When John Branca got married on December 11, 1987, Bubbles the chimpanzee was a guest.
“He was fully dressed in a tuxedo with a pocket square,” remembered Branca, Michael Jackson’s lawyer and friend, and now the co-executor and co-manager of his estate.
Three years after Jackson’s death, Branca, 61, was at the Venice Film Festival to promote ‘Bad 25’ — a vivid making-of documentary about the 1987 album, directed by Spike Lee. Branca is an executive producer.
We met on the seafront terrace of the Excelsior Hotel on Venice’s Lido Island, after Lee presided over a small media roundtable, memorably attired in a ‘Bad’ T-shirt, a black beret, and a large crucifix composed of tiny skulls.
Lee would have preferred ‘Bad 25’ to come out on the big screen instead of directly on TV. He fretted that, nowadays, youngsters watch movies on smartphones, even on first viewing, and pointed to his unamused teenage son, who listened quietly from behind a table of uneaten sandwiches.
Branca — in a black suit and pocket square — looked back to his time with Jackson, whom he represented in the 1980s and 1990s, all the way up to 2006. He rejoined the team the week before his death.
I asked whether there were financial as well as creative motives behind the 25th-anniversary tribute.
“Yes: It’s been widely reported in the press that there was a substantial amount of debt,” Branca said. “So we felt we had to address that for the benefit of Michael’s children.”
Privately, Branca remembered Jackson as “always very respectful of people,” “very fun-loving” and “a bit of a prankster.” At the Jackson residence, the chimp was a great source of entertainment: He copied whoever he saw — including the domestic help.
“Bubbles would have his cleaning rag out,” Branca said. “And Michael would joke with him: ‘Oh, Bubbles, there you are cleaning again!’”
Jackson was otherwise very close to Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees — he was the godfather of one of Gibb’s children — and to Marlon Brando, whose son worked with Jackson and still works for the estate, according to Branca.
By contrast, Jackson’s relationship with Prince was frosty, and there was a “healthy competition” between them. Still, one day, Jackson asked Branca to set up a meeting between them to discuss collaborating on the song ‘Bad.’
“Michael’s vision was that he and Prince would sing this as a duet,” Branca said. “‘Who’s bad?’ and they would sing back and forth.”
The meeting (which Branca didn’t attend) went badly, and the duet never happened. “Apparently Prince brought Michael a gift, and it was some sort of voodoo box, and Michael was convinced Prince was trying to place a spell on him.”
After the release of ‘Thriller’ — the best-selling album of all time — Michael had “a significant amount of disposable income.”
Never keen on buildings or tax shelters, he started buying music catalogues, including Sly and the Family Stone’s. When the Beatles library came on the market, Jackson asked Branca to contact Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney.
Ono “said she would be very pleased.” McCartney’s attorney said he wasn’t bidding. After a year, Jackson forked out $47.5 million (Dh174 million) for the purchase. The songbook is now part of a conglomerate that Branca describes as the biggest music publisher in the world, in which the Michael Jackson estate has a minority interest.
Which of the children look likely to follow in his footsteps?
“They’re a little too young, to predict that,” Branca said. Yet he can’t help share a foreboding. “Paris is very charismatic, and she’s expressed an interest in a film career.”
“I could see her doing that,” he said of Jackson’s 14-year-old daughter, who may one day be promoting her own movie in Venice.