When Michael Jackson died in June, I joined pretty much everyone in pausing to mark the passing of an icon, but I was also convinced we hadn't lost that much. Jackson, after all, had spent much of the decade in seclusion and in courtrooms, and none of his musical output had matched the fierce, game-changing quality of his early work. I assumed the looming This Is It concert would be something akin to Vegas-era Elvis, a performer going through the motions in a vain attempt to conjure the magic that made him famous.
I, quite obviously, was wrong. With the release of This Is It the movie, the entire world has an opportunity to see for themselves the talent that remained within Jackson. The voice, the moves, the odd bravado were all still there, and through the rehearsal footage and the glimpses at his working process with the cast and crew, it's evident how excited Jackson was to put on an even bigger spectacle than we'd seen before (and coming from the man who regularly made million-dollar music videos in the 90s, that says a lot). Whatever the truth behind his death may be, Jackson was not a dying man as he prepared for the concert earlier this spring. As he twists and jerks and laughs onstage, it's hard to imagine he had ever been more alive.
Structured largely as a concert film, with occasional interstitial glimpses at rehearsal conversations or interviews with the crew, This Is It gives a bare-bones look at what the concert would have been like, occasionally using CGI rendering or glimpses at unfinished costumes to provide the full effect. Of course, the real spectacle is MJ front and center, and even the rough camera angles and bare stage are fascinating for the fact that Michael friggin' Jackson is dancing right in front of you, usually in glorious high-def. Whether it's subtle shoulder movements in "Human Nature" or a full, drawn-out jam to "Billie Jean" (to the delight of the assembled crew), Jackson is as much a marvel as ever, in complete control of the moves that made him a legend.
He's in control of pretty much everything, actually, squabbling gently with director Kenny Ortega (who also put the film together) about timing and asking the band to hold off on their next cue, to give time to "let me sizzle." That would have been a huge treat in seeing him live, watching an entire stage full of people hold their breath as MJ stands stock still, soaking in the inevitable adulation from the crowd. The film opens with somewhat self-indulgent footage of the backup dancers bursting into tears as they describe their hopes for working with Michael Jackson, but eventually it becomes clear that it was a mentorship as much as a work environment on that stage. His instructions to the dancers and musicians, while soft-spoken and polite, take on the quality of a message from on high. Even Ortega, faced with telling Jackson not to ride around so high on the cherry picker, knows when to shut up and let MJ do his thing.
Only a handful of unfamiliar numbers-- the dreadfully boring "Earth Song," and the fantastic military exercise known as "The Drill"-- pad out what's largely a series of greatest hits, even including a dip back to The Jackson 5 complete with a psychedlic, 70s-tastic set. "I Want You Back" being my favorite pop song of all time, I was disappointed to see Jackson struggle his way through the sped-up lyrics, but a soulful rendition of "I'll Be There," paused midway through for shoutouts to the Jackson family, felt perfect and heartfelt. New film footage shot to introduce "Thriller" feels overly slick, but when the dancers arrive onstage in zombie regalia and join Michael in the iconic dance, there's nothing better in the world. And even the shaggiest numbers, shot with Michael wearing sweatpants and with crappy video quality, carry that spark of familiarity combined with a touch of artistic reinvention. Michael says himself he wants the songs to sound just like they did on the album-- and they do-- but he also includes some extra touches to make it a real live experience.
This Is It definitely drags a bit near the end of the second hour, as the marvel of seeing Michael up close and personal wears off and the slower songs start replacing the lickety-split dancing. But usually it's easy to just imagine how it all would have been live, and get caught right back up again. This Is It is a testament of a project, not a life or a death; Jackson's death is wisely never mentioned in the film at all, and the only archival footage comes from brief glimpses at old Jackson Five performances. With Ortega becoming his own character in the film, and a final scene of the entire crew in the prayer circle, the movie's behind-the-scenes elements become just as fascinating as the production numbers. Even without the glitzy appeal of Jackson, there's a story about artistic collaboration in there that's worth seeing.
One of the first title cards in the film claims that the movie is "for the fans," and while it's true that the people who wore Michael Jackson shirts for months after his death will be beside themselves, aren't we all really fans? There's no one who doesn't get chills seeing the Moonwalk (sadly missing here, though), or can't sing all the words to at least one Jackson song. Even the cynics, seeing Jackson's joy in performance in the film, can be assured that this footage really did deserve to be seen in public. It's a blatant cash grab by everyone involved, of course. But despite its shaggy and rushed nature, it's also an unlikely and honest account of a life that I know now was cut far too short.