Michael Jackson’s This Is It Review: He’s Still a Thriller

Death and resurrection. That’s the scenario not just for gods but for pop stars who earn fans’ ardor with an electrifying presence and their sympathy with very public private lives of addiction and misbehavior. The stars’ talent makes them unique; their transgressions make them human.
The late Michael Jackson during the This Is It rehearsal.
The late Michael Jackson during the This Is It rehearsal.

Death and resurrection. That’s the scenario not just for gods but for pop stars who earn fans’ ardor with an electrifying presence and their sympathy with very public private lives of addiction and misbehavior.

The stars’ talent makes them unique; their transgressions make them human.

Michael Jackson, who died in June at age 50, outlived Edith Piaf and Judy Garland by three years, and Elvis by eight.

(Forget Madonna — that woman is too smart to self-immolate.) Jackson’s bizarre resculpting of his features, his litigious shenanigans with his youngest admirers, his obsession with being an eternal preadolescent, a petrified Peter Pan: all these eccentricities gave him an otherworldly cast.

It took death to restore his standing as one-of-a-kind entertainer — to bring him back to life.

Jackson is hot again. His old albums — now sacred relics, for which the faithful did not pay so much as tithe — sold better after his death this summer than they had in this millennium.

A poll of visitors to the Fandango website showed that the No. 1 movie costume for this weekend’s Halloween revelers would be Michael Jackson.

The singer, whose worldwide success was built on CDs and concerts, not movies, became his own fictional character. And like the runners-up — Wolverine from the X-Men films and the Twilight series’ Edward — Jackson is a hero from the dark side.

But full redemption, not to mention true resurrection, requires a personal appearance. And on the 125th day he rose from the dead, at least on screen, with Michael Jackson’s This Is It, a docu-musical record of the star’s rehearsals for his comeback London concert series that was to begin in July.

Sony, the music and movie conglomerate that has had a decades-long stake in Jackson’s economic fortunes, shrouded the project in mystery until its premiere, which was held simultaneously on Tuesday night and Wednesday in 16 cities around the globe.

(Sony took over all 13 auditoriums of the Regal E-Walk Theater on New York City’s 42nd Street to show the movie to 3,200 invitees.)

Many of the venues had a satellite feed from the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles, where director Kenny Ortega, who had also been in charge of the planned concert, greeted surviving Jackson brothers Jermaine, Marlon, Tito and Jackie.

The only pre-premiere insights to the film came from two people who had been close to Jackson. His father Joe told the British tabloid News of the World, “This movie features body doubles, no doubt about it.”

(Given Joe’s wrangles with his family and with AEG, the concert’s promoters, he may not be an unimpeachable source.)

Michael’s stalwart buddy Elizabeth Taylor, who attended an early screening last week, effusively tweeted that This Is It was “the single most brilliant piece of filmmaking I have ever seen.” And she was in The Sandpiper.

So what is This Is It? A concert film without the concert. A backstage musical that takes place almost entirely onstage.

A no-warts hagiography that still gets the audience closer to the real Michael Jackson — MJ the performer, that is — than anything in the man’s avidly documented history.

Wisely and decently ignoring the circumstances of his death and the circus that followed it, Ortega focuses on the re-creation of about a dozen Jackson standards for the concert. (“Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Black and White” and “I’ll Be There” are all here.)

At times several takes of a song are edited into one performance; you know because Jackson is sporting different rehearsal clothes.

The footage was shot so the star could study his work and that of his crew, thus it has the artlessness of visual stenography. The art is in what we’re privileged to watch: a perfectionist who quietly pushes himself to prove he’s still got it.

The movie is worlds removed from another making-of concert doc, Madonna’s calculatedly scandalous Truth or Dare, and closer to old let’s-put-on-a-show musicals like the Busby Berkeley 42nd Street, the Judy Garland–Mickey Rooney Babes in Arms and the Broadway standard A Chorus Line.

It has all the elements: the big star (Jackson), the guiding impresario (Ortega) and, supporting them, a whole retinue of gifted, ambitious singers and dancers.

The movie opens with the prospective dancers’ declarations of the inspirational impact that Jackson has had on them. (O.K., they really need this job, but the effusions sound genuine.)

Later, the men have to rehearse one of Jackson’s more notorious dance figures. Apparently, grabbing your crotch while gliding across the stage is more difficult than it looks.

There are only two differences between This and the old musicals. Instead of the star breaking a leg, he dies after we see the fruit of his labors.

And in This Is It the emphasis is not on love affairs — though Jackson proclaims a tender “I love you” to everyone in sight — but on the energizing, exhausting business of making a spectacle spectacular

Ortega and Jackson had some Berkeley-size production numbers in mind. A version of “Smooth Criminal” interpolates Jackson into antique movie clips with Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson.

“They Don’t Care About Us” sends 1,100 CGI soldiers marching down a kind of Champs-Elysées whose Arc de Triomphe is bent into an M for Michael. “Thriller” was to boast 3-D effects. And “Earth Song,” the rain-forest-message number, has a dewy child (a girl, if you’re wondering) facing down a bulldozer, which was then to motor toward the front of the stage, ready to devour the star. “Save Michael,” he seemed to be saying, and save the planet.

But the coolest moments show Jackson unadorned and unplugged.

He sings “Human Nature” nearly a cappella, blending vocal virtuosity and a choirboy’s clarity; there’s nothing false about his falsetto.

His Terpsichore leads viewers through how-the-hell-does-he-do-that? astonishment into a mute appreciation of Jackson’s ability to channel Fred Astaire’s nonchalant elegance and fit it to the percussive drive of R&B. He gives dancing class and sex.

Jackson also plays well with others. There’s a splendid duet with Judith Hill on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” that’s both a call-and-response act of communion and a little contest over who can show more soul. He urges his lead guitarist, the petite, blond Orianthi Panagaris, to release all the wildness her fingers can express.

He’s determined to get the best from everyone, and to think the best of them. Near the end, just before a powerful rendition of “Man in the Mirror,” he thanks members of his family: “Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon, Tito, Randy ...” Then, remembering his mother, he adds, “I should also say Katherine. I love you.” He’s got a lot of love he needs to express.

No question that Jackson, deeply in debt to Sony and other creditors, needed the money that the concerts would generate. But his heroic effort and attention to detail suggest that this was no take-the-money-and-run greatest-hits scam.

He saw This Is It as a career retrospective that would re-establish the value of his music and prove he still had the strength and the moves of 20, 30, 40 years ago. At times he tries to husband his resources: stinting on the vocalizing of one song, he apologizes, “I’m just trying to save my voice.”

Then the beat or the melody gets to him, and he helplessly transforms into the full-throttle kid.

For a modern entertainer who dies before his time, immortality is measured in residuals — the money from commemorative projects like this. Michael Jackson will have no resurrection — in the end, that was that — but the movie does earn him a redemptive legacy.

It proves that, at the end, he was still a thriller. Fans and doubters alike can look at the gentle, driven singer-dancer at the center of this up-close document and say admiringly. This was him.


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