Nobody likes to be the jerk.
It would be easy to smile and nod and mention the sentimental value of seeing Michael Jackson performing just weeks before the end of his life, and to give “This Is It” a general pass because of the curiosity factor. It would be easy… but it would be dishonest. So I guess I’ll be the jerk in this case.
“This Is It” is barely a movie by any definition. If I bought a deluxe collector’s edition of a polished, finished Michael Jackson concert, and the extra features on disc two were made up of the footage from this film, then maybe I’d say, “Oh, cool, look at him rehearsing. That’s sort of interesting.” But this isn’t a DVD extra. This is a movie that you’re expected to pay full price for in a theater, that’s playing on IMAX screens everywhere, that’s being touted as a major entertainment event.
And whatever “This Is It” is, it ain’t that.
The first and most obvious problem with the film is that Kenny Ortega was simply too close to the subject matter to cut any sort of documentary out of the available footage. I can only imagine how hard it is to sit and watch a collaborator on screen, day after day, while the pain of their death is still fresh, so I’m not going to beat him up. I’ll just say that while he may have upheld his responsibility as a friend of Michael’s, he utterly fails in his responsibility as a filmmaker. Here you are with this footage, the last recorded live performances by one of the biggest superstars in the world, and you’re given the task of making a film out of it. The first thing you need to do is set up interviews to help place that footage in context, and you need to decide what narrative it is that you’re going to craft to help make the film into an experience and not just a clips package. Those choices were never made here, and the result is flabby, inert. I took my co-writer Scott with me tonight because he’s a huge Michael Jackson fan, and even he was bored by the end of the film.
“Oh, relax. It’s a documentary.” Well, no. It’s not. Documentaries have narratives. Documentaries have structure. Documentary filmmakers are filmmakers, and the best ones know that you can’t half-ass the storytelling just because you’re dealing with real events. There are a few moments in this film that suggest what sort of film it could have been, and if anything, those glimpses are frustrating because it seems like this movie didn’t have to be a shapeless mess. At the very beginning, we meet dancers who are auditioning to be part of the tour, and they speak directly to the camera, and in some cases directly to Michael, explaining why they consider it so important to be part of his show. It’s moving because it’s a reminder of just how huge a shadow he cast over the entertainment world at the height of his fame, and how great an influence he continues to have, even after all the years of scandal and commercial marginalization.
If this was going to be valuable as a documentary, then one of the most important things to include is something that is pointedly left out here: Michael’s death. The entire film is built to show us all the effort, all the planning, all the work, all the imagination… all of it focused on these 50 shows in London. But there’s no punchline because we know what happened. Michael died, and all of that work turned out to be for nothing. So why not make us feel the loss? Why not interview his collaborators? Why not talk to them about what could have been? Why not explore the notion of this truncated comeback? It’s silly to treat him like St. Michael in the film… it’s been a long time since he was seen as perfect by the public, so why work so hard to sanitize the movie of all rough and messy signs of life? The most interesting moments involving Michael in the film are the moments where he has problems with the way something works, or where he’s not able to communicate an idea to one of his key collaborators, because in those moments, we see the guy behind the public image. When I wrote about Michael upon the occasion of his death, I didn’t try to sum up his whole life, and I didn’t go out of my way to present some idealized image of him. I told a personal story about my encounter with him because I thought it helped snap him into some sort of human-scale focus. It made him seem more real, while “This Is It” perpetuates the mysterious media image that made him seem so much less real while he was alive.
There are some bits and pieces of the film that fans are going to enjoy. One revelation is that his voice was in surprisingly good shape, and on the few occasions in the film where he cuts loose, he seems like maybe he really could have pulled off 50 live shows, something that I considered a huge question mark. That’s a demanding schedule for even the healthiest, most vibrant of performers, and that’s not how I would describe Michael in this footage. There are some songs where he basically just shuffles around, half-heartedly, the choreography still rough or undetermined, but even in those cases, we see the entire song, and some of this stuff really wasn’t ready for consumption yet. There are a few songs where we get a good idea of what the end result would have been. I particularly liked the arrangement for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” and during “Billie Jean,” Michael seems to snap into focus, his dancing almost like an involuntary reaction to the song. You get a sense of just how elaborate the staging of “Smooth Criminal” or “Thriller” would have been, and on a technical level, it looks like an amazing show to see live. There are some small rehearsal tidbits I found interesting as someone who’s done a lot of theater, but no musicals, meaning my personal experience with dancers is pretty much nil. I loved seeing how they learn to get “toasted,” which is the term they use for being shot out of the floor by hidden elevator platforms, and that sort of thing feels like an authentic glimpse into the process. I was surprised to see how big a role fire played in the show, and I wish someone had talked about the choice to include live fire gags in a show where the performer lives in constant pain from a previous fire-related accident, but again… this isn’t interested in being a documentary or exploring anything… it’s just rehearsal footage, assembled in rough order, with almost no contextual material around it.
There was only one moment in the film that made me feel the loss of the performer, and it comes midway through, when they’re rehearsing a medley of Jackson 5 songs. Watching the smile on Michael’s face as he runs through the dance moves and then seeing footage of him as a kid with his brothers, I’m struck once again by just how completely money ruins everything. Those kids, working together as a family, made one of the happiest sounds I’ve ever heard. There are few things that make me smile as predictably as hearing a song by the Jackson 5. And that footage, set side-by-side with footage of this 50-year-old man, drove home how truly lost the “real” Michael Jackson was for a long time before he ever died. That made me feel the loss, but even there, Ortega sort of ham-hands the execution, and the moment’s over almost immediately.
“This Is It” is a film about a missed opportunity, and it is also a missed opportunity in and of itself. I suspect that after the first big weekend, driven by the desire his fans have to see him one last time, business for this one will dry up quickly. I can’t imagine this being much more than a curiosity, rushed into theaters, casually stitched together, and utterly forgettable.
To be fair, I was there tonight with Melinda Newman, our Music Editor here at HitFix, and her take on the film was a little different than mine. Check it out here.
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