Michael Jackson’s This Is It opens with a slow burn, which is probably the way the man who the film was created in honor of would have wanted it; a scroll about the film’s origins that oddly glides over the manner of his untimely passing, the title card, and then a series of reactions from the show’s would-be dancers, all gathered to audition for the man who, to hear them tell it, inspired him to dance. When Michael does finally arrive on screen, then, the viewer has been prepared for his arrival—and yet, it’s still kind of incredible, to see this man who for so long had loomed as something larger than life, in part because he really wanted to, actually appear on screen in something resembling his element.
This Is It is an interesting artifact in that it likely wouldn’t have come to be without Jackson’s untimely passing last summer; the spooky thing about it, though, is that there’s more than one moment where one wonders if the knowledge that a documentary for consumption by people outside of Jackson’s inner circle was being made was possessed by at least one person involved in the proceedings. Certain moments seemed like they were designed to play for the cameras—a few of the confabs between Michael and director Kenny Ortega, the prayer that Michael led right before the closing performance of “Man In The Mirror.”
Asking whether or not this documentary would have existed if Jackson had lived to put on all 50 O2 shows is a worthy question. Not only could the spectacle of watching Michael Jackson simply work, whether gently lecturing the band on a missed cue, or offering encouragement to guitar prodigy Orianthi, or just figuring out which dance moves went with this song, potentially serve as catnip for audiences who didn’t have the scratch to make it to London, all these songs undeniably deserve to be on the big screen. Miley and the Jonases can bring their spectacles —perhaps Jackson would have, too, if the shows had actually taken place.
At the rehearsals’ best moments, his dance moves still seemed effortless; his voice still commanded a strong presence (one moment during a rehearsal of “I Want You Back,” he seemingly became possessed by his five-year-old self, and I got chills). This despite his trying to conserve his energy for the real performances as much as possible; there’s one very telling moment where he’s rehearsing “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and he gets caught up in trading vocal riffs with his duet partner—and he looks like he’s having the best time of his life. It’s infectious, bringing back the best moments of his videos and TV performances. But as soon as it’s over, Michael snaps back into place, reminding the people around him that he’s trying to conserve his voice as much as he can for what is supposed to be a fairly long run of vocally demanding concerts. This is it; “it” is business.
Despite the jump-cuts, Michael’s ever-shifting array of outfits, and his protestations of “just working out” the music, it was possible to get wrapped up in the proceedings, to almost feel like what was happening wasn’t a movie, but a live, if sparsely attended*, concert. One woman catty-corner to me waved her hands along with “I’ll Be There”; a group of young-ish men behind me couldn’t contain themselves during “Man In The Mirror.” (Perhaps the enthusiasm emanating from the non-Michael people on screen was contagious; when Michael’s co-workers weren’t onstage, it should be noted, they dropped any pretense of “professionalism” and turned into rapt fans ready to greet every song with an ovation.)
I was pretty suspicious of how the 50-concert undertaking would come off when it was first announced last spring, which now seems like eons ago—and my suspicions were raised again by the announcement of the film. And This Is It is certainly an odd documentary, in large part because the ghosts in the newly CGI-ed “Thriller” (which comes off like a Haunted Mansion-meets-Ghostbustersish spectacle) are upstaged by the apparition of the man who’s at the stage’s center. But as I left the theater, I found myself checking my iPod to make sure that I had all the crucial songs featured in the film on it (that is, all of them minus “Jam,” “Heal The World,” and the even-more-superfluous-in-context “title track”). And judging by early rumblings about the soundtrack’s sales, I’m not the only one (even though that tie-in mostly consists of material collected on other compilations, like this year’s top-selling album Number Ones).
Of course, the mall where I saw it had one place to buy those songs, for those people who didn’t have a digital-music store on their phones: Target. Sigh.
Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT [Official site]
* I don’t doubt that the film will do well; 1 p.m. on a rainy Wednesday in the suburbs is not exactly prime movie-going time.
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