All as themselves
Directed by Kenny Ortega
A movie clearly done for Michael Jackson fans who will thrill to his every move and gesture, but also an unprecedented and candid look behind the curtain at the amount of hard work and sweat that goes into staging such an enormous stage spectacle.
On June 25, 2009, singer/songwriter Michael Jackson died, leaving behind a musical legacy as well as many questions about the shows he was about to perform just weeks later. Culled from hundreds of hours of rehearsal footage, “This Is It” tries to recreate the experience Jackson was trying to bring to his fans along with his talented crew and creative team.
When Michael Jackson died earlier this year, the media frenzy surrounding his sudden death was non-stop for weeks as fans and critics alike tried to piece together the puzzle of how we could have lost someone so suddenly. At the same time, 20 years of jokes, rumors and accusations seemingly fell away to leave the memory of Jackson as first and foremost a musician and a performer of the highest caliber, and that was despite the fact that few of his American fans might have ever had the opportunity to see him perform live.
“This Is It” does its best to rectify that situation with director Kenny Ortega making it clear from the beginning that the movie is meant “For the fans…” And yet, even without any sort of connection to the singer or any desire to see him live, the movie is a fascinating look at what goes into producing such a huge stadium show. The resulting film is more than just a concert movie or a behind-the-scenes doc–though it’s immediately reminiscent of two other recent docs that tried to demystify the art of entertaining audiences–”Soul Power” and “Every Little Step.” At the same time, it’s a movie that humanizes a personality who has been swathed in mystery and rumors for most of his life.
The first thing you might notice is that the quality of some of the footage is not the greatest, looking particularly blurry when blown up for the big screen, but you quickly get used to it, and the quality does improve with the later rehearsals as they seemingly switch to HD cameras. Each song in Jackson’s set is handled in a different way, some of them starting from the ground up, building upon one of the basics, whether it’s Michael’s vocals or the choreography and taking it up until the final versions as they would be performed at the shows. Some songs are shown in seemingly a single rehearsal take, while others are cut together from different versions as we see Jackson and his performers switching outfits from one bar to the next. The set list features all of Jackson’s major hits, most of which you’ll recognize with just a few notes or chords even if you’re not even remotely a fan. It’s quite a testament to how pervasive Jackson’s music was in its day. Even so, Jackson obviously had no intention of reinventing himself with these shows, the musical arrangements never veering too far away from the record while recreating much of the unforgettable choreography from classic music videos like “Beat It” and “Thriller.”
One thing abundantly clear from watching the rehearsals is that Jackson was surrounded by far too many “yes men” full of praise for everything the singer said and did, and yet, it also shows how involved he was in every aspect of the process and as a performer, we get him warts and all, sometimes forgetting a lyric or two or having a diva moment. All of Jackson’s eccentricities are on display as well, but they’re always graced by love and humor. In fact, it’s the passive-aggressive interactions between Jackson and Ortega himself that offers some of the film’s funnier moments, constantly reminding you that what we’re watching was meant as a work-in-progress.
At just under 2 hours, the movie does have its obvious peaks and lulls; just as you might start getting bored or inured to Ortega’s patchwork style of creating performances, something is thrown your way that makes you sit up and take notice. As much as most of the attention is focused on Jackson himself, the film does an equally fine job shining the spotlight on his talented musicians and singers, but especially on the amazing dancers. As Ortega states early in the movie, they’re more than just an extension of Jackson on stage. Not only do they have to replicate his famous moves but also have to add to the theatricality of the performances, even taking part in some of the mini-movies filmed especially for the shows. Their roles are far more than the anonymous background drones one might expect for a show of this size.
As far as the King of Pop’s health in his last few months, something that has been constantly called into question following his sudden death, the film makes it apparent how incredibly demanding the show is on Jackson as it is on his performers, and there’s no way anyone, let alone a man of 50, could pull off what we see on film without being in top shape and health. True, Jackson’s face might resemble Katherine Helmond in “Brazil” after decades of cosmetic surgery, but there’s no question he still had all the moves and talent that made him a global star right up until his death.
The Bottom Line:
Those who’ve remained skeptical or critical of Michael Jackson either before or after his death can rest assured they’ll walk away from this movie with a newfound appreciation for what he was trying to do with his latest live venture. While it might not have a lot of repeat viewing value for anyone but the diehard fans, “This Is It” is consistently an entertaining and fascinating film that lifts up the veil of secrecy to help us get closer to Jackson in ways that may have never been possible if he was still with us. Instead of criticizing the filmmakers for their effort, we should be thanking them.