In June 2011, Michael Jackson’s posthumously released track Hollywood Tonight became his first #1 single on Billboard’s chart since “Scream”.
The single, a different version of the song from that released on the Michael album six months earlier, was blessed with a music video starring Sofia Boutella as a young dancer aiming for stardom in Hollywood. (1)
Six years later, June 2017, sees the mesmerising Ms Boutella (now a full-time actress) in the title role of The Mummy, the latest incarnation of the cinema classic, also starring Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe and Annabelle Wallis. Boutella doesn’t dance in this film, she’s slithers, crawls, creeps and stalks as Ahmanet, a recalled to life Egyptian princess on a vengeful mission. (2)
Born in 1982 in Algiers, Sofia Boutella is the Algerian-French daughter of a jazz musician and architect mother. She began dancing at the age of five. After moving with her family to France, she took up rhythmic gymnastics and then hip hop and street dance. In 2007, she was selected for the Nike Women’s advertising campaigns, choreographed by Jamie King. (3)
Yes – the same Jamie King who toured as part of Michael Jackson’s dance troupe on the Dangerous World Tour, and who also choreographed for Prince and Madonna. Jamie went on to write and direct both of Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson tribute shows – Immortal and MJ ONE. (4)
Boutella’s execution of King’s choreography for Nike scored her dance gigs with both Madonna and Rihanna. In fact, she was locked into the extended Confessions tour with Madonna at the time Michael Jackson’s O2 residency shows would have taken place.
Sofia had auditioned for the This Is It concerts, and Michael really liked her and wanted her to be a part of his greatest show ever. When the Madonna tour was extended Sofia was obligated to fulfil her contract through to the final performance. Responding to Sofia’s disappointment, and probably his own, Michael reputedly said to a couple of his collaborators “I used to date Madonna. I should call her.” (5)
In February 2012 Sofia spoke to Nicola Rayner of Dance Today who asked if she got to meet Michael. Sofia replied “No, but I spoke to him on the phone. He called me, he said, ‘You’re an amazing dancer. God bless you. I really want you on my show.’ And I said, ‘I will do my best.’ Then I was on the phone to his stage director, Kenny Ortega, and he told me: ‘When you’re done with Madonna, come and join us,’ and I said, ‘OK, I will.’ And then he passed.”
It seems only fitting that Boutella was given the opportunity to pay Michael the ultimate tribute – by performing his iconic dance moves in an official Michael Jackson music video. In the 2012 interview she explained that “He always inspired me; and when he felt I could give him something I could not give it to him, when he gave to me a whole life, you know what I mean? So then the video came up and I got the chance to do it and I felt better about myself; I felt I did something for him.” (5)
The video, directed by Wayne Isham, follows the narrative of the song – the story of a girl who leaves her home and family to go to Hollywood in the quest for stardom. It’s not easy; she attends auditions by day when not slinging hash, and pole dances in a night club at night. But this version of the story has a happy ending. She gets her break, and she’s on her way to the big time.
Of course, references to MJ are everywhere throughout the film – in the kids dancing in the streets, on billboards and street signs, and in Boutella’s outfit when she performs his iconic moves in front of Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. [Pantages is known to MJ fans as the location for Michael’s on-stage scenes in the You Are Not Alone video, also directed by Isham.]
Boutella’s performance is stunning, infusing the footage with “infectious energy and talent” in the words of Joe Vogel. (7)
The short film for Hollywood Tonight reflected Michael’s vision for what a music video should be – it should tell a story, it should be cinematic in its production values, it should have all the attention to detail of any big screen, big budget movie.
The single release and video version of the song Hollywood Tonight differed from the album track in a number of ways. The spoken bridge (which Michael never got to record, and for which he had written darker lyrics) was removed and instead, Vogel reveals “Sony…used his beatboxing, his idea of swelling horns and strings, and his operative vocal (pulled from a tape left running during a recording session in a hotel room).” (8)
Happily, in response to complaints from fans about the over-processing of Michael’s vocals on the album version, for the single (and video) they are left un-processed and the production is scaled back, resulting in what Vogel describes as “a rawer, funkier, but less finished feel than the album version.” (9)
To quote Vogel again: “The video also reminds — along with recent MJ tributes on American Idol and Glee — how profound Jackson’s influence continues to be on new generations (many of whom only ‘discovered’ him after his tragic death in 2009).” (10)
Since Vogel wrote those words (in 2011) the Michael Jackson tributes have continued on stages and screens both large and small, as well as on street corners throughout the globe.
Meanwhile, having taken up acting full time, Sofia Boutella no longer dances. But, in true fairy-tale Hollywood fashion, her star has continued to rise.
- A sampling of Nike Women commercials starring Sofia Boutella: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHO6oL-1KIA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1n8DebPWUI
- Jamie King on how he got the job of dancing with Michael: https://youtu.be/hkL9dpUfKYo
Photo montage of Michael Jackson flanking Sofia Boutella from “Hollywood Tonight” short film compiled and photoshopped by Kerry Hennigan 2017.
Photo of Sofia Boutella from “Hollywood Tonight” video and CD single cover artwork © MJJ Productions Inc 2011. Distributed by Sony Music Entertainment.