Rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images. Three and half stars out of four.
"Michael Jackson's This Is It" is heartbreaking, exhilarating, baffling. In other words, it expresses the performer's persona in its purest form.
Assembled from more than 100 hours of rehearsal footage shot from March through June in Los Angeles for the sold-out London performances that never happened, this documentary offers up a rare – unique? – behind-the-scenes look at Jackson the artist. It's flabbergasting to imagine that this sylphlike dervish with his slinky moves would die so soon after this footage, primarily meant for Jackson's personal use, was shot.
The "This Is It" show as Jackson conceived it, intended to be his comeback after a decade of inactivity, is pretty much all here. Although he spoke of the serial performances in London – there were to be 50 in all, all instantly sold out – as his "final curtain call," it's not clear exactly what the "It" in the title means. Was it really the end, or a new beginning? (Artists' swan songs have a way of swanning on and on – remember Sinatra's perennial retirement tours?) But the show, as it comes across in the documentary, certainly feels like the culmination of everything Jackson accomplished in his career. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of sold out performances.]
Many of his greatest hits are here – ranging from the Jackson 5 days to "Billie Jean," "Beat It," "Thriller," "Black or White," on up to more moony and ecoconscious songs like "Heal the World." He's flanked by a phalanx of torso-twisting dancers – reportedly 5,000 auditioned for 11 spots – and often backed by big-screen special effects. (A remade "Thriller," portions of which we see, was to have gotten the 3-D treatment.) The remarkable thing is how none of this hubbub detracts from Jackson. No matter how many bodies, or images, are spinning through the air, Jackson is always the pinpoint focus of the frame. (And of course, the dancers in any Michael Jackson show are essentially extensions of himself.) More than ever, the essential duality of Jackson comes through: the Peter Pan harlequin, the sexless androgyne, could instantly transform himself into a crotch-grabbing satyr, his face a rictus of rage.
Kenny Ortega, the director of the ill-fated show and of this documentary, worked with a three-person crew and high-definition cameras. The footage, woven expertly from numerous rehearsals, sometimes of the same numbers, has a speedy, caught-on-the-fly mobility. Having worked with Jackson before, Ortega is chummily deferent in his presence. He knew, everybody on the set knew, who the real wizard in this Oz was. Fred Astaire, it was said, could look at a filmed sequence of himself dancing and then, to fine-tune it, order the editor to cut two frames – a twelfth of a second – from the movement. And he'd be right. Jackson has that same fanatic attention to detail here. For all his peace-and-love warblings on the set, his studied politesse to the cast and crew, he always gets what he wants. "You've got to let it simmer," he tells a keyboardist, and simmer it does. Another musician, working on a troublesome passage, tells Jackson, "We're getting there," to which Jackson replies, "Well, get there."
Jackson is not playing to a crowd in this film, but this doesn't seem to matter to him. Clearly he already has his fans fixed in his mind's eye. Like most great performers, Jackson could swing onstage in a state of rapt singularity and yet also never lose sight of his audience. In the film's most beautifully understated moment, he completes a particularly sweet move and then stands there, stock-still, with a beatific smile, as the lights fade out. He was his own greatest taskmaster – and appreciator.