Michael Jackson's This Is It
2009, PG, 111 min. Directed by Kenny Ortega.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 30, 2009
Ever see a dream moonwalking? Well, I did. Michael Jackson’s posthumously released film about the preparations for his 50-concert comeback extravaganza is a strange creature indeed. Neither a true concert film nor a strict behind-the-scenes documentary, This Is It is, like Jackson himself, a real hybrid. It is primarily a rehearsal film made up of lots of grainy footage, which Ortega has edited together seamlessly, of the King of Pop practicing his performance and blocking out routines with the dancers and musicians. The footage was primarily captured for Jackson’s benefit alone, as a means for him to study his performance and the overall stage spectacle. Sure, some of it was certainly intended for use down the line as DVD extras and whatnot, as the obligatory footage of far too many dancers, singers, and stage personnel testifying about what an honor and dream it is to be working with the great Michael Jackson attests. However, the finished film is a fairly complete concert run-through with each song edited together from several rehearsals, creating an effect not unlike that in Chris Rock’s comedy performance film Kill the Messenger, which was edited together from shows in London, New York, and Johannesburg. None of the run-throughs are dress rehearsals, so we never see the show’s costuming. More important, however, is that we rarely witness Jackson giving 100%: He frequently comments that he is saving his voice and body for the actual performances. Jackson certainly can’t be faulted for this, but it’s questionable whether he would really want his fans to see him thus. Don’t get me wrong: 60% of Michael Jackson is still a pretty good thing. Sometimes the performances even rise above that level, and we also get a good sense of the stage panorama envisioned by tour director and longtime Jackson collaborator Ortega. This is especially so for the new 3-D graveyard footage filmed for “Thriller” and the black-and-white footage filmed for “Smooth Criminal,” which inserts Jackson into scenes from such film noir classics as Gilda (the Gloved One, perhaps symbolically, catches the elbow-length glove Rita Hayworth tosses out at the end of singing “Put the Blame on Mame”) and The Big Sleep. Other times these vignettes cause This Is It to bog down, especially in the last half hour, when a sappy ecology film and poem appear. The most interesting aspect of This Is It is the chance to see Jackson, the noted perfectionist, at work, correcting others’ dance moves without missing a beat himself and giving notes, sometimes revelatory and other times inscrutable, to his music director and others. As the opening credits say, this one is “for the fans” and will provide a fitting farewell for all those who are still not ready for him to moonwalk into the sunset. Some are bound to see only meretricious motives on behalf of the estate and the concert producers; inevitably, they will view This Is It as the floodgate opening for a presumed deluge of posthumous Jackson material. The rest will see Jackson, enervated not by drugs nor age but merely the diminished mechanics of rehearsal, and find the film to be a fitting elegy.