'This Is It' a Celebration of Jackson's Last Days
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Michael Jackson's This Is It," the concert film (or, rather, concert-rehearsal film), is stitched together from behind-the-scenes footage and sequences intended as part of the backdrop to the concert tour Jackson was preparing to mount when he died on June 25 of this year. It's fascinating, and often not in ways the people behind it might have intended. It's shiny and slick and scary and cynical, and it's an epic portrait of all the contradictions in American celebrity culture and one of American culture's biggest celebrities. It comes, to paraphrase Shakespeare's Marc Antony, not to bury Michael Jackson but to praise him, to make sure the good he did lives on after him while the (alleged) evil is interred with his bones. You get all the hits; you get some amazing dancing. And you get footage where Jackson holds back and doesn't sing a line, or a whole verse, and you wonder if he's saving it for the big show or if he simply can't muster the energy to do it. You thrill at a 50-year-old man dancing so energetically and so well and then remember that Jackson died from the abuse and misuse of painkillers. Parts of "This Is It" feel like a death march cut to look like a victory lap.
And "cut" is the right verb; directed by Kenny Ortega, the director of Jackson's stage show, "This Is It" is not so much directed as it is edited, with a team of four cutters turning footage Jackson wanted shot for his personal use and preshot sequences for the concert tour's video-screen spectacle into something like a film. The preshot sequences, directed by Ortega (while constantly casting an eye to Jackson for approval), aren't just big, blown-up spectacles; they are, for good and for ill, glimpses into Jackson's mind set. There's a fairly leaden parable for "Earth Song," where a young girl falls asleep in a verdant glade only to wake up to a bulldozer-ravaged ruin and we see in an animatic how Jackson, in the final stage show, would be next to be threatened by a full-size bulldozer. The montage leading to "Smooth Criminal" (which is also, not coincidentally, the most whole and satisfying performance piece in the film) cuts Jackson into clips from classic Hollywood films like "Gilda" and "The Big Sleep" before it transitions to the superbly performed, amazingly choreographed live production number.
And that number, like many of the numbers in "This Is It," takes on a rich, ironic double meaning in the wake of Jackson's death. Jackson sings about being a "smooth criminal," and you cannot help but think of the criminal charges brought against him, and how he beat them. Jackson sings how, "It don't matter if you're black or white," and you think about how Jackson straddled black America and white America in a way like no one had since Elvis, and in a way no one ever may again. Jackson sings about "the man in the mirror," and you look at his face in the footage, altered by surgery, damaged by misfortune, tight and smiling and burning with frail strength, and you see Jackson's ageless, famous face as a blessing and a curse.
Yes, you get all the glitz and the hits with "This Is It," but you also get a look at what fame does to people in America, and what America does to people who are famous, and what people who are famous are fully capable of doing to themselves without any help or harm from any outside agency. When Jackson performed "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There" as part of a medley celebrating his days with the Jackson 5, I felt a wave of sadness as Ortega's split-screen showed me the man onstage looking back and the boy in archival clips smiling and looking forward, and I had to confront the gap and the gulf between two parts of the same man.
You also get a glimpse of the mega-mechanics of a modern international tour: the roadies and the riggers and the choreographers and the conductors, the pyrotechnics and the hydraulics. You also get a glimpse inside a small corporation, with Jackson the CEO, whether he's instructing the keyboardist to let a musical figure "simmer" or when his choreographers are explaining the company policy of how to best perform a crotch-grab. And while "This Is It" is crafted and intended as a demonstration of, as the opening titles put it, the "passionate gift Michael was preparing for his fans and audiences of the world," it's also a way for concert-promoting conglomerate AEG to make back some of the money the canceled tour will never earn. You can go to "This Is It" as a fan and clap and sing along, to be sure, but look a little deeper and it's a movie as grim as it is glad, as complicated and contradictory as the man it mirrors and the myth it maintains.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.
Photos: See stills from the film