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Michael Jackson: This Is It (DVD Review)

January 13, 2010

Life is hard, right? And I’ve been kinda searching for something to shake me up a little bit and give me a kind of a meaning to believe in something . . . and this is it.

When Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009, he took a great deal of 80s and 90s pop culture with him. One of the  defining, if not galvanizing, entertainers of our time, Jackson’s appeal crossed racial and geographical boundaries. This Is It, a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation for Jackson’s London comeback, was filmed for archival purposes. Under film producer/dance choreographer Kenny Ortega, the glimpse we’re given is of what was supposed to be: fifty carefully choreographed, sell-out shows spanning Jackson’s career, while marking his return to the stage.

These were to be wildly elaborate concerts, sparing no expense regardless of the notion that these shows were to help pare down his own debt. Racing fire, explosions, an oversized animatronic spider, apparitions flying over the crowd, a bull dozer, various short films, dancers shooting up from beneath the floor to the “light man” that Jackson was to emerge from.  This was to be a sensory assault that Pink Floyd would have been proud of. We’re given a look into the creation of a few of the movies that were to be projected. Again, money seemed to be no object with Jackson green-screened into an old gangster movie for “Smooth Criminal.” The short for “Earth Song” was of a garden paradise about to be torn down–his ecological message. “Thriller” was set to break the boundary between performer and audience; the film shot in 3D (glasses were to be given out) with spirits flying overhead.

The dance moves shine, if not a bit slowed down due to age or saving his own energy. We’re taken into the dancer selection process, albeit a brief look, spending only a couple of minutes as to how these dancers got their jobs. During the actual rehearsals, Jackson never stopped moving. And even though his infamous Moonwalk was nowhere to be found, his moves were still glass smooth, his rhythm, impeccable. While his appearance was almost unrecognizable from the Michael Jackson of the 80’s, his voice never changed. It struck me during “Human Nature” that there was absolutely no discernible difference between the person who sang it twenty six years ago and the man singing it on stage. He never sounded young or old; he sounded like Michael Jackson.

With any documentary of this kind, if it intends to be real, you’re going to get a look into moments of conflict, where the subjects forget there’s a camera around. Nothing ever really blows up here (or at least approaches George Harrison’s “I won’t play anything at all if it pleases you” rant to Paul McCartney in “Let It Be”), but two or three times we do get to see tempers at least starting to flare. Through it all, Jackson would remain almost ethereal, constantly insisting “love” with a “God bless you” shooter for good measure. If anything got worse, only Kenny Ortega and those who were a part of those rehearsals would know.

And while I’ll never lay claim to being a fan of Jackson’s music, what’s shown here is done well. “The Way You Make Me Feel” was to be reworked, half of the song performed with a smoky jazz room sound, the other half sounding like the version that became a hit. “Beat It” was worked to extend the solo that Eddie Van Halen had laid down. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” with that “mama se mama sa mama coo sa” chant that Manu Dibango first recorded back in 1973, was to be one of the numerous show stoppers. The entire production was designed to be one huge show stopper, and it would have been, if only . . .

Kenny Ortega took on a huge task of showcasing Michael Jackson without the weight of scandal or controversy. Michael Jackson, the Paparazzi Magnet, wasn’t shown here.  What is shown was a perfectionist with a deep love of his craft, the people around him, and the fans who had paid to see him. By lifting the tabloid veil, Ortega took the focus off of a flawed human being and put it squarely back on the entertainer many grew up with. For an hour and forty minutes, I can live with that.

Four out of five stars.

This Is It will hit DVD and Blu Ray on January 26.

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