By Chris Richards
Thursday, October 29, 2009
"This Is It," the new Michael Jackson concert film, has been billed as a rare glimpse into the creative psyche that defined pop music's shape and trajectory. But this isn't a concert film. It's a rehearsal film -- and one that will leave Jackson's most zealous fans waiting for goose bumps that never arrive.
Filmed at the Staples Center in Los Angeles between March and June, "This Is It" captures the King of Pop prepping for a 50-night run at London's O2 Arena. But after the singer's death shocked the planet on June 25, the extensive rehearsal footage -- intended for Jackson's personal archive -- was quickly cobbled into a feature-length documentary that landed in theaters on Wednesday.
Must the show really go on? At best, "This Is It" is a mere sketch of what Jackson seemed capable of delivering in London, with the King of Pop only half-singing, half-dancing through his most rousing hits. Stiff and frail, he paces the stage, during "Wanna Be Starting Something," as if mulling things over in his mind. At times, he appears almost lost inside himself.
And so it goes for nearly two hours. Jackson emerges from a mechanical spider during "Thriller," he rides a cherry picker during "Beat It," he hustles through a medley of Jackson 5 tunes including "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There." As the latter song fades, he cracks a rare smile, basking in phantom adulation.
Dramatic pauses abound during rehearsal (imagine roaring fans here, here and here), but when the singer flicks his wrist, his band best not miss it. Jackson tut-tuts over a few missed cues, but otherwise his direction is fussy and inarticulate.
During "The Way You Make Me Feel," he softly chides his musicians for not letting the intro "simmer." You can almost see the question marks materializing over their heads.
Not the case with Kenny Ortega -- his noggin seems to produce only exclamation points of agreement. He's the director of both the concert and the film, and he shepherds Jackson through these rehearsals with a true yes-man's adulation. ("I agree, Michael," he declares after Jackson quasi-resolves things with "The Way You Make Me Feel.")
Along with Ortega's generous screen time, there's plenty of other inconsequential footage: tech dudes grunting as they schlep gear; costume designers explaining which sequins are shiniest; a guitarist who says how excited she is to work with Michael Jackson, followed by a second guitarist who says how excited he is to work with Michael Jackson.
And the poor dancers. You'd really hope to see Jackson enjoy a spontaneous moment with these incredible talents as they pop and lock around their idol, but all they get is a hand-holding circle where the singer speaks in fuzzy platitudes about adventure and love and saving the planet.
The film's one undeniably human moment comes during "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," with Jackson finally allowing himself to be swept into the music, singing full throttle. But despite the crew's excitement (and ours), he cuts it short: "I have to save my voice."
For a man who so desperately wanted to show us perfection -- or at least project the illusion of it -- Jackson would never, ever want us to see this film.
This Is It (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for suggestive choreography and scary images.