man, the effect is that of a building pressure, pressing down on the jugular of the crowd until they almost can’t stand it; watching now, it still releases goosebumps. And then, suddenly, he’s alive.

The King has taken full command of a broken empire.

Improbably, he starts the show off with a throwaway dud. But it doesn’t even matter; the crowd is so over the meter that he could take a nap on stage and people would still be passing out. And viewing the show today, as limp body after limp body gets passed above hair-sprayed frizzes and soaked faces, it becomes clear that something different is going on. A collective exorcising of any care or worry or dispute about anything other than the dominance of Michael Jackson is taking place: The King has taken full command of a broken empire.

Looking back, it’s quite mesmerizing and even at times comical to see “a crowd of that size be absolutely possessed and emotional,” reflects Matt Tuggle, a 33-year-old grain broker from New Orleans. Tuggle has a personal habit of sharing the video: “Watching with a group of friends that have never seen it before never fails to be a great night of pure entertainment.” Sure, he’s a familiar performer. And though the fidelity’s not great, we know every beat regardless. But this show has an air of another time. 

It was the Dangerous tour, following his eighth album, which featured “Black or White” and “Remember the Time,” the 1991 Christmas present for so many of those amped Romanians. Although it was one of the best-selling albums of all time (32 million sold), it wasn’t his most successful (that was Thriller, with triple the sales). Yet this show, almost a year after the album’s release, proved to be a high point in his lifelong career. 

That peak was enhanced when HBO televised the Bucharest show, its first Jackson special; it garnered the largest audience for a single broadcast in the channel’s history, reaching 3.7 million households. (It would be released on DVD much later, in 2005.) The atmosphere that night in Romania was charged, electrified by thousands of people who had just endured intense upheaval and were now gripped in the clutch of a gloved man at his zenith.

A few years ago, I found myself at a Mexican beach resort on “Michael Jackson Night.” Like any cruise-ship-esque show, it sounded like cheesy, one-off dinnertime entertainment. But as the 5 impersonators took over the lean-to stage by the pool and the first bass thumps of “Billie Jean” started, a hush fell over the resort. Looking up, the balconies were packed with dancing silhouettes; poolside, older couples grooved, while little kids scattered, lost in absorbed imitations of the gliding moonwalk. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in another place and another reality, for 4 minutes and 47 seconds, we might as well have been in Bucharest that night.

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