Monday, November 9, 2009

The two of us need look no more

Who was Michael Jackson? Consummate entertainer? Creepy pedophile weirdo? Emotionally stunted recluse? If the answers are out there, This Is It doesn't provide them. What This is It does convey is brief glimpses of a Jackson kept hidden from the public. The visionary showman who was something of an affable taskmaster. Make no mistake, This Is It is a film that reaffirms Jackson as a talented singer and dancer who even in struggling through illness and pushing fifty, dances as lithely as he did decades earlier. His voice is no longer full, though this can probably be attributed to the fact that This is It is cobbled together fromrehearsal footage. Despite the fact this is a rehearsal Jackson performs with energy and enthusiasm. The footage was originally intended for the aborted This Is It concert series that was set to premiere in London shortly before Jackson's death as conceived by High School Musical director and choreographer Kenny Ortega.

Fans of Jackson's music will not be disappointed as the film covers a good deal of the greatest hits cannon (sadly "Ben" is omitted), which includes a package of Jackson 5 songs (which is unsettling given the contrast between Jackson then and now). The film is presented as a make-shift concert and the performances and design concepts behind each song are strong enough to keep the viewer invigorated even though they're likely to be very familiar with everything they're seeing and hearing. Ortega and Jackson try to keep the provceedings fresh. a 3D re-imagining of "Thriller" being one example. Even when the choreography doesn't feel especially new the general aura of enthusiasm that permeates the dancers stage crew, band and Jackson himself give the film a nicely propulsive energy.

Jackson is most likable when he's performing or getting into a groove, though he's at his most interesting when you see him fiddling with the intro arrangement of "The Way You Make Me Feel" or arguing that he'll "just know" when he needs to turn on cue during "Smooth Criminal." This is the most riveting stuff in the film, the unguarded imperfect moments where we see Jackson as both a perfectionist and a bit of an oddball artiste. There are other inspired flashes, brief interviews with Jackson's longtime music director, a rather brusque Russian choreographer reviewing with the dancers and others. These are nice moments that provide insight into the whole process of putting together a large concert like this but the film is more contented into getting into the next song or video.

I certainly wish the film gave more insight into Jackson, showed more revealing moments or taught us more about the people that surrounded him. I don't need a smear job or more recontextualizing of Jackson's death. There's been plenty of both. I'd be content to learn more about Jackson the performer as the film is in such a unique position to show off the world of one of this centuries most popular showmen.

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