Michael Jackson's This Is It opens Wednesday, Oct. 28, throughout the Triangle
Before the inevitable numbing effect of media overload set in, the death of Michael Jackson struck a real chord with children of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Anyone 10 years old when Thriller was released in 1982 is now 37 years old and a member of a demographic typically at the midstream of their personal and professional lives.
Like the deaths of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and John Lennon before him, Jackson's passing put an entire generation in touch with its own mortality. Even for those who never saw themselves as Jackson fans or had long ago consigned him to the dustbin of pop music history, the strains of "Rock With You" or "Beat It" still instantly conjure memories of youthful exuberance.
Still, it's difficult to disregard the profiteering that motivates the release of Michael Jackson's This Is It, a film compiled from footage recorded during final rehearsals for Jackson's planned series of concerts in London's O2 Arena. Now, four months after the singer's death, concert promoter AEG Live and others interested parties are rushing the film into theaters to recoup losses from the now-canceled 50 concerts. A DVD/Blu-ray release of the film is reportedly (and unsurprisingly) slated for this Christmas season.
But, then the music starts.
This Is It plays like a toe-tapping elegy to a musical and entertainment icon. It provides behind-the-scenes footage of preparations for the stunning, sometimes garish extravaganza that was to be the London concerts, his first since the HIStory World Tour that concluded in 1997. Moreover, it reveals Jackson in his element: Onstage, exhibiting an almost savant-like entertainment aptitude. Despite his infamous, crippling eccentricities, the film is a welcome reminder that Jackson's creative flame was never snuffed out.
In a way, the raw, unfinished performances—many of them cobbled together from separate rehearsals of the same song—are more accessible and enjoyable than the prepackaged, larger-than-life spectacle that was to follow. During a half-hearted version of "I Want You Back," there is the far-away look of a 50-year-old who has performed the same song-and-dance routine since he was 12 years old. Conversely, Jackson's background dancers boisterously cheer him on from offstage throughout "Billie Jean," prompting director Kenny Ortega to exclaim "Church!" at the end of the number.
It's an open question whether the 100-plus hours of video footage shot during the rehearsals was strategically edited, as some claim, to excise any images of a frail, sickly Jackson. That said, most of the performances in the finished onscreen product show Jackson in full command of his talents, full of energy, vitality, and even wit.
In addition to the rehearsal footage, This Is It features a smattering of interviews with the dedicated, clearly starstruck cast and crew. It also provides glimpses of the technical flourishes being planned for the concert, including vignettes designed to play on a giant screen behind the stage during various numbers. Some are intriguing, like a 3-D depiction of a zombie-filled graveyard during "Thriller" and a black-and-white short film accompanying "Smooth Criminal" in which Jackson digitally cavorts with Humphrey Bogart and Rita Hayworth. Others are as self-indulgent as Jackson himself, like when a little girl is nearly bulldozed while trying to save a rainforest during an otherwise rousing rendition of "Earth Song."
This Is It is not the authoritative Jackson concert film—for that, watch the Live in Bucharest concert DVD filmed during his Dangerous tour in 1997-98. Instead, it's a last look at the highlights of Jackson's solo catalog and a poignant coda to his lifework. Audiences will walk away sure of two things: It would have been a hell of a concert, and it was—leaving all else aside—a brilliant career.