Saturday, October 31, 2009

Forever Held for Applause: THIS IS IT

I went in to This is It with some skepticism, fearing a rushed posthumous cash-grab hagiography of Michael Jackson. Those fears were unfounded. This is a fun and exciting, moving and haunting film, a behind-the-scenes look at rehearsals for a comeback concert cancelled by the death of its star. The tragedy is not unseemly lingered upon; in fact, it’s only implied to have happened. Instead, Kenny Ortega, the man directing the concert who subsequently took on the task of piecing together the film, has assembled the footage from rehearsals and organized it to give a glimpse of what the concert would have been.

Luckily, Jackson does not appear as a drugged-out shell of a performer. He could still dance and sing, if not quite at the same level he was at in the mid-80s. There's an amazing degree of precision in his motions and control in his voice. He wouldn’t have embarrassed himself, but I couldn’t help but wonder if 50 of these shows would have been too many, given the amazing physicality involved. He’s sometimes saving his voice for the big show, but other times he gets caught up in the moment and sings right out. Many of the numbers, even in this raw unpolished form, raised goosebumps. There's a tender version of "Human Nature," a nearly anthemic "Billie Jean," a goofy fun "Thriller," a fiery "Beat It," and a total blast of "Smooth Criminal," among others. It was going to be a great show.

The movie’s simplicity, its singularity of focus, could easily be faulted. After all, there is no attempt at providing context and only once – in a montage of old Jackson 5 clips that makes the heart sink to once again see the contrast between the precious little boy and the surgically altered man – is there a nod to his career as an artist. And, of course, there is no mention of the various scandals and eccentricities that made him a cable-news and tabloid staple for the duration of his final decade. But all of this is ultimately to the movie’s credit. It’s better off remaining uncluttered, positioned admirably between whitewashing and muckraking. It’s not warts-and-all but it’s not totally uncritical. Ortega, while still remaining respectful, shows enough missed notes, false starts and bobbled lyrics to show that Jackson was indeed a human being. The focus is totally on the music, the performance, the planning. This is an intriguing look inside the artistic process, a look that reveals Jackson and his supporting technicians, musicians, and dancers as consummate professionals, eager and excited to put on a great concert. We never got that great concert, but at least we now have this movie to forever preserve what could have been.

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