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Michael Jackson is redeemed by a movie

The film of the show Jacko never gave proves he was still a formidable performer


 

Michael Jackson is redeemed by a movieHe 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.


 

Michael Jackson is redeemed by a movie

  1. Thanks for this great review! I would not have seen this film, but now I will. My husband and I have trusted you as a source for what films we will see (or not) for years. Really beautifully written too.

    Thanks again.

  2. I saw the film and agree with nearly all you've said. You got it, and you got him, and as a dancer and writer myself, I am grateful. He was nothing short of brilliant and that needs to be stressed so that maybe, just maybe, people will wonder why they needed to turn him into a witch to be hunted when he was so brilliant and gentle and vulnerable. Yes, he had his dark side and his troubled side. And what fabulous artist does not? I will say I could well have done without your reference to him as "Wacko" and your sentence "He may be a freak." And I do not find any parts of the film "hokey". They're fun. They're creative. Things don't have to be maximally sophisticated to be not hokey. Anyway, thanks for writing this up. I think it will do what should be done, which is to help redeem this poor and beyond fabulous man. Maybe you should apply for Martin Bashir's job?

  3. "The biggest showbiz event of Michael Jackson's career" is not his death. You are in denial of all his success in his entire career.

    The media collectively put him down and dragged him in dirt. He was up and alone against the media that treated him with either total census or only bad press. It was so bad he had to flee the country.

    His death reminded people who the biggest star is, and made them realize what they took for granted but have lost forever, those are the reasons for their outpouring grief.

    The media certainly expected a totally different reaction from the public, but it will continue to exploit his name and image in any way it can.

  4. I agree mostly with this article and am glad but also sad that only in his death he is getting the kinds of reviews that would have made him a happier man, in less pain, in life. I saw the movie yesterday, though I am a fan I also was skeptical of how good this was actually going to be….to my surprise it was fantastic. I think it showed non believers just what type of man MJ really was. You got the best insight into his personality while at work but it will never be enough for the cynics. It confirms what his true fans who listen to his music and follow his lyrics already know about him. He was always quick to make those around him his family. He cares about people which if you are a religious person you can clearly see stems from how he was brought up with the fear of god…showing love and kindness to others…something that the greedy only took advantage of.

    I recommend everyone go see it, it was like watching both a movie and a concert at the same time and you just knew at the end of it that it would have been the most fantasic concert you would have ever seen had lived to perform it in London.

  5. This is It is…
    Insight into a Multi Talented Entertainer.
    Michael Jackson knew what it meant to “entertain” his audiences. He put his every thought and his heart into making a performance spectacular. He was the phenomenal like Fred Astaire and that generation of performers before him. This is what makes for a Fun time at the theater.

  6. Just saw the movie.
    Excellent. Energetic. Satisfying. Suprised me…
    Brian Johnson's articulate and thoughful review captures the essential value of the film, better than any other, out of many, that I have read, both before and after seeing it.
    If you read one review, read this one.
    Jackson 'lives' in music and in rhythm; that is where his genius (and much of his humanity) is to be found.
    Well worth seeing.

  7. My 22 year old daughter and I saw the film on Friday night and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. I was intrigued by the number of middle aged people (like myself) who were in the audience and who clearly enjoyed the film as much as I did. The dance sequence for Thriller was as brilliant here as it was when I fist saw it – was that really 25 years ago?! I marvelled at how Jackson moved at the age of 50 and his obvious energy and musicality. I have to agree with Brian about the naivete of some of the pieces – especially the rainforest segment. I am not interested in being lectured about saving the planet by someone who is an obvious over-consumer of the world's resources. Such is the arrogance of the rich and famous. Oh well…Otherwise, it was a movie that I was sad to see end. Jackson did not present as a diva dispite everyone's obvious deference to him. He was captured as a very talented, focused and professional artist determined to put on a fabulous show for his fans.

  8. From the article: 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.

    To Brian D. Johnson: You fool. Don't you know you ought not use the words “never” or “always” for you will show YOURSELF to be the freak.

    Johnson's perception illustrates how complete medialoid's hatchet job of Michael Jackson was. How many “Take Two—The Footage You Were Never Meant to See” broadcast nationally and hosted by Maury Povich, or “Michael Jackson Home Movies,” again broadcast nationally, or trembling pleas with the media not to condemn him for he is innocent or an internationally broadcast interview with Oprah Winfrey wherein he's asked if he's a virgin (?!) must a man provide in order to be “seen?”

    As a global celebrity, Michael Jackson did his utmost to try to make people know and understand him. Repeatedly force-fed lies by medialoid, “we” failed, refused and neglected to see him when he did, in fact, show himself in public.

  9. So he could dance? Big deal. His music is the pinnacle of banal mediocrity.

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