If you’re a Michael Jackson die-hard, prepare to be thrilled — and heartbroken. This Is It, the documentary created from film footage of Jackson’s rehearsals in advance of what was to be his final, 50-show run in London, provides ample evidence that the self-proclaimed King of Pop was awake, pretty much intact and still smooth as butter on the dance floor. Prosecutors should use this film as evidence at any criminal trial, because it offers a portrait of a man who most certainly doesn’t seem to be on the verge of death. He’s alive at the beginning of the film, and he’s alive at the end.
This Is It was produced by the Jackson estate and L.A.-based concert promoter AEG Live, the company that was financing the London gigs. Director Kenny Ortega was Jackson’s creative director for the shows, and plays a prominent role in the footage as the artist’s collaborator and unofficial hype man. So this is the cleanest, most positive spin on the last days of Michael. Who knows what other, potentially more dynamic stories hide inside the 100 hours of footage from which This Is It was culled? Grey Gardens, this is not.
But this is it, so let the whitewashing begin.
Structured as a reverse-engineered look into the London production, This Is It introduces us to the dancers, musicians, technicians and choreographers, all of whom are wide-eyed with wonder at their place in the world: watching MJ spin to “Wanna Be Starting Something,” robot to “Bad” and conjure insanely fluid motions through “Billie Jean.” We see the remarkable sets, the 3-D graphics, the team of dancers. We hear that voice channel “Human Nature” — such a bittersweet song, conveyed through a vessel that touched a billion hearts. We see him as an artist with a bit of a temper, we watch him giggle and growl. When he has trouble with his earphones, with a frustrated smile he says, “I’m trying to adjust my inner ears — with love.” We see him aim a Tommy gun at Humphrey Bogart. We pay witness to Michael as a musician, a boss, an actor, an insistent taskmaster. Wonder at his outfits, in part created by “scientists in the Netherlands.”
The problem is that Ortega offers only the public Michael. We witness him through the eyes of his employees in a film designed not only to illuminate Jackson’s final days but also to set the terms of future conversation about them. Troubles and concerns remain subtext. Yes, he’s a little rickety. But he was 50. That anyone could move the way he does in this footage — at any point in a lifetime — is a wonder. We see it over and over again. We see him not as an alleged child molester or a helpless, drug-addicted wreck but as a force of nature and, above all, a dancer.
But the cracks are there. The most revealing moment arrives as Jackson is being foisted up into the air on a cherry picker. With the crew watching and Ortega guiding him, Jackson lifts off, and you can hear real worry in Ortega’s voice as the singer lets go of the handrail: “Michael,” he says, “please hold on,” and it feels as if he’s talking about way more than the cherry picker. (Citywide)