Movie review by Greg Carlson
For Michael Jackson believers, especially those who held tickets for one of the 50 planned O2 arena live dates, “This Is It” will stir up strong feelings of ecstasy and heartache. Because the footage used to compile the movie was not intended for public presentation beyond the possibility of some extra DVD content, “This Is It” simultaneously hints at the dazzling spectacle being rehearsed and thrills with its unguarded, rough-around-the-edges status as a work in progress. Far from ghoulish exploitation, “This Is It” refocuses attention on Michael Jackson as a ferociously talented performer in his element.
Directed by Kenny Ortega, Jackson’s principal creative partner in the conception of the stage show that was scheduled to debut on July 13, 2009, “This Is It” blends aspects of the traditional concert film with several familiar tropes of the backstage musical. The opening of the movie introduces many of Jackson’s grateful backup dancers, but before any individual personalities might be established in the style of “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” Ortega focuses intently and unwaveringly on the solo superstar, at one point reminding the members of the ensemble that they are there to function as an extension of MJ.
Ortega smartly resists the urge to truncate songs, offering full-length versions of most tracks even if they must be stitched together from several different video takes. It is impossible to know whether the sequencing of the tunes in the movie follows the proposed concert program, but “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” makes for a blistering opener. The classic fourth single from “Thriller” – which never had a music video – sets the tone for “This Is It,” taking viewers through a meticulously crafted arrangement that honors the song’s integrity without merely duplicating the recorded album version.
This pattern continues on most of the subsequent numbers, drawing heavily from “Thriller” and “Bad.” The “Dangerous” and “Invincible” albums are also well represented, but curiously, the brilliant “Off the Wall” is thoroughly neglected. Standout sequences include an elaborate 3D overhaul of “Thriller” with zombies crawling out of what appears to be a Napoleonic necropolis, a sultry “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” and a stirring “Human Nature.” Along with “Thriller,” “Smooth Criminal” receives substantial pre-production attention, merging Jackson into film noir scenes with Hollywood legends like Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart.
Not all the production numbers sustain the spine-tingling magnificence of Jackson’s undisputed benchmarks. A syrupy “Earth Song” is light years from “Billie Jean” in both intellectual acumen and musical quality, and the accompanying imagery of a cherubic moppet caught in a burned out nightmare of ecological decimation numbs viewers with its cloying, scolding prophecy. Jackson’s socially minded work was never accused of subtlety, but alongside “Earth Song,” “Man in the Mirror” is a model of sophisticated restraint. The musical performances throughout the documentary are frequently interrupted by glimpses of Jackson critiquing and calibrating the tiniest of details, and these pauses offer a stark turnaround from popular images of Jackson as a weak, addled, spaced-out weirdo. Far from the incomprehensible, out-of-touch naïf seen in the media for years, Jackson commands the stage in “This Is It” like he was born on it.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/2/09.