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Director Kenny Ortega told me that the seeds of Michael Jackson’s final concert performance were planted after picking up the phone and hearing Jackson say, “Kenny,” “Yes?” “This is it.”  Ortega said Jackson repeated the phrase five times during their conversation and each mention held more meaning for the performer.  Jackson couldn’t have possibly known how prophetic those words would be when he and Ortega dreamed up their plans for his “final curtain call”; a series of fifty shows in London meant to say good bye to live performing.  Michael Jackson’s shocking death this past June left fans around the world utterly confused and bereft and those who looked forward to those concerts wondering what could’ve been.

Here is the luck of living in the age of handily-accessible video, where one’s every waking moment can be recorded for posterity.  Jackson made a point of taping the major sections of his show’s rehearsals to go over and make notes the way a boxer reviews his fight when the bout is over, or a sports team looks for holes in their defense.  From these films, Ortega culled nearly two hours of footage to give the world an imperfect glimpse at the show he and Jackson envisioned as the performer’s final bow from the stage.  The result is the double-barreled whammy of sadness and awe that This Is It leaves in its wake.

On its surface, the idea that those involved may have chosen to exploit, cash in on or recoup huge financial losses accumulated by Jackson’s untimely death is pretty hard to escape.  Do I believe that Jackson, the ultimate perfectionist, would have wanted anyone outside the show’s charmed circle to view this raw footage?  Absolutely not.  As the last recorded moments of this pop music legend and the opportunity for Jackson in absentia to have one last opportunity to justify the rabid adoration he engendered and show himself to the world healed and recovered from the slings and arrows of infamy that had assailed him over the past decade, the film is significant.  In its very rawness, believers and naysayers get back to basics about Michael Jackson in a way they would never have been able to had the star lived.  This Is It serves more than as a collection of snazzily edited rehearsal footage; it is testimony as to what made this man born in Gary, Indiana fifty years ago the biggest star in the world.  The answer comes back again and again; it’s the music, stupid.  Jackson was blessed with a nearly supernatural talent that was often hidden behind the megalomaniacal need to pursue the self-made title, the King of Pop, as well as his well-documented personal eccentricities and the legal troubles that dogged him.  This was a person who, practically from birth (- Or very shortly afterwards) was on a stage entertaining people.  Kissed by the muses in a way not seen before or since, Jackson was the heir in a line of entertainers who inspired him, including Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown.  It is impossible to believe having had him in the public consciousness for so long that there was ever a time that Jackson wasn’t on a stage, on our televisions, in our cinemas.  Yet, for many of his fans and even the dancers and musicians in This Is It, that time did not exist.  For so many, the man simply has always been famous, This Is it succeeds in letting us all know why.

Opening with the kinetic, high-energy Wanna Be Startin’ Something from his seminal 1982 album, Thriller, the audience watches as the music quickly catches Jackson up and makes a thrumming, vibrating whirlwind of the man.  The audience immediately sees that Jackson is fitter than he’s been seen since he graced the charts daily in his Eighties prime; which also makes what we know will happen to him in the midst of these rehearsals even more incomprehensible.  His body registers every beat and nuance of the song and he seems to be clearly enjoying himself.  Yet the second the run-through is done, Jackson gently impresses on his musical director and the assembled musicians that the thumping tune, is, to his eerily precise ear, “not funky enough.’  Early on, two things stand out about Jackson in This Is It; first is the fact that though classically untrained, he was an amazing instinctive musician who could hear pitches and rhythms that trained performers around him miss.  Second and terribly touching is the unguarded footage of his corrections of the assembled staff; there is never a hint of harshness in word or tone when there is a mistake made.  Indeed, Jackson seems to walk on eggshells when asking for something he wants done differently and concludes those requests with “I come in love,” as if warding off any real conflict and constantly reminding his crew, “This is why we rehearse,” with a smile on his face.  He seems like the best boss ever and a deeply sweet, considerate man.  It’s that humanity so adored by those he worked with that is evident throughout the film.

