Michael Jackson’s This Is It reviewed

Michael Jackson’s This Is It is actually a pleasant surprise. I was expecting the documentary to be a grandiose tribute that oozed sycophantism. I was expecting the Jackson family and Michael’s extensive entourage to take centre stage – posturing for the camera and milking the King of Pop’s death for one last tear and, more importantly, one last cent. This Is It though, is surprisingly nothing like this.

Of course the profiteering off Jackson’s talent and weirdness is still very much evident. However, there isn’t an obnoxious member of his family in sight and there are no demonstrations of grief to bait the same response from the viewer. This Is It is basically a concert film, chronicling the rehearsals and extensive behind-the-scenes preparations that were underway earlier this year for Michael Jackson’s long-awaited return series of concerts, set to kick off in London’s O2 Arena on 13 July 2009. In the end This Is It feels more like something that could sit comfortably alongside reality TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance? and Idols, as well as film musicals like Fame and Bandslam, in that the film is predominantly a celebration of personal expression through performance art.

A good chunk of This Is It focuses on young up-and-coming dancers, back-up vocalists and veteran band members who are ecstatic about their once-in-a-lifetime chance to work with Michael Jackson – not only one of the most groundbreaking musical performers of the past 30 years, but also a lifelong inspiration to many in the film. The excitement of these few dozen unknown performers is infectious and at the same time quite touching, as the viewer is immediately aware that Jackson’s death deprived these talented individuals of a career-defining moment; a chance to shine like no other.

As for the portrayal of Michael Jackson in the documentary, director Kenny Ortega (also an instrumental figure during preparations for the live show) has provided a fascinating, and surprisingly balanced look at the man. There’s no sign of the drugged up, anorexic zombie that the tabloid media have been writing about since Jackson’s death from cardiac arrest. In This Is It, Jackson comes across as a hands-on performer and perfectionist, involved in every stage of the concert preparations. He has fun with his dancers, joking around, and exhibits a daredevil’s enthusiasm when it’s time to test stage equipment like the cherrypicker crane. Jackson gets frustrated with poor sound, with bad timings, with himself – in short, he’s a fallible human being who makes mistakes (even if most of his underlings are hesitant to correct him).

At the same time, Ortega doesn’t attempt to gloss over Jackson’s eccentricities. Jackson still appears as a loon; the type of man who wakes up in the morning and decides to wear sequinned trousers for the day. He’s also the type of man who makes his band perform the same riff over and over again because it just doesn’t “simmer.” In fact a good portion of Jackson’s dialogue in This Is It is laughable odd; clearly the ramblings of a mentally scarred creative genius.

This Is It does run a little overlong at just under 2 hours. By the time the Earth Song sequence begins the viewer’s mind is beginning to wander, meaning they’re not exactly concentrating when Billie Jean, obviously the big number of the live show kicks off. This doesn’t detract however from the fact that so much earlier footage in the documentary is electric. The dancer auditions, Thriller footage and CGI-enhanced They Don’t Care About Us are especial highlights, and they really push home the point that Jackson’s death deprived the world of something special when the rehearsals, and the unfinished product, were already so promising.

Michael Jackson fans will probably get more enjoyment out of This Is It than more casual viewers, seeing as how central Jackson’s music and dance moves are to the documentary. And it’s certainly a strange experience to be in the cinema and hear people singing softly all around you. Ultimately though, whether you’re a Michael Jackson fan or not, This Is It is a very interesting look at what it’s like to stage a multi-million dollar live show. It’s a behind-the-scenes view that audience members are rarely invited to see, and for this alone the film is recommended viewing – even if you only catch it eventually on DVD.


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