- Rated PG
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All photos © Sony Pictures
Reviewed by Will Harris
hen the announcement was made in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death that the footage from the concert rehearsals for “This Is It” – a series of 50 shows which he had been set to play at London’s O2 Arena – was to be shaped into a feature-length film, no one could be blamed for thinking that the decision had been made solely with an eye on the almighty dollar. You may hereby allow your cynicism to dissipate: the resulting motion picture is remarkable, serving as the “final curtain call” which Jackson was unable to take in life.
“This Is It” offers a backstage look into the process of putting together the stage show for Jackson’s planned concerts, and it quickly becomes clear that it would have been quite a sight to behold, blending filmed footage with huge sets to create just the sort of spectacle one would have expected from the King of Pop. But Jackson isn’t there solely to sing and dance: he has an artistic vision, and it’s clear that he wants it implemented just so, even if he can’t always elucidate his desires as well as his band members might like.
Getting the feel of “This Is It” is a gradual process, and the learning curve is at its steepest during the film’s first song, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” The vocals are far from pristine, with Jackson’s voice dropping out entirely on occasion as he considers his dance steps, and the bouncing back and forth between performances from different days of rehearsal is jarring at first. It doesn’t take long to get into the swing of director Kenny Ortega’s vision for the film, however, and you’ll know you’ve achieved acceptance when you find yourself trying to decide which of the performances is better. Although Jackson does look frighteningly skeletal in some of the footage, his energy is astounding and his dance moves show that, quite literally, he hasn’t missed a step. We also get to see various filmed sequences which had been prepared for the concerts, including a new zombie-laden graveyard scene for “Thriller” and a black-and-white “Smooth Criminal” intro with guest appearances by Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, and Edward G. Robinson.
God bless Ortega for taking on the Herculean task of compiling a film from this footage in the limited amount of time allotted to him, but during much of his time onscreen with his star, you’ll be reminded of Bruno Kirby’s comment in “This Is Spinal Tap” about Sammy Davis, Jr.’s autobiography. Or in other words, there’s definitely a “Yes I Can…If MJ Says It's OK” vibe going on. Nonetheless, Ortega has done as much with the material as possibly could have been done, and his efforts deserve every bit of the applause that will likely occur at the end of each screening.
Jackson had reportedly allowed his fans to select the songs for his concerts, which explains why the set list reads like a veritable greatest-hits collection, with “Bad,” “Beat It,” and any number of classics turning up, each with choreography which borrows heavily from their respective videos, thereby allowing for maximum nostalgia. Let it be said, however, that you have never seen a momentum stopper on the level of “Earth Song.” Jackson’s intentions were good, but the decision to place his heavy-handed ecological message into the set list as the next-to-last number is one which proves conclusively that he was surrounded by yes men up until the day he died. Indeed, there’s only one song that could possibly have brought the show back from the abyss – and, fortunately, it’s the one Jackson pulls out of his hat: “Billie Jean.”
“Billie Jean” is the only time we’re presented with a single performance from start to finish, but man is it a masterful one. Jackson sings his heart out, gliding effortlessly across the stage and sending his dancers – who are watching from the floor – into fits of excitement. As with several of the songs which precede it, one can only imagine how it would’ve gone down before a proper audience.
By all rights, the music and moves contained within this film should be tempered by the awareness of what might’ve been. They aren’t. “This Is It” offers us a look into the last days of Michael Jackson, and what we find is a portrait of a performer who was at the top of his game ‘til the very end.
Single-Disc DVD Review:
The DVD release of “This Is It” contains everything you’d expect from the concert film, including a two-part documentary about the monumental performance, a cool featurette showcasing the costumes designed for Michael Jackson, interviews with friends and co-workers about their favorite Jackson memories, and a behind-the-scenes look at the backup dancer audition process.The perfect supplement to the ultimate fan experience.