As “This Is It” opens, words scroll up the screen in “Star Wars” fashion. It’s oddly fitting since in the last two decades, it often seemed as if the increasingly eccentric Michael Jackson came from a galaxy far far away.
The narrative informs the viewer that the following Staples Center rehearsal footage for Jackson’s “This is It” series of 50 London concerts was recorded for Jackson’s private library. As the curtain peels back, we return to a day in April when anonymous dancers, many of whom have traveled the globe to audition for Jackson, wax hyperbolic about what this opportunity means to them. Most of them can’t help but choke back a tear—some openly weep—as they tremulously look in the camera and praise the guiding light of their life, St. Michael.
Before the film devolves further into some heavy-handed, treacly tribute to the King of Pop, the infectious beat of “Wanna Be Starting Something” begins and there is Jackson himself, up on stage, working out a dance routine. Other than a brief cutaway to the March press conference when Jackson announced the “This is It” shows at 02 Arena (and now ominously says, “This is the final curtain call”), the movie is all about the music and the man behind it. There’s no footage even mentioning the 50 sold out shows or of AEG CEO Randy Phillips, omnipresent before Jackson’s death, droning on about how the tour came together.
“This is It’s” goals are transparent: to preserve, if not enhance, the musical legacy of Michael Jackson, to extend Jackson’s mythology by focusing solely on the talent and showing him only in the most positive of lights, and to dispel any remaining rumors that he could not have withstood the rigors of mounting the comeback shows.
The movie, by and large, succeeds. From the start, the Jackson we see has an enviable command of the proceedings. There is none of the doubt, giggling or high-pitched, little-boy voice that we heard in so many interviews. This was a man 100% in his element. Toward the end of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” he instructs the band how a passage should go. As one of the musicians says “it’s getting there, “Jackson says either, “We’ll get it” or “Well, get it.” Either way, the message is exactly the same and it is one that is repeated through the movie. Whether true or not, “This is It” makes it seems as if Jackson had his gloved hand in every single decision about the show. No wonder he was exhausted.
In fact, the movie would have been better served if Jackson had not seemed so, well, perfect. Was there not a moment, a second, of the 100 hours of footage when he stumbled or wasn’t sure of the words? There are only two times when his foibles show: in the first, as he runs through a delectably exuberant Jackson 5 medley (how his brothers must have yearned to have been part of that segment, if they even knew about it), he is frustrated by his in-ear monitors because he can’t hear through them. Later, he admits he goofed when he asks the band to go into a non-existent verse on “Black or White.” That’s it. This is not Jackson, warts and all. The film is so loving, it's surprising there isn't a corona surrounding Jackson's head.
More than a dozen songs are showcased in various forms throughout the 111-minute film. Some tunes are montages of rehearsal footage—with Jackson almost always dressed in a jacket—while others, such as “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” are completely one take. There are a few tunes in which Jackson barely appears at all, such as “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” where we see the dancers given a tutorial in the right and wrong way to execute a crotch grab. It feels padded in spots and could have used a good 15-minute trim.
Jackson’s voice is strong—more in some places than others—but it is the dancing that is as thrilling as it is heartbreaking. Jackson’s caliber of talent only comes along once in a lifetime and it is made abundantly clear when the bells and whistles are dispatched and the focus is solely on Jackson.
For all the spectacle that Jackson hoped to create through explosive pyro and unbelievably elaborate set pieces (the reinvention of "Thriller" is breathtaking), the magic comes in those small moments when he is the sole focus. During a rehearsal for “Smooth Criminal,” in which Jackson is placed in the middle of classic black and white, film noir movies from the ‘40s, such as “Gilda” and “The Big Sleep,” there comes a segment when Jackson is on stage surrounded by 10 or so backup dancers. They are all doing the same pelvic thrust as Jackson, but his is precise and controlled and more graceful than they can ever hope to achieve. As talented as the supporting dancers are, they can imitate him, but they cannot come remotely close to replicating him.
Toward the end of the film, Jackson runs through “Billie Jean” with no other dancers on stage. He seems tired at first, but as the song continues, the music possesses Jackson as he moves effortlessly, seemingly making up the dance steps as he goes along. He is mesmerized and mesmerizing. It’s one of the many times in “This is It” when he is spellbinding.
The only serious misstep is the amount of time—and it seems like forever—devoted to “Earth Song,” a well-intentioned tune about the environment that is perhaps the worst song Jackson ever wrote. It is performed in its soporific entirely, embellished by footage of a child who falls asleep in a thriving, gorgeous rain forest, only to wake up to destruction. Jackson further brings his point home by having a bulldozer on stage... someone should have used it to bulldoze that segment.
Another bad judgment call, although less severe, is when the talking head interviews return, this time with the musicians. Their comments aren’t as ham-fisted as the dancer interviews that open the film, but they serve no purpose whatsoever since each musician unsurprisingly heaps praise on Jackson, making the movie even more of a hagiography than it already is. Much more interesting are Jackson’s interactions with musical director Michael Bearden, who seems the only person willing to talk back to Jackson in any meaningful way. At one point, as Jackson rides Bearden about making “The Way You Make Me Feel” “simmer” and says they’ll work on the intro at sound check, Bearden feistily reminds Jackson this is why his presence is so valuable at sound check.
Conversely, director Kenny Ortega comes across not only as a toadie, but as a complete caricature, sucking up to Jackson at every turn. When Jackson tests out the cherry picker that carries him over the audience in “Beat It,” Ortega pleads with Jackson to hold on. Then as Jackson hovers over him, Ortega tells him he loves him. The only thing missing is “mean it, babe.”
To Ortega’s everlasting credit, however, the cast and crew’s reaction to news of Jackson’s passing is not exploited and any temptation to turn maudlin is thwarted. Instead, as the best funerals are, “This is It” serves as a complete, if perhaps unrealistically glowing, celebration of Jackson’s life—the one he would want us to remember—instead of a painful reminder of his death.
[Editor's note: A contrary opinion from HitFix's Film Editor, Drew McWeeny.]