In March of 2009, Michael Jackson emerged from a long period of seclusion to announce a final comeback tour. “This is it,” he declared; it was the name of the show, an exclamation of excitement, and a nod towards finality. Rehearsals began. Dancers were hired. Pyrotechnics were tested. Every moment was captured by a number of high-definition cameras for Jackson’s private collection. The footage was never intended for general release. After all, why would anyone ever need to see it? Soon enough we would have the actual show to enjoy. Then on June 25th, less than a month before the tour was to begin, Jackson was pronounced dead at his home in California. Kenny Ortega, director of the High School Musical trilogy and choreographer of the shows, was enlisted to piece together the hundreds of hours of footage and bring the final document of Jackson’s life to the fans.
This Is It, much like its subject, is a pop cultural oddity. It is a documentary on (what are essentially) the final days of Michael Jackson’s life, released three months after his death. Cynics rightfully question the motives of concert promoter/film producer AEG Live, who no doubt lost hundreds of millions of dollars on the cancelled shows. Thankfully, Ortega has delivered a fine film that puts the electrifying raw rehearsal footage to good use. Most impressively, Ortega achieves something not even Jackson himself could in the past decade: he makes the King of Pop seem human.
What is most surprising about a film of this nature is the level of joy that emanates from the screen. This is no funeral dirge. We are introduced to Jackson’s backup dancers and band members, each incredibly thankful to be able to share the stage with one of the world’s most exquisite performers. As the film reminds us, they really do have a lot to be thankful for. Jackson moves as lithely and confidently as he did when he debuted the moonwalk on Motown’s 25th Anniversary TV Special. If anyone were to suspect Jackson of being on the precipice of death based on this rehearsal footage, they might have similarly suggested Usain Bolt be rushed to the emergency room immediately after he broke the 100m world record.
The movie is primarily made up of reconstructions of Jackson’s songs, in which rehearsal footage and specially filmed miniature features are combined to give the audience the full experience. The effect is, surprisingly, seamless. In fact, it’s better than seamless. It’s flawed. In This Is It, Jackson stops songs mid-way to correct tempo; to redo dance moves; to chastise sound men. Although this isn’t exactly a ‘warts-and-all’ depiction of Jackson, it goes a long way to reminding us that this was actually just another human being. In this sense, Ortega has accidentally stumbled into a scenario in which he is able to present perhaps the truest version of Michael Jackson to the world. There is no perfect footage, so he has no choice but to show us imperfect footage. And because of that, it is among the best and most exciting footage of Jackson ever seen.
Michael Jackson led a life none of us could ever claim to fathom. He achieved the kind of iconographic fame usually reserved for world leaders and founders of religions. However, as his fame increased, his eccentricities emerged. His skin faded from black to white; he befriended Macaulay Culkin; he had a pet monkey. These are the facts. In comparison to the other rumours and allegations that plagued Jackson’s life, they seem as regular as brushing one’s teeth. Over the course of his career, and especially at the time of his death, two schools of thought on Jackson emerged: some saw him as a messiah, while others saw him as a monster. The fact that MJ often seemed to consider himself a messiah didn’t exactly quiet his critics. Jackson was never able to outlive these controversies; his name will always remain the punch-line to numerous unsavoury jokes. However, this film manages to reclaim a shred of dignity for MJ’s legacy.
This Is It is an interesting take on the traditional concert film. The essence of each song is broken down, reduced to their raw materials, and then reconceptualised. There is no audience, except for those actually involved in the production. Songs are not followed by rapturous applause, but anti-climactic silence, and sometimes even criticism from Jackson himself. This is not the way we expect to see Michael Jackson perform. He has always been about impeccable timing and movement. However, that had always made him seem untouchable; perhaps even inhuman, and contributes to the semi-messianic adoration from his fans. This Is It reminds us that it was always just a human being performing these songs. Sometimes he loses his voice and sometimes he even loses his temper. The film never shows us whether or not Michael Jackson had lost his mind. But it does show us that he never lost his talent.