MJ Remembered In Style

Despite the serious possibility of becoming an overwrought, all-star, craptastic spectacle, the memorial service held for Michael Jackson this morning at Staples Center in Los Angeles was handled with dignity and restraint.

In fact, one of the most striking things about the entire memorial was just how quiet the nearly 20,000 people gathered to celebrate the singer’s life remained throughout the two-hour service. (Except for the random shouts of “We love you Michael” from fans scattered around the venue.)

The event started quietly and without fanfare as Smokey Robinson took the stage to read messages of condolence from Jackson’s close friend Diana Ross and former South African president Nelson Mandela, catching many of the media outlets covering it by surprise in the process.

The official beginning of the memorial was a brief musical interlude by the Andre Crouch Choir (backed by screens displaying a beautiful stained glass window and singing “Hallelujah, we’re going to see the king”) as pallbearers carried Jackson’s flower-draped coffin onto the arena floor and placed it at the foot of the stage.

That was followed by an invocation by Pastor Lucious W. Smith of the Friendship Baptist Church in Pasadena, Calif., who then introduced Mariah Carey to sing the Jackson 5 hit “I’ll Be There,” accompanied by Trey Lorenz.

The first celeb to give a eulogy was the always classy Queen Latifah, who said she was there “representing millions of fans around the world who grew up listening to Michael, being inspired by Michael and loving Michael from a distance” and called him “the biggest star on earth.”

Photo: AP Photo

Latifah also read a poem by Maya Angelou called “We Had Him” in which the poet and autobiographer exclaimed, “Now we know we know nothing” and said about Jackson, “He was a gift to us.”

Lionel Richie took the stage next to sing The Commodores’ moving “Jesus Is Love,” followed by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who told stories about first meeting Michael and his brothers and losing to the Jackson clan at softball.

Gordy praised the singer who he claimed “raised the bar and then broke it,” was the first at the service to answer Jackson’s critics when he said, “Sure there were some sad times and some questionable decisions on his part, but Michael Jackson achieved everything he ever dreamed of,” and finished by exclaiming “‘King of Pop’ is not big enough. I think he is simply the greatest entertainer that ever lived.”

Next the cameras caught Jackson’s parents, children, sisters Janet and LaToya and his brothers (dressed in matching black suits and yellow ties and each sporting one sequined glove in tribute), while a brief video tribute to the singer’s life was displayed on the venue’s many screens.

The sequence included part of a particularly poignant and appropriate line uttered by Jackson as the Scarecrow in “The Wiz”: “Success, fame and fortune, they’re all illusions. All there is that is real is the friendship that two can share.”

The emotion level was cranked up a notch as Stevie Wonder was escorted to the piano, where he said, “This is a moment I wish that I didn’t live to see come” before he sang a medley of his 1971 song “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer” and 1974’s “They Won’t Go When I Go,” both of which could easily have been written for the occasion.

The world of sports was well represented by Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, who told of “sitting on the carpet eating Kentucky Fried Chicken” with Jackson in his lavish home and called it “the greatest moment of my life.” Bryant and Johnson honored the singer for his extensive charity work around the world which earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Charities Supported by a Pop Star.”

Photo: AP Photo

Next came Jennifer Hudson to sing “Will You Be There?,” resplendent in white and accompanied by performers who had been working with Jackson on his “This Is It” shows for London’s O2 Arena. Jackson himself was also present through the incorporation of a spoken word interlude during the song.

The second eulogy was delivered by Rev. Al Sharpton, who enumerated Jackson’s accomplishments (which Sharpton said happened because he “never gave up dreaming”), credited him with creating “a comfort level” between blacks and whites, and told his children Prince, Paris and Blanket, “There was nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what he had to deal with. And he did it for us.”

The next musical performance came courtesy of John Mayer, who didn’t sing, but instead delivered a quietly restrained and mostly instrumental version of Jackson’s underrated Thriller track “Human Nature” with help from four backing vocalists.

Perhaps the most moving and truly human portion of the entire service was delivered by Jackson’s longtime friend, actress Brooke Shields. Visibly straining to fight back tears, Shields described her relationship with the singer and what it meant to both of them, saying, “To us it was the most natural and easiest of friendships” because “Both of us needed to be adults very early, but when we were together, we were two little kids having fun.”

Photo: AP Photo

Shields said Jackson always reminded her of the title character in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, explaining with a quote from the book: “What moves me so deeply, about this sleeping prince…is his loyalty to a flower – the image of a rose shining within him like a flame within a lamp, even when he’s asleep. And I realized he was even more fragile than I had thought. Lamps must be protected. A gust of wind can blow them out.”

The actress finished by revealing to the assembled mourners that Jackson’s favorite song was Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and telling them that was what they should be doing to remember the singer.

Following Shields’ moving tribute, Michael’s brother Jermaine took to the stage to sing the song one last time for his sibling.

Photo: AP Photo

Two more eulogies followed: from Jackson family friends Martin Luther King III and Vernice King, who related that “despite being embroiled in accusations and persecutions” the singer took the time to telephone her mother and comfort her while she was suffering from the illness that eventually took her life, and from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), who reminded Jackson’s detractors, “People are innocent until proven otherwise. That is what the Constitution stands for” and praised him for fighting “for the tolerance of all people.”

The next musical tribute came from self-avowed Jackson fan Usher, who gave a moving performance of the eerily appropriate “Gone Too Soon” as he laid his hand on the singer’s coffin, before breaking down in tears and being comforted by Jackson’s family.

After a brief clip of Jackson and his brothers performing Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You” on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” Robinson returned to the stage to express his love and admiration for the singer who he said “will never really be gone.”

Photo: AP Photo

Robinson’s eulogy was followed by a stirring performance of “Who’s Loving You” by “Britain’s Got Talent” finalist Shaheen Jafargholi and then choreographer Kenny Ortega, who introduced a number from Jackson’s “This Is It” show.

The number, which featured performers who had been working on the show with the singer at the time of his death, included Jackson’s hits “We Are the World” and “Heal the World.” By the end of the second song, the entire Jackson clan – including the singer’s three children – as well as the assembled performers and speakers had joined in.

The final tributes came in the form of brief remarks from two of Jackson’s brothers, Jermaine and Marlon (who said, “We will never understand what he endured … being judged, ridiculed. How much pain can one take? Maybe, now, Michael, they will leave you alone.”) and, somewhat surprisingly, his 11-year-old daughter Paris, who tearfully said of her father, “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine. And I just wanted to say I love him so much,” before being folded into her Aunt Janet’s arms to be taken off the stage.

Photo: AP Photo
Michael Jackson’s children are comforted by their family at the close of their father’s memorial service at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

The memorial closed quietly with a benediction by Pastor Lucious W. Smith, after which Jackson’s casket was removed from its place in front of the stage as the assembled crowd filed respectfully out of the venue.

Watch the Michael Jackson Memorial on demand at VH1.com.