“My favourite person is Michael Jackson,” says Boy, the lead character, in Boy (2010) the film. “My favourite subjects are art, social studies, and Michael Jackson.” The year was 1984 and so significant was Michael Jackson’s pop cultural impact that the ripples were felt all over the world, even in a remote Māori community on New Zealand’s North Island where Boy and his younger brother Rocky lived. Just like the film’s writer, director and producer Taika Waititi, Boy’s idol is Michael Jackson. The king of pop was more than just the creator of music that could be heard every and anywhere in the eighties, he represented a fantastical and almost untouchable reality for both Boy and Waititi. He had a pet monkey named Bubbles. He could glide across the surface of the world’s stage and have the audience eating out of his hand like he did at the Grammy’s that same year. And he could fight zombies like he did in the Thriller video, which although the song had been released in 1982 didn’t hit mass saturation until 1984.
Waititi spent part of his childhood growing up in Waihau Bay, which acts as the inspiration for the community depicted in Boy. The town’s population is largely Māori and as they watch a brown boy succeed on the biggest platform imaginable, Michael Jackson becomes not just an idol to Boy but all the boys: even his schoolyard nemesis wears a knockoff of the Thriller jacket. So when Boy asks his crush Chardonnay if she wants to see “some Michael Jackson dance moves”, what he’s saying is does she want to see a part of himself, the part that he’s most passionate about and loves more than anything else. The fact that his “Michael Jackson dance moves” aren’t, well … good, is beside the point.
Boy was developed into a feature based on Waititi’s Academy Award-nominated short film Two Cars, One Night (2004), with the filmmaker also starring in the film as Boy and Rocky’s father Alamein (who closely resembles Waititi’s own father during the eighties). Michael Jackson is like an invisible, ever-present character in the film not just through Boy’s dance moves but the clothing, the costumes, the posters, and the whimsical sense of the fantastical among the film’s undercurrent of tragedy. It’s a merging of Michael Jackson as a cultural icon and Waititi’s own culture, with few examples of that better than the closing credits.
A recreation of the Thriller video clip with Waititi dressed as Jackson himself, it features the entire cast doing a combination of the choreography from the John Landis directed music video and traditional Māori poi dancing and the haka. Poi E from the Patea Māori Club plays over the top, which was the number one song of 1984 in New Zealand and also a historically significant pop cultural moment for its own merging of cultures with it being sung in te reo and tying in elements of hip hop, break dancing and early versions of rap as it was beginning to take form. It’s perhaps the finest illustration of art being borderless in a film that is entirely about that.
– Maria Lewis