Sunday, November 1, 2009

Film Review: Michael Jackson's This Is It

I didn't realize until today that I've gone over a month without posting. That's what moving to a new town and taking a two-week vacation will do to you. I'll talk about my vacation in my next post (most likely).

When I was growing up, Michael Jackson was the biggest celebrity in the world. He had the biggest-selling album, the most-watched videos (I still remember how my sister and I were scared half to death by the sight of MJ turning into a werewolf, then a zombie, in his landmark Thriller video), and everyone wanted to learn how to do the moonwalk. (But no one made it look as effortless and cool as Jackson did.) Then over the years, Jackson became progressively more strange. His face was changing due to obvious (and poorly-done) plastic surgery, there were reports of bizarre behavior with young children, and each new release seemed more like a desperate attempt to get the world's attention and recreate the success of his "Thriller" album.

But the world remembered its love for Jackson after his sudden death on June 25 of this year. He had been preparing for a series of shows in London, a spectacle titled "This Is It" which would cap his live performing career. Footage of the rehearsals has been combined with pre-produced "stage screen video" to give us Michael Jackson's This Is It, a documentary glimpse of what could have been. The film is directed by Kenny Ortega, best known for his work on Dirty Dancing and Newsies, who was the stage director for the show. I went partly out of curiosity, partly because the film is supposed to have a limited theatrical run, and partly out of a sense of cultural obligation, the "need to know" what seeing this film in a theater was like.

It opens with interviews of the dancers during tryouts, all of whom idolize Jackson and are happy just to have the chance to be considered. In fact, throughout the film we are treated to interviews with the dancers, singers, musicians, effects producers, costume designers, all of whom speak glowingly of the experience of working with and for the Michael Jackson. Multiple times we are shown how much of a perfectionist Jackson was, as he lovingly criticizes the band for not quite getting the groove right, or the technicians for having his in-ear monitor turned up too loud. It is also clear from the rehearsal footage that Jackson's sense of timing was incredible, and he had an amazing ability to focus on the most minute of details, be they musical or visual. During the musical numbers, often compiled from several different days of rehearsal and sometimes shown split-screen to allow us to see different dance maneuvers and costume ideas, Jackson and his troupe execute some impressive dance moves and stage effects. Occasionally the ensemble looks a bit rough, but no doubt that would have been fixed by opening night.

Michael Jackson was a showman, and he's at his best when he's putting on a great show. "Smooth Criminal" cleverly has MJ inserted into shots from numerous black-and-white noir films before he leaps onto the stage in an explosion of machine gun fire. "Thriller" utilizes impressive make-up and costumes in a re-imagination of the famous video. In fact, the popular line dances from "Thriller" and "Beat It" are recreated step by step for this production. "Wanna Be Starting Something," the opening number, uses in-stage hydraulic lifts to give the effect of dancers leaping out of the floor. Jackson's musicians and singers are quite impressive, especially lead guitarist Orianthi Panagaris (showcased in "Beat It" doing a more-than-admirable job of mimicking Eddie van Halen's finger-tapping guitar solo) and Judith Hill (I think?) who shares the stage in the duet "I Just Can't Stop Loving You." The only number that didn't quite do it for me was "Earth Song;" the production is impressive but the environmental message just seemed a bit heavy-handed for me. Still, it's clear that Jackson is passionate about the issue and that it was a cornerstone of the show for him.

The film is largely rehearsal footage, so odd stopping points, repetition of sequences, and constant adjustments by Jackson and his creative team are part of the deal. Numerous times he drops lyrics to the songs, ostensibly to concentrate on the choreography. Even so, Jackson's voice was still in very fine form and at times dancers half his age struggle to keep up with his energy and precision. At no point does Jackson look like someone close to death, and many times it is easy to see that he is enjoying himself when everything "clicks."

This is a documentary in the truest sense: it is a record of "something that happened," and much of what we are allowed to see was never intended for the public eye. (I say this as a contrast to recent "documentaries" that are full of staged moments, propaganda, and manipulated footage.) If you are a fan of Michael Jackson, or you enjoy some of his music, or you want to see what surely would have been a great stage spectacle, I recommend you go to the theater and see This Is It on the big screen while you still have a chance.

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