There’s a ghostly smell around,
But nobody to be found,
And a coughin’ and a yawnin’
Where a restless soul is going.
–Michael Jackson, “Ghosts”
“Everyone in a Michael Jackson show is an extension of Michael Jackson.” Exhorting the young dancers assembled for Jackson’s last extravaganza, Kenny Ortega makes clear the premise of This Is It. That is, every moment in the film, every shadow, sound, and gesture helps to shape an idea of Jackson. Nothing about this idea is new. He’s the King of Pop, weird and grand and singular. Ever a complicated, enigmatic figure, here he’s alternately vulnerable and imperious, tragic and brilliant.
He’s also dead. Though the documentary doesn’t dwell on it, this is the primary idea of Jackson now. It means that what you see here is incomplete, cobbled together from a reported 100 hours of rehearsal footage at the Staples Center (no doubt, an expensive venture in itself). And it means that even as a title card proclaims the film “a glimpse of the passionate gift Michael was preparing for his fans and for the world,” it is also a commercial enterprise, expected to pull in hundreds of millions of dollars as those fans gather together to remember him, again and again.
Repetition is key to the idea of Michael Jackson. As was underscored this past summer, when radio and TV replayed his performances for long and reverential hours, the artist’s remarkable innovation long ago gave way to reiteration. None of this is specific to Jackson, of course: music tracks and videos are designed to be replayed and recalled, with fans taking tremendous pleasure in learning lyrics and replicating dance moves. Indeed, This Is It opens with a flurry of testimonies to Jackson’s influence, as the dancers hired for the show that never happened describe their admiration and inspiration. With faces intent and hands fluttering, they express gratitude and desire, their love of Jackson’s art and stardom. One young man asserts that when he learned of the auditions, he was “searching for something to give me a meaning or something.”
This Is It is like that. A jumble of reflections and allusions, it helps you to remember what might have been. In theory, it’s intriguing, a documentary on an event that didn’t happen. But in practice, it’s a compilation of unfinished preparations and imperfect performances. Most of the songs are, of course, sensational and hearing them is thrilling. Even pieces of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” or “The Way You Make Me Feel” can be rousing, bits of performances that reveal again Jackson’s dedication and gifts. Split screens and edits stitch together different rehearsals, with Jackson appearing in different outfits as if he’s performing with multiple versions of himself. Such moments provide an apt metaphor, as Jackson’s many years of performing for cameras created an archive that followed him: no matter where or how he performed, an earlier instance of each song could be recalled, compared, and perpetually reframed.
The film reveals as well some spectacular plans for the concert, like the prosthetics for “Thriller” 3-D (lots of zombie hands coming at the camera) or Jackson’s green-screen work for “Smooth Criminal.” It’s still a great song, a point underlined by drummer Jonathan Moffett’s dead-on bass beat, it’s reconceptualized as gangster-suited Jackson’s awkward interactions with Rita Hayworth as Gilda (she tosses her glove at him during “Put the Blame on Mame”) and a gun-toting Humphrey Bogart, borrowed from In a Lonely Place.
Where some songs are decently served by these pastichey, partial visuals, others suffer from an apparent dearth of rehearsal clips. The performance of “Human Nature” almost benefits from gaps, as Jackson sorts out when to pause or how to breathe, making his audiences (in the arena and now, in theaters) wait for long moments, each beat counted and dramatic). But the audio tracks for “Billie Jean” or “What About Us” are filled out by predictable video illustrations (dancers instructed on crotch-grabbing, beautiful children playing with digital butterflies) or, worse, animated sketches of stage “concepts” (“Earth Song” would end with an actual bulldozer roaring onstage behind Jackson, his hand up in protest). Such images seem less “extensions of Michael Jackson” than representational clichés.
Granted, Jackson made use of these or other clichés in videos or lyrics. Still, their reappearance here does raise the question of what’s at stake in this documentary. The film is in a hard place, no doubt. It insists on Jackson’s vividness, not to mention his precision as a musician, in his instructions to Judith Hill during their duet on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” guitarist Orianthi Panagaris for the “Beat It” solo (famously first performed by Eddie Van Halen), and musical director Michael Bearden on the introduction to “The Way You Make Me Feel” (“You’re not letting it simmer”). But even in its celebration, the film is grappling with the absence at its center.
Jackson’s death defines the documentary. This Is It mostly refrains from close-ups of his disfigured face, using long shots instead to emphasize his enduring dance skills, his meticulous rhythms and familiar gestures. This reminds you of what’s been lost, the pains he endured and the losses he embodied. The tragedy of his childhood, replayed as explanation and rationale for decades, is here noted briefly in what may have been a “Jackson Five” homage: as Jackson tries to rehearse “I Want You Back,” he stops to describe the malfunction in his equipment: “It’s like somebody’s fist is shoved in my ear.”
Ouch. It’s a simple expression of frustration, over quickly. “Bring it down a little bit,” he tells his technician, a sensible solution to a sound and sensation level that he was never quite able to find off stage. As much as This Is It does right by Jackson, recalling his genius, it perpetuates — and repeats — the exploitation that shaped his life.