Watching “This Is It” sometimes feels a little too disturbingly intimate. The limited-engagement film was compiled from video recorded at the rehearsals for the 50-show London residency on which Michael Jackson was about to embark - he died June 25, just days after some of this film was shot.
It’s far from clear what Jackson’s ultimate intentions for this behind-the-scenes footage were. As this film illustrates, he was a dedicated perfectionist. Would he have been comfortable with the public exposure of raw video capturing deliberately restrained and evolving practice run-throughs for a still-emergent production?
Whatever his wishes - whether he meant for this video to be locked away in a vault or included in a traditional concert film for contrast with a final, polished stage show - thank goodness for this backstage peek at an extraordinary performing artist’s creative process.
With the worldwide release of “This Is It,” Jackson finally might be forgotten as a tabloid freak show and remembered, instead, as a preternaturally talented musician and dancer who relentlessly pursued his art, but with a kindness and humility as rare as his ability.
It’s a little eerie, but the footage almost seems filmed as a postmortem tribute. The movie opens with the auditioning dancers excited just for the chance to show Jackson their stuff. These young people, who might not have been born when Jackson’s legendary albums “Off the Wall” (1979) and “Thriller” (1982) were released, are teary-eyed as they describe how his energy has inspired them.
Jackson doesn’t look like a dying man here. Every now and then, on completing a dance number, he’s a little winded - but most people half his age would be gasping after moving so energetically. And with just a few seconds’ rest, the 50-year-old is singing and dancing again.
There’s footage here of just about all the highlights, in various stages of readiness, for the final shows that never took place. Songs like “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Billie Jean” are straight dance numbers, with Jackson reminding us of his signature style while freshening it up - the watching dancers cheered when he unveiled a new variation of his infamous crotch grab.
Some video elements for the concerts are completed or nearly so, making this the next best thing to actually seeing the shows. The famous “Thriller” video is reinterpreted, and there’s plenty of special-effects magic, including multitudes of CGI soldiers marching in step with live dancers for “They Don’t Care About Us.” Most entertaining, though, is the sequence for the funky “Smooth Criminal,” in which Jackson is inserted into some classic film noir. He catches the glove Rita Hayworth throws in “Gilda” before being pursued by Humphrey Bogart from “In a Lonely Place.”
Not every number is inspired, and Jackson is sometimes holding back. “I’m trying to conserve my throat,” he explains, but then he’ll sing and sound as strangely sweet as ever. And this isn’t the kind of guy who rehearses in sweats and a T-shirt - his wardrobe includes a shiny silver jacket and gold sequined pants. The artistry and scale of this spectacle-in-the-making leave you wondering what the actual shows would have been like. A costume designer talks about working with “scientists in the Netherlands.”
Too many of us forgot Jackson’s art in the midst of the madness. Here, we see a very hands-on supervisor - he sucks a lollipop while watching “Thriller” video footage being recorded - who pushes his underlings to make music exactly the way he hears it in his head. Yet this gentle soul never hollers or harangues. “With the love,” he often adds after criticizing someone’s work. (Though it must be added that the film’s contract included a clause that kept producers from including any footage portraying the star in a bad light.)
“This Is It” gives us a fuller portrait of the man and his passion than we’ve ever seen before. But don’t think it lets us finally understand him. The London concerts would have marked the entertainer’s return to the stage after more than a decade, but only for a limited series of shows in one city. It’s clear from this film that Jackson remained an electrifying performer, so one wonders why he was so reluctant to tour.
TITLE: “This Is It”
RATING: PG (some suggestive choreography and scary images)
CREDITS: Directed by Kenny Ortega