Movie Review: “Michael Jackson’s This Is It”
Doubters have every reason to be skeptical about “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” mainly because it was assembled in less than four months and carries all the warning signs of both a cynical cash grab and a maudlin lionization of a dead superstar. But “This Is It” confounds expectations by delivering an often fascinating look behind the scenes of what could have been the most talked-about comeback of the year, but now stands as an oddly compelling coda.
The chief message of “This Is It,” directed by Jackson’s choreographer and “High School Musical” director Kenny Ortega, is that Jackson was not screwing around with these preparations for a 50-date stand at London’s O2 Arena. Compiled from dozens of hours of footage shot during rehearsals at Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre, “This Is It” shows Jackson looking noticeably frail but still in surprising command of his talents and faculties. The truth is, he sounded like he had lost almost none of his vocal ability, and his dancing — even at age 50 — was still something to behold.
All of this comes as a shock not just due to the circumstances surrounding his death in June, but because Jackson spent the last 15 years or so of his professional life as an unreliable performer. He would frequently cut short scheduled appearances or simply cancel them outright. But “This Is It” reveals that Jackson was preparing to sing a front-to-back collection of his biggest hits, and do so in a way that would remind everyone of why they cared about this peculiar, troubled but undeniably great pop singer.
Preproduction footage for the “This Is It” concert presentation supplies the documentary with far more than just behind-the-scenes moments. In one sequence, Jackson is inserted into a film noir scene with Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, and another offers a new, Ortega-directed zombie sequence for “Thriller” that would have been seen by concertgoers in 3-D. It suffers next to John Landis’ iconic music video, but it shows that the finished concert experience, if Jackson came through with his plans, could have lived up to the hype.
Perhaps most instructive are the scenes in which Jackson is schooling his dancers and musicians on the fine points of his songs and presentation. Jackson would insist that instrumental parts for hits such as “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Beat It” be painstakingly recreated. In one scene, Jackson goes over an almost imperceptibly subtle difference between how musical director and keyboardist Michael Bearden plays the keyboard part from “The Way You Make Me Feel” and the 1987 original. He was a strange little taskmaster, and after some back-and-forth on the part, Jackson lays down the law: “I want it like I wrote it.”
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