This Is It

I feel a little bad for the stage dancers in This Is It. There they are at the beginning of the film, many of them moved to tears by the very prospect of dancing onstage with their hero, Michael Jackson, for his projected farewell concert in London. Well, they got to rehearse with him, anyway, and their efforts, captured on camera, are recorded for posterity. As the world now knows, Jackson’s This Is It concerts were not to be; he died less than a month before the first show.

One hundred hours of rehearsals were filmed for the concert crew’s own reference and for Jackson’s personal library; the footage was never intended to be seen by the public. We’re to understand that the show’s director (and the film’s credited director), Kenny Ortega, heard from so many fans wanting to see that footage that Ortega decided to put the film together for them. The truth is probably somewhat thornier; the concert promoter AEG Live, which took a $500 million bath from the fifty cancelled dates, has to make its money back somehow. Still, what’s left here is an interesting, if remote, portrait of an entertainment machine with a laser-precise vision of what he wanted.

It’s possible that the only time Michael Jackson was fully in control was when he was onstage, or doing prep work for a show. The rest of his life was mess and scandal and self-disfigurement, but in the lights, at least, he knew something about something. Always gracious, often appending his critiques “with love,” Jackson makes minute adjustments to the sound, the timing, the funkiness. We’ll never know what cocktail of meds he may or may not have been on when this footage was shot, but mentally, in the film, he seems formidable. Physically, he often holds back, saving his voice, he repeatedly says, for the main event. He gladly gives the spotlight (“This is your turn to shine”) to Orianthi Panagaris, a 24-year-old Australian virtuoso guitarist always seen chewing gum. When you’ve played onstage with Steve Vai at age 15, you can probably get away with chewing gum in front of the King of Pop.

For obvious reasons, This Is It suffers from a patchwork style — the editors do a heroic job of stitching it all together into something coherent. The highlight, mid-film, is probably “Thriller” (notch up another movie credit for Vincent Price); we get a peek at what would’ve been an impressive multimedia 3D presentation. This megaproduction in general would likely have been quite a night out, though by necessity short on spontaneity; Jackson’s fans paid to see his act well-worked-out, not rough around the edges. The film shows only the bare bones of what might have been. It’s difficult to assess, on a narrative or even technical level, footage that we weren’t really supposed to see. But people are expected to pay to see it, so that’s where we critics come in.

This Is It shows a man, frail and (unwittingly) close to death, yet still packing iconic power. He doesn’t waste a movement or a word. His entire essence seems mixed into the music (much of which has odd levels of hostility and aggression for someone who talks constantly about peace and love). His fluid mechanical-man moves and his strange late-period martial iconography (as seen in “They Don’t Really Care About Us”) denote a control freak, or, more generously, a perfectionist, and it’s clear to me that the Michael Jackson we see here would not have wanted us to see the Michael Jackson we see here. His estate okayed the film, but his estate has bills to pay, too. As a posthumous document, This Is It offers a veiled, vaseline-lens look behind the curtain. As a cultural event, it’s more than a little creepy and depressing. As with Elvis before him, the vultures will keep picking at this sad man-child’s bones until there’s nothing left.3

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