Movie review: This Is It

mjNo matter what you thought of Michael Jackson’s wildly successful, extremely strange and eventually tragic life, there’s no debate that the man was a musical talent the likes of which we will never see again.

And so, “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” feels less like another public eulogy and more like an intimate, yet carefully crafted, look into Jackson’s creative process as he prepares to launch what was to be his big comeback concerts.

Here, we get to see Jackson at his most natural – working with musicians and dancers, focusing on song arrangements and melodies, and articulating his razor-sharp vision – and it’s a touching thing to see.

Here was a man who was hounded by publicity, consumed by his addictions and plagued by money woes, yet it seems as if the only thing he truly cares about is the correct tone of the keyboard intro on “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

Constructed from rehearsal footage as Jackson prepared to mount his “This Is It” tours in London, the movie plays like a rough cut of the concert, mixing in striking hi-def shots with grainy practice footage as Jackson worked his way through his expansive catalog. It’s clear from the work that was being done that the tour was going to be a spectacle of the highest order, but in some ways, watching it like this is better, warts and all.

Because here we have a painfully thin, yet energetic, Jackson in his element. He forcefully, yet respectfully, is in charge of every facet of the show (director Kenny Ortega comes off as little more than a yes man, always agreeing with Michael’s suggestions). Even while trying to sing at half-effort, Jackson’s voice sounds strong and clear, and his dance moves don’t show any rust.

Numbers like “Smooth Criminal” are rendered more vibrant by the additional material Jackson film. For this particular song, he has inserted himself into footage featuring Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart, and the result fits the song perfectly. “Thriller” also gets an update, complete with MJ coming out of a giant spider and 3-D images.

But the most telling reveal occurs during the rehearsal of “Billie Jean,” where Jackson mounts a performance that would put 98% of singers to shame – the backup dancers are jumping up and down, the director is going crazy, the audience in the theatre is cheering – and when he’s finished, he turns to the band and says, “Well, at least we got a feel for it.”

“This Is It” runs a bit too long – the cut-ins to the band and dancers praising Michael’s talent seems way too self-serving, especially when you consider all the material was shot for Jackson’s personal archives, and watching a concert with no audience, even with a great artist like Jackson, saps the film of some needed energy down the stretch.

This will most certainly not be it when it comes to the flood of posthumous releases from the Jackson estate, but it does provide some validation that MJ was much more than a late-night punchline. It’s too bad we all didn’t realize that until it was too late.

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~ by Elliott on October 29, 2009.

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