Entertainment » Movies

Michael Jackson’s This Is It...

by David Foucher
EDGE Publisher
Wednesday Oct 28, 2009
Michael Jackson’s This Is It...

Many "fans" of Michael Jackson - myself included - managed a difficult relationship with the pop star. We grew up with his music; nay, it was impossible to escape, and difficult to rebuff emotionally. But Michael's private-turned-public life irrevocably damaged our perception of the man behind the artist, in my case to a degree where even listening to his music was tinged with a sense of loathing. Let's face it: the man's private existence was filled with questionable behavior, lawsuits, and more plastic surgery than any one face should have to endure. I didn't watch the funeral, and only briefly paid attention to the accolades being bandied about in the press. But I will admit a bit of confusion when the likes of Beyonce, Smokey Robinson and Justin Timberlake - artists I respect and admire - not only mourned his passing with words such as "genius," "inspiration," and "magic," but also talked candidly about how much they cared for the person who was Michael Jackson.

It was with some distaste and morbid curiosity, then, that I discovered I was assigned to review "Michael Jackson's THIS IS IT." But after the experience, I found my aversion to Jackson, if not entirely minimized, at least moderated; the film is an honest, exciting documentary of what was to be not just the culmination of Jackson's career, but an emotionally-charged statement about our impact on the planet.

The film, culled from over 100 hours of rehearsal footage, has been lovingly crafted by Jackson's stage collaborator and director of the wildly popular "High School Musical" films, Kenny Ortega. It's not entirely a tribute - in fact, the film occasionally shows Jackson's difficult side and, in at least one case, what appears to be childish obstinance in the creation of the show. "This Is It" was not meant for theatrical release; that was the title reserved for Jackson's sold-out imminent 50 performances at the O2 Arena in London between July 2009 and March 2010. They were to be his final stage performances, but the title had a double entendre: not only was it meant to be a grand farewell that catapulted him back to form, it was also meant to imply that the planet is approaching a point of no return ecologically. It was a theme he meant to play out in concert, and posthumously, is bound to be one of his legacies thanks to this film.

Three HD video cameras captured a variety of backstage action from dancer auditions (over 5,000 of them auditioned; eleven made the cut) right up to and including the final rehearsal in Los Angeles, just hours prior to Jackson's death. In large part, Ortega offers up entire songs intercut between multiple rehearsals; between them he sandwiches snippets of conversation, creative collaboration, and interviews with the dancers, musicians and technicians. These interviews were not held after Jackson's death; as a result they are even more poignant. And while Jackson phones in some numbers - remember, these were rehearsals - he occasionally goes into full-scale performance mode, reminding us of the potent artist he remained at the age of fifty. In several numbers, he more than holds his own on the stage with dancers half his age - in fact, he quietly, unassumedly overshadows them.

But then, that was pure Jackson style. He's utterly in control, as exemplified when he clucks to his keyboardist Michael Bearden, "You have to let it simmer," as they work on the intro to "The Way You Make Me Feel." But he remarks repetitively during the process that their joined efforts are intended to share with his fans a soft, compelling love ("L-O-V-E," he spells out at one point to make it clear). I hardly expected this to be the depiction of the man. I'm betting some of his less genial moments were left on the cutting room floor, but nonetheless the movie documents an artists in his prime: confident, collaborative and comfortable with his mission and its message.

Highlights include a number of cinematic moments filmed by Ortega and Jackson to support the show, artfully weaved into performance. Hollywood from the 30s and 40s makes an appearance in a nicely constructed segment for "Smooth Criminal," and a full-scale 3-D recreation of "Thriller" will make anyone nostalgic for that monstrous hit. In fact, the majority of the songs from the film harken back to Jackson's golden era of Bad and Thriller, but it's the winsome, ardent performance (and video) from HIStory's "Earth Song" that finally makes it clear what type of statement Jackson was intending to make. It's powerful, no more so as a result of the performer's death.

And perhaps that's the legacy with which we're gifted by "This Is It" - not only do we all get to share in a hint of what was to come in the O2 concert hall, but we also get to share in a joined recollection of what made Jackson truly great. It was not the media persona; it was the music, the dance, and the man. And if you cannot entirely forget the former after watching this film, at least you'll rediscover the latter.

David Foucher is the CEO of the EDGE Media Network and Pride Labs LLC, is a member of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalist Association, and is accredited with the Online Society of Film Critics. David lives with his daughter in Dedham MA.

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