I'm normally loathe to attach the word "important" to any one film or album. Sure, movies and music do play a vital part in our everyday lives and some movies and recordings obviously have a bigger cultural impact than others. Still, at the end of the day, they're both just a conduit to escapism. After watching Michael Jackson's This Is It, however, maybe I need to re-evaluate that stance. As I sit here writing this review, I look above me to the framed movie poster on the wall from one of my favourite documentaries, Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster. It chronicled, in part, the near breakup of the biggest heavy metal band in music history. One of the critical blurbs on the poster from The New York Times trumpets the film as "historically significant", which I can't argue with. For me, that description best sums up the Jackson film as it provides a compelling insight into his final days and ultimately unfulfilled aspirations to make a memorable musical comeback.
The film was compiled from over 100 hours of rehearsal footage shot at the Staples Center in Los Angeles from April through June of last year, in preparation for an unprecedented run of 50 shows at London's O2 Arena that was to have begun in July. All the shows sold out quickly. When the film was announced, many (including myself) speculated it was just a quick cash grab by the tour's promoters in an effort to recoup some of their costs. It's anything but. Handled with the utmost in sensitivity and tributary intentions, it's a much better than expected document of Jackson's creative process and as close as we'll ever get to experiencing what surely would have been a triumphant success, both commercially and artistically. The quality of the footage (which was filmed for Jackson's own archives) is excellent, shot on HD cameras and with top notch sound, exceeding the lowered expectations that the words "rehearsal footage" might imply. The material is seamlessly blended together, frequently using different takes from various performances of each song. Initially, it's a little odd seeing Jackson's wardrobe change numerous times in the course of a song, but you quickly get used to it.
What's most surprising is just how nimble and on top of things Jackson seems, not showing any signs of an imminent fatal breakdown. Reports of him needing to be physically assisted on and off the stage bely the photographic evidence before our eyes as he throws down his best dance moves and seems like a man with at least a couple more decades of life left in him. Much has been made of his frail, thin body toward the end, but this doesn't come across in the film to me. As I see it, he's always had a very slight build and the movie doesn't really show me anything different from that. His voice also sounds strong, even though (by his own admission) he's holding back with it. Some critics have also commented he appears to be lip syncing at times, which I saw little evidence of. Michael Jackson is damn talented, but even the best can't sell a lip sync job perfectly. Mentally, there's no signs that he's anything but completely present, never letting you doubt for a second that he's firmly in control of this multi-million dollar production. Maintaining his familiar soft-spoken and polite tone, he still firmly asserts his perfectionist ways, including one fascinating scene where he tries to get his band to get the right phrasing and feel during the song "The Way You Make Me Feel". "I want it the way I wrote it" and "you have to let it simmer", he tells them. Other times, he's shown encouraging his coworkers, as with 24 year old guitarist Orianthi Panagaris. At the end of "Black Or White" he leads her through a shredding guitar solo, telling her "it's your time to shine". By the way, based on Panagaris' impressive performance in this movie (watch her give Edward Van Halen a run for his money during the "Beat It" solo), I went and picked up her recent second album, titled Believe. It's superb...review to come soon.
The music in the show provides a reminder of the essence of Jackson, stripped of the albatross of his highly unusual lifestyle and its accompanying tabloid circus to focus on what it is that put Jackson into the public eye in the first place. His best work from the Jackson 5 and his solo career are here, offering up a non-stop parade of hits and great music, save for the awful "Earth Song". Although he's performing in an empty arena, the crew, musicians, and dancers take an active role in playing the delirious fans. More than one scene shows the dancers offstage watching Jackson perform and their reactions are an amusing combination of unabashed idolatry and giddy fanboy enthusiasm.
This Is It was directed by Kenny Ortega, who was also the show's director. He's managed to find the right tone and balance that gives a revealing look into Jackson's production while also serving as a fitting and respectful memorial. After watching the film, I was reminded of an eerily relevant line from Nicolas Cage's recent Bad Lieutenant movie (which I reviewed here). Someone is killed and Cage's character, in the midst of a drug fuelled haze, sees the man's spirit rise out of the corpse and begin breakdancing. His response? "His soul is still dancing".