[1 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We will never see the final version of Michael Jackson’s This Is It concert. We will never experience the full blown macabre mastery of the epic “Thriller” number, complete with 3D zombies and a stunning recreation of perhaps the most well-known dance in all of pop music. We will never get to see how a 50 year old Jackson would truly sell his pre-teen Motown legacy, the perfunctory run through as part of Kenny Ortega’s inspired film doing little to inspire confidence. We’ll also never know how audiences would react to the moment in “Earth Song” when a giant bulldozer crashes through the stage backing and threatens the fading King of Pop. In fact, we will never know if the actual event would have lived up to its creator’s varied vision and posthumous hype. One thing is certain, however, Jackson was game to try.
Offering little of the money-grubbing graverobbing that the project’s announcement inferred, This Is It is like a DVD bonus feature without an actual movie to support. One could easily see this hodgepodge of rehearsal takes, expertly edited together by a team that deserves some kind of award for consistency and continuity, as a guide or animatic. Indeed, it is very much like the computer created cartoons that action filmmakers used to pre-visualize their stunt sequences, except this time, we have our own human special effect at the center. Jackson, acting half his notorious age, dances, prances, demonstrates, and illustrates as he puts his band and back-up “flare” through their paces. While the opening of the film gives us a glimpse at the devoted artists who come whenever Mr. Jackson calls, any additional personal insight is decidedly absent. In its place are several sensational musical numbers, followed by a few flashes of what this famed 50 show stand in London would have looked like.
As with many of Jackson’s shows, this is a greatest hits package carefully choreographed for maximum impact and guaranteed audience appreciation. The King is not breaking out new material, or mining his albums for unusual cuts to spice up the set-list. We move from dance hit to power ballad, “Wanna Be Starting Something” reminding us of how fresh early Michael sounded, while “Human Nature” highlights the singer’s sensational voice. Sadly, there is no take on “Rock with You” (Off the Wall is almost always forgotten by Jackson live) and the equally effective title track to Bad is missing as well. Other major hits not making the cut include “Remember the Time”, “In the Closet” and “You Are Not Alone”, while you can forget about seeing anything from Invincible. Indeed, what director Kenny Ortega (who also handled the same duties for the concert “experience”) understands is, as an elegy to a man taken too soon from his fanbase, familiarity eases the lingering pain.
Still, it’s hard to sync up the man on stage with the media maelstrom of the last five months. There are no signs of drug abuse or use, no obvious physical symptomology of the addiction that would supposedly kill him. In his element, Jackson is strong, if scarily bone thin, and while a bit out there in his ability to interact, he is still in command of his craft and how it is presented. He comments frequently on preserving his voice, admits to slacking off in some of the dance numbers to guarantee that the staging is just right. He is present for all the film work forged to amplify the overall live show experience, and even adds his two cents to sequences he feels need to “sizzle” or “simmer” more. As his muscular back-ups bob and weave around him, Jackson’s ever-present magnetism never lets him down. Even when he’s merely going through the practice motions, he’s as dynamic as he ever was.
All of which begs the question - what happened? How could someone this confident and carefree onstage (he is so light on his feet and lithe that it’s the very definition of “effortless”) become a press room pariah, unable to live a leisurely life in the public eye. It’s a weird dichotomy, one that This Is It has no desire to delve into. Even with all the tabloid tattling and clever character assassination surrounding the icon, his musical ability belies all the gossip and grotesqueries that have come to define him - even in bereavement. As a matter of fact, one of the best things that This Is It does is rewrite the legacy that Jackson left at the time of his death. TMZ nation would have us believe he was half off his nut, doped to the gills with human aesthetic on top of an already near-lethal cocktail of various narcotics. But reality - or careful editing - argues otherwise.
And then there is the notion of Jackson repeating this immense spectacle day in and day out for 50 grueling shows once he headed over to England. It’s sad to think that some promoter saw an opportunity to exploit the entertainer’s recent financial distress and decided to bludgeon his coy cash cow for as much milk money as possible. One truly believes the singer when he smiles and says “this is really it” during the promotional press conferences that announced the “tour”. No matter what he did after the concerts, he could never top the ideas he was trying to showcase here. That this rehearsal material provides actual glimpses of what could have been stands as a testament to what Jackson conceived, as well as how nimble Ortega is at cobbling together what was clearly meant as nothing more than random reference footage.
So instead of spending almost two months making sure that fans from around the world got one last shot of seeing their idol in person, This Is It will be the event that facilitates the final chapter in the myth of Michael Jackson - and then that’s truly “it”. Even if another album of amazing material is lifted from the vaults (and the original tune presented here as the movie’s theme is no great shakes) and the artist who once owned the pop charts scales them once again, there will never be more than “this”. No more videos. No more news cycles. No more music. As titles go, Jackson’s own self-penned label lingers with hints of what could have been and what never will be. Still, for anyone still looking for a little bit of his magic, This Is It contains more than enough.