He always fancied himself a movie star. Now, finally, he is. Last night, as I arrived at a press screening for Michael Jackson’s This Is It, the posthumous film of Jacko rehearsing the show he never gave, I had reason to be deeply skeptical. How could it be any good? If it was, why would Sony Pictures release it for only a two-week limited engagement? And why was it holding off the press screening until 9:30 p.m. of the day the movie would be commercially premiered at midnight? It all had the whiff of damage control, and I expected a frustrating glimpse of a performance that was only half there, a lurid cash grab to capitalize on the biggest showbiz event of Michael Jackson’s career: his death.
Boy, was I wrong. This Is It is quite amazing. Directed by Kenny Ortega, who also directed the show that never opened, it offers far more than a glimpse. Out of the rehearsals, Ortega has constructed what amounts to a full-blown concert movie, framed with a smattering of candid backstage moments that are both amusing and touching. And the end of it you feel you’ve seen pretty well the whole show—which is spectacular—as well as getting some gems of unprecedented insight into the artist behind it. And here’s the real news: the movie refutes once and for all the glut of media reports after his death claiming that he was washed up as a performer, and was in no shape to put on a show. Yes, he does look frail, and with all that make-up, we’ll never know how pale. But he never appears stoned, unfocused or incapable. The movie could serve as evidence in the trial of the man accused of his murder. Executing intricate choreography, Jackson dances with the same semaphore precision and fluid virtuosity that made him a legend. And although he lacks power, his dreamy falsetto is still in tact, and he’s clearly trying to hold back. “Don’t make me sing out,” he begs at one point in a scene that’s both funny and freighted with sad irony. “I gotta save my voice.”
The film also amply demonstrates that the show, billed as Jackson’s farewell tour, wasn’t just a cynical attempt to pay off his debts with a routine greatest-hits show. That may have been the initial motive. But that’s also why Leonard Cohen returned to the stage after a 15 year absence, and 17 months later Leonard is still on tour at 75, delivering the richest performances of his life. (Hey, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol for the cash.) Jackson’s swan song was mounted as a first-class production, with spectacular staging, choreography and costumes, as well as a hot band. The backup singers fortify the arrangements with a sound that amounts to a composite facsimile of Jackson’s voice. The dancers, who include Cirque de Soleil-style acrobats and aerialist, are sensational. As are the musicians, notably a sexy but dead-cool blond guitarist, Orianthi Panagaris, who stalks the stage with him like a gun moll on various numbers.
There’s also a series of cinematic backdrops. Thriller is re-enacted in a graveyard crawling with zombies. Michael is digitally implanted into vintage movies — catching a glove tossed by Rita Hayworth in Gilda and exchanging volleys of machine gun fire with Humphrey Bogart. A young girl chases digital butterflies through a rain forest, falls asleep, and wakes up to see the forest devastated.These touches are often hokey, bringing out Jackson’s naive taste in Hollywood iconography, but they’re undeniably ambitious, as is the concert’s finale, an earnest Save the Planet plea that pits Jacko against a monstrous bulldozer.
Aside from the performance footage, the movie offers some tantalizing backstage moments. Not enough, to be sure. There’s a funny bit with a Russian choreographer instructing dancers on the finer points of crotch grabbing. And a costume designer breathlessly talks about breaking new ground with outfits on the cutting edge of glitter. So bright you can barely look at them. I wish Ortega had included more of this stuff, instead of dutifully trying to reassemble the entire concert. And, of course, there’s not a frame of the film that casts MJ in a bad light—make no mistake, this is adoring hagiography, not candid documentary. Yet we still get a better sense of Jackson than we’ve ever had from his cringe-worthy interviews or his slick videos.
He may be a freak. But it soon becomes clear that he’s an artist with an abiding perfectionism and total authority over the creative process: while Ortega is the show’s director, MJ is firmly in charge, right down to fine-tuning lighting cues. There’s a lovely little scene of him coaching the band’s keyboard player and musical director, Michael Breardon, on how to play The Way You Make Me Feel, asking him to play a song “just a little more behind the beat, like you’re dragging yourself outta bed . . . you gotta let it simmer, let it bathe in the moonlight.” Whether Jackson is dancing or just explaining, the music and the moves seem hardwired into his being, like a quicksilver vocabulary, as if he’s been channelling those ghostly spirits from Thriller all along.
Even though the film doesn’t show any tantrums—which doesn’t mean there weren’t any—there are amusing glimmers of vulnerability. While Jackson is rehearsing a Jackson Five segment, he gets frustrated with his earpiece. “It feels like someone’s fist is shoved in my inner ear,” he complains, his voice trembling. “I’m trying to adjust my inner ear . . . with love.” With MJ, every request is punctuated with “love” or “God bless you.” Yet he comes across as more of a professional than a prima donna. And as he rips through his hits in full costume — Black and White, Man in the Mirror, Billy Jean — the camera pans down to the stadium audience: a couple of dozen screaming crew members who look thrilled to witness the resurrection of a legend.
This movie exists because Jackson insisted on filming rehearsals for his personal archive. Had he lived to tour the concert, undoubtedly a concert film would have been made. But it’s hard to imagine it would be better than this one. It would have been slicker, to be sure. But by seeing Jackson in rehearsal, we get some inkling of a person who never showed himself in public. Not just in the little backstage bits, but also in his performance style, which seems looser and warmer, a little less robotic, because it is, after all, a rehearsal. Whether vamping a soulful coda to a duet with a female backup singer or adjusting a dance cue, we finally get to see the adult Michael Jackson: a sophisticated artist in his element, surrounded by a devoted crew and a crack squad of dancers who have worshiped him since they were young children, rehearsing a show that they will never get to perform. They thought they were mounting a farewell tour; in fact they were making a movie.
Cast in the shadow of his death, there’s a heartbreaking sadness to this movie memorial that’s more tangible, and delicate, than the ghoulish spectacle mounted by the media. Whether or not you’re a fan, This is It shows that the only thing the matters, in the end, is the music. Proving that art can trump celebrity, it goes a long way to redeeming Michael Jackson—by reminding us why he became famous in the first place.