This Is It: A Review
This Is It – Dir: Kenny Ortega. *ing Michael Jackson et al
If you were sufficiently more than a glint in your Daddy’s eye back in 1984, then it is almost a given that for you, as for innumerable others, 25th June, 2009 has been added to Don ‘American Pie’ McClean’s series of days the music died, possibly one that cannot be surpassed in enormity and universality. And in his first appearance in This Is It, a documentary of sorts culled together from over 120 hours of rehearsal footage for his planned 50-concert U.K tour, as Michael Jackson stands there with his arms raised to the opening bass thumps of ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, you are sent hurtling back in time to when he was the undisputed King of Pop and not the death mask of Marcel Marceau. When he was still a handsome, young black man from Gary, Indiana, before the vitiligo ravaged him and birthed those myriad cruel ‘Black or White’ jokes. When you first witnessed those electrifying dance moves that could thrill the planet into submission. Well, at least that last part remained true to the end.
Although director and long-time Jackson collaborator Kenny Ortega calls the film ‘a gift’ for MJ’s fans, it has turned out to be much more than simply a behind-the-scenes, gushing, tribute piece. Strangely enough, it makes for a far more detailed and revealing look at the star than that infamously sour ‘documentary’ by Martin Bashir, or any other interview for that matter. This is a solid portrait of the artist as a middle-age-ish man, as a performer, as a leader to his troops, as it were. Yes, the camera keeps its distance and MJ keeps his interaction with it to a minimum, but we still get a sense of what makes him who he is/was, and certainly what the show means to him. It’s obvious he knows this is his last shot at reclaiming his throne (and his reputation) and so we see him pulling out all the stops – the music and the spectacle surrounding it are paramount. His uncanny instinct for the musically theatrical is amply demonstrated in the elaborate set pieces – the film noir-inspired routine for ‘Smooth Criminal’, with MJ shooting it up with Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth, the West Side Story-esque ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, complete with sprawling urban backdrop, and a brand new 3-D accompaniment piece for ‘Thriller’ with MJ and friends recreating that unforgettable zombie dance sequence. But even when stripped of the razzle dazzle and pyrotechnics, as in the simple rendition of duet ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ with back-up singer Judith Hill, MJ keeps you riveted – he is still in remarkably good voice, even though he protests that he wants to preserve his pipes for the actual shows. And quite contrary to our post-mortem perception of him as a frail, fragile, spent 49-year-old force, physically, he is in astonishingly agile form, not simply keeping up with his decades-younger chorus dancers, but showing them the way with effortless dexterity. We see him not only as performer but as auteur, directing cues, correcting timing issues, micro-managing the entire smorgasbord, all the time exceedingly polite with all at hand – this is no prima donna riding roughshod over the commoners. And it’s obvious that all of them – from Ortega down to the stage hands – are in awe of him. But at the same time, the star also cuts a singularly lonely figure, among the people but not quite of them.
Ultimately, This Is It is an uplifting tragedy – an enticing glimpse what could’ve and would’ve been. As Michael Jackson’s sentimental swansong, it’s not necessarily going to get any new MJ converts, but for the believers, it is gospel.