For as much fun as he’s having perfecting his last dance extravaganza, Drill, or devising new moves for Thriller, the audience can hear the depth of emotion in his voice when delivering the lyrics for Earth Song.  One of the points that is made throughout the film is Jackson’s long held care for the future of the planet, and with Earth Song and Man in the Mirror, we see and hear Jackson’s attachment and meaning in these songs more than say, the op-tastic Jackson 5ive medley.  Left partially up to an online fan vote, Jackson’s set includes classics like Beat It, which just doesn’t stand the test of time and while Jackson never sleepwalks through a second of his performance, the man’s body reads like a book in the footage and you can see the excitement to play the song just isn’t there.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Jackson’s plan to take the Beat It jacket and light it on fire onstage, letting it burn had a deeper meaning?  On the other hand, the hauntingly beautiful Human Nature and I Just Can’t Stop Loving You are chilling in their simple testimony of what a damned fine singer the man was.  The former song he renders flawlessly, the angelic, complex cadences astound even his seasoned musicians.  I Just Can’t Stop Loving You is a fairly mundane love song until Jackson catches the spirit and turns the moment into a church revival, instinctively playing to gathered onlookers despite admonishing his encouraging crew to not let him sing out fully to conserve his voice.

The pyrotechnics and film footage meant to be used during the live show are brilliant.  Bursts of flame literally run in timed sequence up and down the length of the stage; a giant Gort clone robot would have hidden the performer inside its frame as a montage of Michael Jackson’s history and the times he grew up in played over it.  There is the new 3D remake of the Thriller video which would have played as floating zombie banners waved above the London audience.  Jackson’s love of cinema is highlighted in Smooth Criminal’s clever use of Rita Hayworth’s famous Put the Blame on Mame scene from Gilda which now features a new supporting player who is chased out of the nightclub by Edward G. Robinson and hunted down by Humphrey Bogart.  We see raw rehearsal moments of Jackson toying with choreographer, Travis Payne, with whom he hardly speaks an audible word, but the two share a physical language of shoulder shrugs, head bobs and beat-boxing grunts, when suddenly Jackson strikes the classic pose from Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, only later to see it onstage and hear the slow, sexy Broadway drag of the new opening of The Way You Make Me Feel.  Amongst the ‘Tito, get me some tissue’ moments would be the montage of Jackson 5ive video clips that play as Jackson sings the classic, I’ll Be There.  There’s the black and white audition footage of a nine-year-old Jackson tearing up James Brown’s I Got the Feelin’, Diana Ross boogieing with the group of young fellas whose first album bore her name as presenter, and most deadly for me, the image of the little boy belting out Smokey Robinson’s Who’s Lovin’ You on the Ed Sullivan Show while working a fly pink cowboy hat and purple fringe vest.  Yeah, I was done.  However, these sad moments are few as Ortega rightfully focuses on the work of puttin’ on the show, which was clearly a joy for Jackson and that pleasure equates in an exultant experience for his fans instead of a melancholy one.

Of course, no paean to Jackson would be complete without people gushing to the cameras about how wonderful/life-changing/inspirational he is and we see that in buckets with the dancers’ auditions, which is where I guess it’d be most appropriate to heap the praise on the guy you wanna dance for.  However, you can see the way Jackson is handled with obsequious kid gloves by Ortega and others at times, attending him with a saccharine formality that is almost creepily plastic.  All I could think of was if people had been more grounded and real around him, perhaps he’d still be here.  It’s refreshing, then, to hear musical director Michael Beardon hit the nail on the head of a vague Jackson request by saying the song needed “a little more booty,” then challenging the blushing Jackson, saying, “but you knew what I meant right?” and Jackson’s admittance that indeed he did.  If only for more moments where Jackson was treated like a 50-year old man and not some inviolable deity, but at least we have a tiny glimpse of it here in interviews with some of the older musicians who feel less of a need to gush, but express their pure respect for the man on their artistic level. 

This is the fullest portrait we’ll ever have of Michael Jackson. These stripped-down moments where he’s at his happiest onstage and amongst his adopted family of fellow performers are as pure and close to the heart of the man as the public will ever get, and for that his fans should be thankful and joyous.  Ortega’s wise assembly of footage beautifully reminds us beyond all the overdone, extraneous glitz, the sometimes self-sabotaging eccentricities and late-day notoriety, why anyone cared about this man to begin with.  The reason is clear; he simply was the greatest entertainer of his age.  The sorrow of This Is It is in its haunting reminder that we, as the public who breathed and consumed every bit of information and product this man had to offer, good or ill, will never have anything from him again.  Joyful and joyous, yes, to see Jackson so in his element, watching the music flow through him and the happiness it gave him and the world.  This Is It is all those things, but once the need to run home and play Off the Wall and Thriller the moment one leaves the cinema wears off comes the reality of how lost that is to us forever.  Those who never stopped loving Jackson for the icon he was and those who may have lost touch and could have found their way back to discovering him as an artist have been robbed.  This show is the last we’ll ever see of Michael Jackson’s very real magic and that is truly heartbreaking.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

October, 28th, 2009

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Sony Pictures)

 

 

 

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