This Is It
- Directed by Kenny Ortega
- Starring Michael Jackson
The Michael Jackson film, This Is It, is ...what, exactly? The much-hyped concert-less concert film was culled from more than 100 hours of Michael Jackson's rehearsal leading up to a scheduled series of 50 concerts at London's 02 Arena. Packaged as a must-see event for Michael Jackson fans, it's a strange combination of performance film, memorial celebration and pseudo-candid backstage documentary. In short, it's a bona fide oddity, worthy of the late star who is its subject.
Premiering today in 99 countries for a limited window of two weeks, This Is It, the film is also a multi-million-dollar salvage operation, a way for Sony film and music company to recoup its investment in Jackson many times over.
The footage, packaged into a feature-length documentary by Kenny Ortega (who was also Jackson's concert director), are occasionally inspired but just as often frustrating. There are moments both poignant and buoyant while watching Jackson, at 50, singing and dancing with his urgency, pipe-stem legs twirling, arms slicing the air, and his vocal performance mixing growls and yelps of emphasis. True, from some angles, with his make-up and tightly-drawn skin, he looks like Lilian Gish in her latter years, but he seems indefatigable. Then again, we have less than two hours out of more than 100 of footage, and the film is far from warts and all. That's evident even from the musical numbers where the soundtrack stitches together different takes of the songs so that they appear seamless, even if shot on different days. In one version of the plaintive song Human Nature, we see him in a three-way split screen, wearing three different outfits.
In place of showing us how the rehearsal process, Ortega offers us a sort of career overview, encompassing a medley of songs by The Jackson Five, Thriller and Bad and his nineties' album, HIStory. Highlights include the opening number Wanna Be Startin' Something, Smooth Criminal, Beat It and a hip-rocking, crotch-grabbing dance break in the middle of Billy Jean.
Jackson isn't interviewed in the film, and apart from some voice-over comments about how much he loves trees and nature, we don't get much sense of him, his state of mind, his worries, or even what he was hoping to accomplish with these shows beyond spreading the love, which he likes to spell out: L-O-V-E.
Easily the most compelling scenes are those that give us glimpses into Jackson's working method. The artist who producer Quincy Jones called "the Nose" for his sure musical instincts, demonstrates the precision and intensity he demands of his musicians. "No, Simpler!" he demands of his keyboardist. At another point, he keeps urging the dazzling guitarist, Orianthi Panagaris, to produce a more frenzied solo, singing the notes he wants her to hit: "This is your moment to shine," he tells her.
There's one musically lovely sequence where, when Jackson starts vocal runs with backup singer Judith Hill on the duet I Just Can't Stop Loving You, and the technicians stand around looking delighted. At the end of it, Jackson chastises himself for not saving his voice.
As well as the rehearsal footage, there are also interviews with dancers and musicians, who uniformly express their awe for Jackson's talent and reputation. We also see some of the short films and visual effects Ortega created to be integrated into the live performance. The worst of these is a kitschy video for Earth Song. The most striking of these is a green-screen image for They Don't Care About Us, in which the 11 dancers are apparently transformed into an army of science fiction storm-troopers standing in front of what a damaged arch. Another sequence, for the song Smooth Criminal, uses clips from vintage black and white movies, including a scene with Rita Hayworth dancing in Gilda, with Jackson as part of the audience.
All this suggests the concert series would have wrapped the songs around several big production numbers, like a sort of supersized Vegas show. The problem with This Is It, though, is there is no audience in the film to react to Jackson, which seems a little like watching a painter working without a canvas. Without either the effect of a full concert spectacle, or up close and personal backstage intimacy, This Is It is neither one thing nor the other.
Click below to see the This Is It trailer