Michael Jackson's This Is It

Image for Michael Jackson's This Is It

An assemblage of footage documenting Michael Jackson’s rehearsal period for the This Is It concert tour scheduled for summer 2009 before Jackson’s untimely death on June 25th.


Pieced together out of rehearsal footage shot for Michael Jackson’s private collection, This Is It is a halfway house. Neither an in-concert film showing Jackson in all his glory or a behind-the-scenes expose of the creation of an entertainment event, it is in essence a two-hour work in progress that Jackson — revealed here to be a perfectionist — would probably rather you never see. The result is in no way a stand-in for the live shows but still boasts moments that fascinate and impress.

Let’s get the ghoulish stuff out the way first. He may resemble Skeletor in sequins, but at no point does MJ (as his close collaborators call him) look even a little bit peaky. Instead, the film reveals a steely side to the fiftysomething, both in his vigorous dance moves and the chiding of his collaborators, correcting timings, cues and arrangements (“I want it like I wrote it.”) with a sharp tongue of a micro manager. The only other figure to emerge in the film is director Ortega who is The King Of Sucking Up to Jackson’s King Of Pop.

Off-screen, Ortega, choreographer of Dirty Dancing and director of High School Musical, clearly knows how to mount exciting musical sequences on film but with what feels like only two cameras to play with, his options are limited, despite jazzing things up by stitching together different performances and split-screens. While this gives you ample chance to study Jackson’s moves, the filmmaking doesn’t do justice to the energy and vitality of the music, meaning the songs often feel inert when they should zing.

Which is a shame as This Is It is strong reminder of how good Jackson’s music —check out the blistering opening to Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ or the sweetness of Human Nature — and stagecraft is. Smooth Criminal gets a short film that deftly interpolates Jackson into ‘40s flicks ranging from Gilda to In A Lonely Place; Thriller gets an updated graveyard makeover with the addition of animatronic ghosts swooping through what would have been the 02 aisles (the rehearsals took place at the Staples Centre in LA). Earth Song provides the inevitable sentimental guff — a cute little kid wanders through an enchanted forest — that for the most part Ortega avoids.

But in the end, this is a rehearsal — not even a dress rehearsal — so there is a strong sense of Jackson holding himself back, both physically and vocally. After a blistering solo dance on Billie Jean, he mutters “At least we get a feel for it.” It’s a good summation of the film itself, strong hints of a potentially barnstorming show, interesting glimpses into his working process but nothing that completely satisfies.

This Is It delivers neither the full-on Jackson stage experience or a revealing portrait of his complex mindset. Yet it does not dishonour his memory and you can’t deny the power of the music.