Scaffolding in silhouette against the backdrop of a towering metropolis, a 3-D graveyard inhabited by lurking ghouls slinging dirt and dust into the blackness of the audience, a lush garden of butterflies and exotic wildlife- destroyed by today’s industrial monsters and forest-munching tractors, an army of futuristic soldiers marching in cadence to the rapid drum pattern leading us into another Jackson classic. These are examples of the vibrant worlds Michael Jackson and choreographer/director Kenny Ortega had created with the intent to take fans through an ultramodern concert experience.
My matinee screening in the East Village cinema played for a total of 10 people (myself included); one of whom an overly enthusiastic woman lighting up the dark theater with flashes from her digital camera as she snapped away at some close ups of MJ in performance she might never have if he had lived to play his sold out shows in London’s O2 stadium.
This Is It covers, in what feels like its entirety, the development and pre-production stages of what would have been a fifty-show run. What we see, more than anything, is that Michael Jackson was an absolute force of nature. However poor his health, however frail his condition, however skimpy his diet, strike all of it. From his first appearance on stage, leading his backup dancers; there is no question. With all we have learned since Jackson’s untimely death about his medical condition and daily drug regimen, what we see onscreen is all the more jaw-dropping. He is never tired, never doubtful; his only restraint is in preserving his voice for the approaching concert dates, although this doesn’t stop him from belting out a finale with his back up singer which ends in him scolding the crew for cheering him on.
Whether correcting dancers on steps from the original choreography, conducting all instrumental arrangements for any and every song he has ever written and recorded, answering tech questions regarding lighting cues and stage transformation or simply burning off his excitement in those iconic solo body-popping grooves, he lead this production, was involved with all its parts, and gave it everything. A moment between Jackson and keyboardist Mo Pleasure has Jackson guiding the piano-intro to ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ with statements such as “wait on that note, let it bathe in the moonlight” and “let it drag you out of bed”, he directs with passion and as he says “L-O-V-E”.
Jackson, too proves that he is more than anyone else the creative force driving this show. One could say the height of magic comes when he transposes himself via green screen into a series of 1940′s films. Dressed appropriately in a white gangster suit Jackson is serenaded by a black and white Rita Hayworth as Gilda, chased by Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson- escaping only by crashing through a glass window making his stage entrance to ‘Smooth Criminal’. For one’s emotional needs, it might be the heartfelt Jackson 5 numbers that get you. Above a mock-Jackson Family line up, pictures and home videos of the band in practice and performance accompany Michael through the early hits. Though seemingly a lifetime away, he is sure to never miss a harmony, beat or breath, closing out out the flashback performance with a quiet thank you to his brothers and mother, Catherine.
Fans and fellow celebrities agree that This Is It is a significant artifact in the King of Pop’s final farewell, although sister LaToya’s highly publicized condemnation of the film at its red carpet premiere raised questions as to whether Michael, being the perfectionist he was, would want anything the least bit unpolished shared with the world. After all, the footage itself was taken for MJ’s private viewing purposes only, a caveat stated just before the opening credits roll.
It’s easy to be dazzled in this documentary. The performances are elaborate and bursting at the seams with imagination and energy, and we as the audience are simply spectators. Anyone who knows firsthand the long waiting and stop-go numbing-sensation of a rehearsal, will be familiar with the restless feeling that hits about 80 minutes in, as we find ourselves still waiting to hear some of Jackson’s biggest hits. And in waiting for a glimpse of his signature moonwalk that would be sure to work it’s way into a few numbers, one would be well advised not to blink during rehearsal of ‘Billie Jean’.
We need not be reminded of the enormous talent of Michael Jackson, but here we see the perfectionist, the workhorse, the architect of his own empire. We see amidst the moments of high stress and exhaustion, a fatigued “Hold For Applause” called from the lighting booth- we catch Michael beaming with happiness and satisfaction, smiling through the fade out.