It’s impossible to divorce the images on the screen from the reality that’s still so fresh in our minds regarding Michael Jackson’s death earlier this Summer. In fact, with the opening scroll of text reminding us of the best laid plans for a comeback/farewell tour that was shut down due to tragedy, it seems as though director Kenny Ortega was clever enough to understand that mental hurdle and take the sting out. Even though there’s a surreal moment in just how recent the history they’re recounting is, that’s the end of it, and the rest of the ride is a pure celebration of the music of an enduring icon.
Documentary style footage that was meant for Jackson’s eyes only is compiled with rehearsal footage and the special filmed segments that would have acted as backdrop for the show to create a shockingly intimate view into a show that never was. It’s funny and sweet, ethereal throughout and human at times, but at the core of it, it’s damned entertaining. After all, it’s essentially two hours of Michael Jackson’s most beloved songs being played in a sort of Warts and All version of a huge stage show. Even if there’s nothing beyond that to find in the film, your toes should still be tapping, your heart beating with the bass drums, a smile forming on your face along with the memories in your mind.
As you can probably tell, I’m a big Jackson fan. But who isn’t? The man is an incredible musical presence (which is rare in pop music these days), and knows how to put on a show. With This Is It, the polish and flash of the concert that sold out in 50 cities becomes a grainier portrait of a family of very talented entertainers building something together. There are missed cues, flubbed notes, and Jackson even forgets some lyrics, but it all forms together to display something so close to being complete. Something far more interesting to watch because it’s not quite perfect.
Jackson himself is as magnetic as a presence as you’d need. He prowls the stage in equal parts to grab the spotlight and to fade into the background and let his dancers take some time to shine. Although seeing him is a bit jarring, it’s still the closest thing to an enigmatic figure that anyone will ever come. Instead of bathing him in some sort of Godly light, Ortega is reverent to his creative partner in a different way by showing just how normal he is. On stage, he ranges from a calm dictator who seeks perfection (and needs things a little more funky) to a true fan who stands back and revels in the spectacle that’s being created all around him. His constant use of the phrase, “this is why we have rehearsals” belies a certain sweetness that, without this film, fans would never know. He’s funny, disarming, and in a moment where his music director uses the word “booty” to describe what Jackson needs from the beat, Jackson’s reaction proves him to be the person he is instead of the superstar we see him as.
But, as I said, he fades into the background at times. Inasmuch as it’s a film about Michael Jackson, it’s also a film about the people around him creating the show from the costume designer to the dancers. You only catch glimpses of some of them, but they help paint a more complete portrait of the true star of the movie – the concert. If there is a standout, it’s Orianthi, who looks like a prettier version of Lita Ford and absolutely shreds on guitar. Vocalist Judith Hill also shares the stage with Jackson during “I Can’t Stop Loving You” where Jackson choreographs her movements in real time. It’s awkward and strange but also intimate and loving.
And the music. Goddamn, the music is all there. Every major song you’d want is lit up brightly on stage, set on fire, placed behind a fat bass beat and danced the hell out of. The crew for the concert shot extra footage for several set pieces including placing Jackson in an iconic film scene (Edward G. Robinson seemed surprised to see him) for “Smooth Criminal,” a rain forest scene, and fantastic new graveyard footage for “Thriller.” All of them feature the dancers from the show (as they were set to be played on the jumbotron behind the stage) and they are shown in full, crisp glory to break up the slightly harsh look of the rehearsal footage.
If there is a flaw it’s that the movie gets repetitive – constantly showing a segue which builds into the song and ends when Jackson explains how he wants the ending done when they get to show time. The movie itself doesn’t benefit from the same energy the stage show would have, so when it hits a slow song, the momentum gets a little lost in the fog. But on the other hand, the movie delivers song after great song played by the live band and sung by the man himself.
As a blend of backstage footage, a few testimonials praising Michael, sharply-produced show elements, and the musical performances – This Is It is a stunning look at something that’s both epic and personal. Beautiful. Thrilling. Revealing. This film is a great documentary that delivers a larger-than-life figure in his natural environment as both a mega-celebrity and just a man standing alone on a stage.
The Upside: A fantastic look at a great show put on by a musical icon.
The Downside: When the songs slow down, so does the film.
On the Side: If you stay past the end of the credits, there’s another cool segment with Jackson at rehearsal and an…interesting…CGI little girl who hugs the planet.