Wednesday, October 28, 2009

This Is It. The Way MJ Would've Wanted To Be Remembered

Michael Jackson's This Is It will offer Jackson fans and music lovers worldwide a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the performer as he developed, created and rehearsed for his sold-out concerts that would have taken place beginning this summer in London's O2 Arena. Chronicling the months from April through June, 2009, the film is produced with the full support of the Estate of Michael Jackson and drawn from more than one hundred hours of behind-the-scenes footage, featuring Jackson rehearsing a number of his songs for the show. Audiences will be given a privileged and private look at Jackson as he has never been seen before. In raw and candid detail, Michael Jackson's This Is It captures the singer, dancer, filmmaker, architect, creative genius and great artist at work as he creates and perfects his final show.

Ever since the project was first announced in August, the new documentary Michael Jackson’s This Is It has been shrouded in mystery. According to initial reports, Sony Pictures paid $60 million to acquire hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes footage showing Jackson–who had died a little over a month before–rehearsing for his big comeback concert series in London. What exactly would that footage reveal? Would Jackson be a slurry, stumbling mess? Or would we see a flicker of the great entertainer– the King of Pop–who dazzled audiences for decades with thrilling dance moves and unstoppable tunes? Sony stoked the mystery by putting the footage on instant lockdown; aside from a short trailer, no scenes from This Is It have found their way onto TV or the web, which, in theory, only heightens its must-see appeal. To further fuel the hype, the studio decreed that the movie would only play in theaters for two weeks, borrowing a successful gimmick that Disney employed last year for its Hannah Montana concert flick. Not even critics got the chance to check out This Is It ahead of time. So, I did what any other good MJ fan would do. I went to the premiere scheduled for 11 PM Tuesday night. Surrounded by hundreds of fans, I found my seat, got completely comfortable and waited patiently for the actual movie to start. After a few movie trailers, at around 11:10, the lights went down, the screen went dark and…and…and…

And we saw a movie. The world didn’t spontaneously heal itself, the future of the music industry didn’t automatically become brighter and Michael Jackson didn’t rise from the dead and start doing the moonwalk. After all the pre-release and pre-show hype, This Is It is just a movie–a surprisingly well-made and compelling movie, but a movie nonetheless. In a way, all the studio-manufactured brouhaha surrounding the film may be doing it a disservice, as it leads viewers to expect a cinematic spectacle to rival a summer blockbuster like Star Trek or Transformers 2. But in reality This Is It is a more modest picture. This isn’t a concert movie–it’s a movie about the making of a concert. Director Kenny Ortega, a longtime Jackson friend and colleague, takes the audience through the show’s set list song by song–beginning with “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” (of course) and concluding with “Man in the Mirror”–revealing how each tune was going to be performed live onstage from the choreography, to the special effects to the King of Pop’s own vocals. Much of the footage is taken from a series of almost complete rehearsals, where the dancing is in place, but not all of the effects are complete and Jackson often sings along to backing vocals in order to go easy on his voice. There are also clips of additional material that would have been worked into the show; for “Smooth Criminal,” Jackson had himself digitally inserted into a series of film clips from old ’40s gangster pictures and Ortega shot new 3D footage of monsters tearing it up in a graveyard to accompany “Thriller.” In some cases, CGI-animatronics stand in for effects that were never finalized; “Earth Song,” for example, would have climaxed with an actual bulldozer rolling onstage to confront Jackson. If you’re at all interested in the art of stagecraft, This is It provides an invaluable look at what goes on behind-the-scenes of a mega-budgeted concert. Indeed, in some ways, seeing the process by which the show was put together is almost more interesting than the finished product ever would have been.

But what about the man at the center of the spectacle? Well Jackson–or as the entire crew calls him, MJ–is alternately engaged, enraged, enthusiastic, impatient and joyful. In other words, he’s an artist in his element, doing what he loves to do. His voice is strong and clear and he moves with the same grace he displayed throughout his life. Clearly the film has been edited to show him at his best, but, to his credit, Ortega does occasionally allow us to see behind his beautiful exterior. In some scenes, Jackson is visibly frustrated when the band misses a note or a dancer doesn’t execute a move correctly. And while we never see him offstage, a few moments do hint at his personal troubles. After rehearsing “Beat It” Jackson is so winded, he can barely speak–his age finally catches up with his body. Earlier, Jackson stops singing right in the middle of a medley of Jackson 5 tunes and launches into a rambling, nonsensical speech about his inner ear problems while Ortega humors him from offstage. One wonders how many more moments like that one are on the cutting room floor. Clocking in at almost two hours, This Is It does feel overlong. Part of that can be chalked up to the normal ebb and flow of a concert–some songs are simply better than others and everyone will have their own opinions about which tunes they would rather have seen cut from the set list. Personally, I could have watched Jackson rehearse “The Way Your Make Me Feel” and “Billie Jean” for a half-hour without growing tired of either song. On the other hand, his renditions of “Earth Song” and “They Don’t Care About Us” wowed me, but may almost put others to sleep. This Is It is far better than it had any right to be, largely because Ortega avoids turning the film into an overly sentimental obituary for Jackson. There are no images of teary-eyed fans despondent over the sudden death of their idol or awkward testimonials from Jackson’s peers and colleagues. In fact, the movie never addresses his death at all beyond a closing dedication. The focus here is entirely on the work that Jackson did while he was still alive. There is obviously much more to Michael Jackson’s legacy than this single concert, but that’s for future films to explore. For now, This is It provides a valuable service–it allows a gifted musician to deliver the career-capping performance he wanted the world to see, but never got the chance. This documentary gets an astounding 5 on my "Go See" scale. There will never be another quite like MJ and this is the way he should be remembered.

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