This Is It (PG) 121 min. Directed by: Kenny Ortega.
Written by: Nathan Bartlebaugh
I am not a Michael Jackson fan.
Like many others, I listened to the music, sat there patiently waiting for the Black and White video to premiere on MTV, and found sadly I couldn’t turn away when the media circus went critical mass in the late 90s. But through it all, I always found following Michael to be more of a social obligation than the genuine interest of a true fan. When he died, I acknowledged the tragedy, but I didn’t think much more on it. Now, with Kenny Ortega’s ‘This Is It’, the bittersweet daydream of a concert that will never be, I’m finally beginning to realize why Jackson had rightfully earned the title ‘King of Pop’.
For all of those Jackson fans out there, it’s likely you have already seen the movie. After all, This is It has been made for you, as a justification for your loyalty and a reminder that your adoration had a reason and a genesis. The man was a talented and canny performer. He was also an oddball of epic proportions. The film focuses more on the former than the latter, and as a neophyte watching from the sidelines, it reminded me that Michael Jackson wasn’t just a gifted singer, but first and foremost a dancer of precision and flamboyance and an artist with a specific vision and a fastidious nature.
This might not be an expose of the man’s personal failures and secrets, but it’s actually better than that. Instead, it’s a compelling (if controlled and guarded), intimate look at the creative process of a man whose artistic abilities and tendencies had ceased to be his defining characteristics in the public eye. We have heard the reports surrounding his death that point out he was on a potent combination of drugs. He was sleeping little and pushing himself hard to stage the kind of comeback that would bring him back to the top. Instead of a strung-out, washed-up control freak haphazardly trying to rehash his past success, we see a man still exceptionally in-tune with his vision, his voice, and his audience.
Ortega was directing and overseeing the production of the concert, and he is credited as the director of this film. He has crafted it not as a testament to Jackson specifically, or to the impact of his celebrity but as a faithful and energetic account of what all of them were trying to bring to life. The concert was the resulting work of hundreds of talented dancers, musicians, technicians, special fx guys, artists and sound designers. We get to see that. Jackson is there, front and center, pushing everyone onward, carefully steering the ship, but doing so with a gentle hand and with kind encouragement. This is not the out-of-touch eccentric we had gotten so used to over the last 15 years. Some of that is here (Jackson announcing that we only have 4 years to save the Earth before it’s too late) but mostly, I saw Michael the performer. When he was on stage and in complete control of his image, his music and his audience he was not lost.
This Is It is also a considerable entertainment. Ortega allows cameras to get physically close to the production and there is plenty of time spent on the several facets and elements that went into designing and creating the concert and it’s amazing, expansive set pieces. I enjoyed observing just how much vitality the 50 yr old Jackson had as he danced nimbly to ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ or the clear delight he has when directing zombies to shamble forth in 3-D for a rousing rendition of ‘Thriller’. He knows his music, knows the beats and what the blueprint in his mind looks like. Occasionally, like most artists, he has difficulty getting everyone else on the same page. But they do get there.
I went into the film with reservations, waiting to testify to the final sad chapter of Jackson’s life. Instead, I realize that so much of what the man did was unique and imaginative, and yes, joyful in a way that most musical performance isn’t these days. It dawned on me that there will never be another King of Pop. No one will do it better, or define it as he did. None will ever know for sure what ever truly happened in his private life or what strange thoughts or dreams swam through his head. We will remember the music and the energy and skill with which he performed. This movie, as much as anything else, will help in that aim. If you want a triumphant final note to the life and work of the King of Pop, this is it.