This Is It (2009) dir. Kenny Ortega
By Alan Bacchus
Admittedly I had suspicions about releasing a film about Michael Jackson at the height of the sometimes over the top exaltation and extreme public mourning of the man’s death. Admittedly my impressions of him was as an aging pop icon who hadn’t performed in public for over a decade, and who had become a frail shadow and parody of his former self.
And so this is what makes ’This Is It’ so enjoyable, the complete opposite of my expectations.
As we all know Michael Jackson had announced a 50 day concert in London to be his swan song, his last performances maybe? In any case, the potential to give his fans a once in a lifetime chance to plays his greatest songs and rekindle the great choreography he was famous for. Of course, Jackson died before the premiere of the concerts, but left a rather extensive video documentation of the rehearsal and preproduction of the shows.
What was intended only for EPK usage and for Jackson’s personal archives got turned into a feature documentary by the stage director Kenny Ortega.
Admirably Ortega leaves the most of the Jackson ‘heal the world’ hyperbole on the floor and concentrates on showing as much performance footage as he can. We get to see a dozen or so songs of Michael’s greatest hits performed on stage backed up by his live band and back up dancers.
With minimal stage pyrotechnics and elaborate costuming, we get to concentrate solely on Jackson;s performance as singer and dancer. Its actually quite remarkable what we get to see, a man at 50 years old, dancing step for step with the best dancers in the world in their primes and half their ages. Considering Jackson's frail physique his skill and stamina is astounding, And even more astounding is that for most of the footage Jackson’s only rehearsing, therefore working at half speed, preserving his voice and his strength.
What the film ultimately turns out to be is a fascinating look into the process of an artist. Watching Jackson shape the talents of collaborators - dancers, musicians, choreographers and lighting technicians - is the greatest thrill. Jackson comes off detail oriented, fine tuning the details to fit his artistic sensibilities and to deliver the best show possible to his fans. Behind the curtain Jackson is much like his public persona, soft spoken, but firm, modest and accommodating of others. He’s certainly no Bob Fosse, but a great artist with his own effective method.
Jackson’s dancers, who have the most privileged gig for their profession get well deserved screen time, confessing to the camera their appreciation for this opportunity to work with their idol.
Saying that, it also feels like a half produced film, which ironically aids in the experience of the film as an unfinished work of art. There’s a moment when Jackson describes his request to have a spotlight move around on stage, for Michael to step into and thus begin Billie Jean. Since its just a rehearsal we don’t ever see that light, we just have to imagine its there, imagine Jackson in costume, and imagine him singing at full capacity to a real audience. This is the sense of loss, an emotional resonance which underpins the film without overloading it with sympathy or any of the shameless and kitschy public remembrance ceremonies which followed his death back in the summer.
“This Is It” is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment