Review: Jackson’s ‘This Is It" a flawed gift to fans
October 29, 2009
Let’s agree, “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” was undertaken much too soon to be a great documentary the way the performer was extraordinary.
Gently directed by Kenny Ortega – Jackson’s longtime collaborator on his concerts – the movie is less a rich portrait of the artist than a compelling sketch of one at work. Still, there’s beauty in that.
Jackson died weeks before the comeback concert was to start its run at London’s O2 Arena. The rehearsals capture what might have been. The skillful editing of also hints at what the film might have been had there been a more considered waiting period.
Two weeks ago, the single “This is It” was released. It’s a wan bit of business, especially in comparison to the hits Jackson runs through at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The film aptly begins with “Wanna Be Starting Something.”
There is a better reason offered for the movie’s title. In a series of video interviews taken during the audition process, a teary young dancer gives a heartfelt confession. He wanted to be a part of something, he says. “This is it,” he adds.
Jackson intended the concerts to be a gift to his fans. And the movie is truly for fans. All those fine young troupers and singers and musicians who complement Jackson onstage seem to have been “MJ” devotees long before their time with the consummate entertainer.
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Ortega is respectful. He presents himself more as a facilitator of Jackson’s vision than a hard-charging director. For his part, Jackson is decisive. His asides and suggestions may be uttered in that soft voice but they can be whetted.
Watching him dance, one feels Jackson inhabited some perfect (Platonic) notion of sexiness. Pure performance is his object of desire – the thing he pursues.
There’s a deeply satisfying precision to Jackson and Travis Payne’s choreography. Lord, that chile could dance. Jackson understood the power of stillness as much, if not more, than the thrill of motion. Decades later, the familiar shimmy and slide of “Thriller” and the hand gestures of “Beat It” remain vivid.
“This Is It” promises the show would have been grand and grandiose had it gone on. Jackson looks at a monitor as an updated video is shot for “Thriller.”
A short film for “Smooth Criminal” plays with noir-ish fantasy. Jackson sits in a night club, a fedora pulled down, while another of Tinsel Town’s tragic figures wows. Rita Hayworth performs “Put the Blame on Mame” as Gilda. In addition to Hayworth, Jackson finds himself in the company of Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, the indelible Gloria Graham.
As he watches Hayworth, it’s easy to ponder how identification took root in him who Jackson saw when he looked in the mirror. But Jackson’s genius here resists the easy psychologizing his death plunged so many of us into.
“This Is It” isn’t quite extraordinary as non-fiction film goes. Perhaps it’s something better: a work of generosity.