The Strange Year of the Posthumous Performance

Photo: Kerry Brown/Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Two thousand fourteen is only half over, yet the year in culture has already been dominated by people who are dead. I don’t mean people like Elvis and Shakespeare, whose work endures long after their passing; I mean people like Michael Jackson, who, five years in the grave, performed at the Billboard Music Awards in May. And Rick James, who’s been dead for a decade and who has a new memoir this year. And the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died in February and has a new movie out.

These three aren’t alone among posthumous performers with a stranglehold on pop culture. The brilliant New York actor Christopher Evan Welch was introduced to a whole new audience in HBO’s Silicon Valley in April, several months after he had passed away. The journalist Michael Hastings, killed in a car accident last year, is now the author of a posthumous novel, The Last Magazine, published in June; and James Gandolfini, who already gave one heartrending posthumous performance in last year’s Enough Said, will appear again this year in The Drop. Not to be outdone, River Phoenix—who would have been 44 this year—will star in a new movie, Dark Blood, that is finally being released 21 years after his death.

I don’t mean to imply disrespect. All of these celebrities, obviously, play no role in their continued cultural presence. And most of these inadvertently eerie events are due to simple quirks of scheduling: Work that was finished before someone’s death is only now being released afterward. (In Phoenix’s case, waaaaaay afterward.) What’s more, we miss all these artists, so who doesn’t welcome the appearance of a last song, or an unreleased manuscript, or an as-yet-unseen performance? If nothing else, posthumous work gives us one last chance to celebrate artists’ formidable legacies.

Except there’s no such thing as “one last chance” anymore. Celebrities aren’t allowed to truly pass away, not in the public mind at least. Some of them aren’t even allowed to stop performing or, in Jackson’s case, duetting with Justin Bieber. It’s not weird that we miss those artists who’ve died. But it is weird that, increasingly, we expect them to keep producing art. The afterlife has become just another career stage—one that’s as lucrative and, in some cases, as productive as the pre-death career ever was.

Every joke there is to be made about Tupac Shakur’s notoriously prodigious afterlife (pre-death: three platinum albums; post-death: seven platinum albums and one appearance with Snoop Dogg at Coachella) has already been made, and in some sense that’s the whole problem. Dead celebrities are suddenly popping up everywhere, and they don’t freak us out in the least. Not when they’re showing up in new movies, releasing books, or, like Eric Hill, the Bachelorette contestant who was killed before the most recent season aired, appearing as potential suitors for the Bachelorette. Not when they’re being digitally exhumed to perform for us anew. They’ve become both the benefactors and victims of a kind of artistic grave-robbing.

Back in 1993, when Brandon Lee was killed while filming The Crow and the movie was released the next year anyway, the tragedy cast a macabre pall on the whole project (“a creepy resonance,” as Owen Gleiberman described it in Entertainment Weekly at the time). I think it’s safe to say no such creepy resonance will accompany Fast & Furious 7 when it’s released in 2015, even though one of the stars, Paul Walker, was killed in November 2013 while the film was still in production. Through a combination of sibling look-alike stand-ins and digital wizardry, he “completed” the film this year, which is now being positioned as a tribute to the late star.

Or remember how enraged everyone was, back in 1997, when they made that Dirt Devil vacuum-cleaner commercial with Dead Fred Astaire? Watching Dead Michael Jackson on the Billboard Music Awards, it was hard to feel rage, or really much of anything at all, save for that all-too-common digital-age realization: Well, this is apparently something we can do now. To be honest, it didn’t feel all that different from seeing Digitally Wimpified Chris Evans run around in Captain America: The First Avenger.

The same is true of the 2011 Dior TV ad in which a resurrected Marilyn Monroe acts alongside Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich and, as the token living movie star, Char­lize Theron. Monroe, of course, has long passed to iconic ­status—she exists to us as more shimmering mirage of glamour than actual onetime living human being. But death in the Twitter age confers that kind of iconic status to nearly everyone. There is no occasion for more unified sentiment on Twitter than the spontaneous celebration of a recently deceased star. For one ­glorious moment, James Garner can push aside Kimye in our ongoing conversation. It’s no surprise, then, that dead celebrities are enjoying such a robust afterlife, given how much we’ve come to enjoy the ritual of Wiki-eulogizing them en masse.

Artists have always been immortal, in a sense: Movie stars live on in their movies; rock stars live on in their songs; authors live on in their books. That’s one of the primal appeals of making art. But I think we’re staring down something different now: digitally aided immortality that serves neither the star nor the audience.

For starters, celebrities can linger like ghosts forever in the haunted house of the internet. Watching Hoffman in his new film, A Most Wanted Man, induces a sense of deep sadness, of course, at the greatness that’s been lost—but then, if you’re feeling wistful for his particular brand of brilliance, his entire catalogue is available for instantaneous retrieval, only a few keystrokes away. It’s hard to truly feel that someone’s gone forever when you can watch pretty much any of his scenes that you care to revisit, along with any number of tribute ­videos that compile his greatest performances. As an actor, Hoffman lives forever, at least on YouTube, and you, like an amateur medium, can summon his spirit at will.

Beyond that, there’s the distinctly modern notion that death is no reason why artists can’t keep making art from beyond the grave. If Walker can appear convincingly in Fast & Furious 7, there’s no real obstacle, save propriety, for him to appear in 8, 9, and so on. We now have posthumous albums comprising not only unreleased material but remixes of disinterred studio tracks. Once that’s the standard, there’s no reason a “new” Michael Jackson song can’t be trotted out each year, complete with a pseudo-holographic Michael ­Jackson to “sing” it, forever a slave to the rhythm, and the rejected bass line, and the cast-off vocal track he once decided to discard.

This new brand of digital immortality both over- and undervalues the artists it purports to memorialize. It sanctifies all the half-drafts and incomplete performances the artist left behind—mining them for an endless string of future releases—while disregarding all the revisions and edits the living artist would have undertaken. Fans of David Foster Wallace were happy about the publication of his unfinished novel The Pale King—yet it’s almost impossible to enjoy as a book, mostly because you’re constantly wondering how exactly David Foster Wallace would have improved it. And it seems like as much a “tribute” to Michael Jackson to not dig through his artistic trash can as it is to find some way to make him perpetually dance on our TVs.

We’re very close, if not there already, to a moment when anyone famous who’s ever lived can be convincingly brought back to life in some fashion. Perhaps there’s no reason to resist this. Why should death end your career? In a way, it’s the ultimate kick-start—it’s the one moment we can all agree to finally embrace someone. And, if nothing else, it’s a logical, if radical, extrapolation of that most fundamental commandment, “The show must go on.”

*This article appears in the July 28, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

The Strange Year of the Posthumous Performance