'This Is It': A glimpse at what might have been another Michael Jackson thriller

Michael Jackson's This is It
"This Is It," the much-hyped look at Michael Jackson's final days rehearsing for his London concerts, is now on DVD and Blu-ray. (Sony Pictures)
By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; 12:00 AM

"Michael Jackson's This is It" isn't a movie, exactly. It's more a collection of choreographed walk-throughs and semi-sung performances captured during rehearsals for what would have been Jackson's splashy return to the concert stage, had he not died suddenly last June at the age of 50.

To characterize it as footage rather than a film may sound like a criticism; it isn't. Actually, the behind-the-scenes, high-class-home-movie vibe of "This Is It," coupled with the excellent extras that appear on the DVD ($28.96) and Blu-ray ($39.95) releases, out today, make this glimpse of/tribute to MJ a more satisfying experience now that it can be viewed in one's own living room. Somehow watching the film at home sets a more appropriate tone for a documentary that itself could have been a special feature on a Michael Jackson concert DVD, if Jackson's story had veered in a different direction.

Naturally, people who haven't seen "It" may be tempted to pore over each frame, searching for clues that Jackson was a man addled, ill and clearly days away from his own demise. They won't find them. Granted, Jackson never completely belts out any of his many hits, from "Wanna Be Startin' Something" to "Beat It" to "Black or White," noting more than once that he's trying to "save his voice" for the series of 50 dates he was about to embark on at London's O2 Arena. But he still manages to hit the high notes in "Human Nature." And there is certainly no question, as he demonstrates while throwing down some signature "Billie Jean" moves, that Jackson still had the capacity to shake his spindly body down to the ground.

But more than anything, "This Is It," The DVD/Blu-ray Version reminds us that this elaborate, ultimately canceled concert tour was about more than just the King of Pop. Hundreds of people -- set designers, back-up dancers, musicians, film technicians -- dedicated themselves to turning Jackson's show into the "Avatar" of live musical events, an achievement whose mission was to further the medium. (And "Avatar" really is an apt metaphor; Jackson and his team created several short films to accompany the performance, two of which were to be presented in 3D on a massive LED screen.)

While the film gives us a glimpse of what the show might have looked like, the special features offer a wider, more detailed view. A 40-minute documentary, "Staging the Return," shows us more of the stage props and over-the-top gimmickry that was planned, from the fluttering ghostly puppets slated to swoop above the audience during "Thriller" to the "MJ Air" jet that Jackson was to board as part of his grand finale. In "The Gloved One," one of three featurettes, costume designer Zaldy shows off the intricate suits -- often bedazzled beyond reason with Swarovski crystals -- he designed for Jackson, including a "Billie Jean" ensemble crafted in conjunction with Phillips Technology so it could appropriately light up in synch with the beat. And two of the short films created for the tour, the nearly four-minute "Thriller" vignette and the "Smooth Criminal" short that fuses footage of Jackson with 1940s movie clips of Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart, also can be seen in their entirety on the Blu-ray release.

Collectively, it all suggests how potentially spectacular these concerts could have been, and how much of a personal and artistic loss the crew surely felt when it all came to a sudden, screeching halt. The DVD shies away, wisely, from trafficking in that grief, although a "Memories of Michael" featurette certainly does its share of lavishing praise on the pop icon. For those seeking to hear directly from the icon himself, there are sadly no interviews here with Jackson, just a few peeks at production meetings during which Jackson munches on crackers, softly shares his opinions and, occasionally, bursts out laughing.

"This Is It" may not tell us anything radically new about the glitter-gloved man behind it, as the DVD case promises. But it definitely reveals that in those final days before his death, Jackson and his mammoth creative team still had a pretty good sense of how to put on a show.

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