Monday, November 2, 2009

Michael Jackson's This Is It

I must admit before I start that Michael Jackson's death didn't rattle me all that much. I knew almost nothing about the man, enjoyed his trio of classic albums (Off the Wall, Thriller, Bad) but not nearly to the extent that I could be called a "fan," and while I found his passing surprising I can't say that I was shocked. Naturally, taking stock of his career has become difficult these last few months, as supporters and detractors have done their best to portray him as either the last great music icon or an overrated, talentless hack who hasn't been relevant since before the fall of the Berlin Wall (and that's leaving out their opinions of his personal life).

This Is It clearly falls on the side of the supporters, displaying an open bias befitting something released by Jackson's estate. Yet I can't say that I mind that: given the flood of tabloid details that have already surfaced and God knows how many tell-alls on their way to the nearest bookstore, I welcome a behind-the-scenes look that comes to praise MJ, not bury him, even if it does potentially omit glimpses into the darker side of the artist's final days. Originally shot for Jackson's personal collection, This Is It offers footage of the rehearsals for his proposed 50-show residency at London's O2 Arena, from the casting auditions for backup dancers right up to the last practices Jackson performed before his passing on June 25.

What we see is often revelatory. I used to believe that Prince was the only true artist in '80s pop; Madonna and MJ just found good producers while Prince crafted the only albums that could truly stand with the underdogs of '80s rock (The Smiths, Sonic Youth, etc.). But the Michael Jackson presented to us by Kenny Ortega displays a vision and a control over his production that could only be called auteurial. He has a hand in everything: helping with stage design; instructing his musicians with perfect memory of all his songs, their keys and their tempos; even a multimedia project that will project computer-animated sequences on screens behind the performers to add to the experience. At every turn, Jackson restructures the show so that he cues everything, from instrumental breaks to his dancers to even the lighting setup.

This Is It does such a wonderful job at presenting us with the image of Michael the perfectionist, in fact, that it inadvertently exposes its own weaknesses. For the first half of the film I was absorbed by the footage of Jackson rehearsing. Conserving his voice by softly singing and even lip-synching, as well as a bit stiff from age (and, if even half of the recent reports are true, full of so many downers he was practically sweating ether), he nevertheless projects an energy befitting a much younger man, one nowhere near death. The crew of musicians, dancers, and directors speak about him reverently, and frankly it's not hard to see why: Jackson is a roadie's dream. He's there on-set at all times with the people who tend to be the ones who do the real work behind a show, and he treats them all like family.

As soon as the film moved past the first hour, though, it pushed further and further into repetitious tedium. Watching Jackson fine-tune his show is interesting, but when we see him giving useless advice to the musicians such as "let it simmer" and stick with that number for minutes until the players can finally make out what the hell it is he actually wants (points must be given to the keyboardist, who responds to Jackson's vague instructions with disarming inanities of his own like "It needs more booty!"). Jackson's age really shows when Ortega moves into the show-stopping numbers such as "Thriller" and a rendition of "Earth Song" that seems a touch hypocritical as Jackson stands on a massive stage filled with lights, pneumatics, huge projection screens, all of it sucking electricity at the rate of a small town.

Eventually I was so worn down that I tuned out for a moment in the middle of "Billie Jean." "Billie Jean"! It's blasphemy to even think of such a thing, yet I cannot say with certainty if Jackson ever did the Moonwalk because I lost interest after the first verse and only came back to Earth in time to see Jackson grabbing his crotch repeatedly as an outro -- I wonder if there's something to be read into that. The only worthwhile aspect of the second half is the opportunity to watch the musicians Jackson hired to support him, particularly guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, a spunky blonde who can recreate Eddie Van Halen's solo on "Beat It" note-for-note and who absolutely unleashes at one point in a deafening rock cascade that is one of the film's highlights. Another is a duet between Jackson and one of his singer on "They Don't Care About Us" that starts off restrained like all the other numbers before Jackson subtly starts trying to upstage his backup and the song builds into a transcendent show-stopper that has the few crew members sitting around watching this cheer as loudly as a stadium full of fans. It also offers us the most tangible glimpse into his dark and erratic side, as the smile he allows himself after going toe-to-toe in a friendly battle with this much younger woman disappears in nervosa as the singer suddenly freaks out over potentially damaging his voice. For that brief moment, though, you can see boyish joy all over his face.

Still, when you get right down to it, and as cynical as you might think me, I have a difficult time seeing This Is It as anything other than a cash-grab. My theater priced tickets for the documentary at $10 without any matinee or other discounts, up from the seven bucks I normally pay for a film before 6 pm. There is nothing about the film that warrants a surcharge, and upon walking into the auditorium I was treated to an ad for Michael Jackson commemorative coins, a tasteful gift that's sure to please this Christmas. And given the film's sloppy editing, protracted length and unnecessary use of newsreel footage, its safe to say that Jackson the perfectionist would never have allowed this in a theater. Still, there's an undeniable delight in seeing a side of Michael Jackson that I didn't know existed, and as oblivious as the film is to his impending doom, I will still give This Is It a marginal recommendation for its exciting dance sequences and its revealing look at the artistic side of a pop star -- the first thing I did when I got back in my car was put on Off the Wall, which is incidentally completely unrepresented here. Besides, cash-grab that it is, I defy you not to smile when Jackson lets out a "whee!" of delight upon being lifted by a cherry picker.

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