(Columbia Pictures) Tuesday night’s screening of Michael Jackson’s This Is It at the Hollywood Grauman’s theater felt more like gathering for a midnight mass and less your typical Hollywood press screening. As soon as the lights dimmed, all eyes were transfixed to the screen for the next ninety minutes, desperate for the well-publicized final concert that never would be.
Beginning with testimonials from the crew of dancers, many with tears in their eyes, they share the thrill of getting a chance to work with the Thriller progenitor, Michael Jackson.
The moment Michael appeared on screen, a hush immediate fell on the packed audience filled with wonderment and curiosity. After three months and preparation, Jackson was just eight days away from returning to England for the final rehearsal for his limited final concert when the unthinkable happened. On June 25th, Jackson was pronounced dead and the perpetually traveling circus of press that constantly haunted the icon would swoop in for their final meal.
This Is It focuses its energy, thankfully, on none of it. Instead, director Kenny Ortega chose to focus entirely on the concert itself; the choreography, the pyrotechnics, the glitz…and the incredible talents of the ultimate front-man who was about to make the comeback of his career.
Regardless of how you felt about Jackson, publicly or personally, you can’t deny the man’s talent. At 50, the King of Pop shows virtually no age in both his ability to move and sing. Watching him riff with one of the background singers is nothing shy of magic as you quickly realize the depths of his talents to move a crew of dancers watching in utter awe.
It’s moments like these that really shine through in This Is It, beyond all the hype, publicity and never-ending sensationalism surrounding the pop icon. Despite chastising the crew after the impromptu rift, stating he needed to save his voice, it’s abundantly clear Jackson enjoyed the moment as much as they did. Michael Jackson is and was a performer, and watching him here makes you wonder why it took him over a decade to return to the stage.
Culled together from various rehearsals, director Kenny Ortega carefully pieces together various numbers forming a musical tapestry. Sometimes dressed in an over-sized silver coat and orange pants, Jackson looks as if he raided Rod Stewart’s early wardrobe, while other times sporting more traditional outfits from his Bad period, but nevertheless, in typical Jackson fashion, always looking hip.
With the worldwide expectation on this, his final tour, it quickly became obvious Jackson and Ortega had plenty up their sleeves to wow both the fans and critics, starting with a clever working of “Smooth Criminal” from the Bad album, which included some clever editing of Jackson into classic film noir movies from the 1940s to include Rita Hayworth and Humphrey Bogart. Although not completely successful, it was nonetheless entertaining, as well as visually stimulating.
Among the biggest thrills included an entire re-imagining of “Thriller,” complete with a brand new video with state-of-the-art special effects including ghosts that were to fly over the audience, as well as a giant spider from which Jackson was to emerge. Unfortunately, since this was a rehearsal, the audience only got to sample small portions from what would have obviously stood out as the ultimate crowd-pleaser.
Some of the more poignant moments, however, were equally lasting, including a stand-out tribute to The Jackson Five, where Jackson himself took a moment to thank members of his family. Listening to him croon “I’ll Be There” takes on a whole new relevance, with nearly four decades instantly evaporating before your eyes.
Obviously close to Jackson’s heart, in this concert, was to raise worldwide awareness of the damage humans are doing to the Earth, exemplified in “Earth Song” from the HIStory collection which interjects an elaborate video of a little girl sleeping peacefully in a rain forest until man’s destruction slowly envelops around her.
Watching Jackson perform, one is amazed not only how strong his voice is but the incredible dance moves he manages, despite his age and wear and tear on his body. There is no sign of the frail specimen we saw during his trial or creature-like appearance exploited in the tabloids. Though rather thin, the performer seemed to come alive whenever he was on stage, as if literally being nourished by the performance itself.
Much will be said and written about this documentary — many seeing it as yet another way to cash in on the tragic icon, a man gifted with so much talent and whose life was cut short among sordid details. Despite it all, the one abundant, inescapable truth even the most ardent critic would have to admit is Michael Jackson had a deep abiding love and respect for his fans. It’s this purity that not only defines the performer but constantly rings true whenever he’s on stage. Aside from the body of music he’s left us with, this is perhaps Jackson’s greatest legacy.
This is It opened yesterday for a limited, two-week engagement. Given the hype the documentary has been cloaked in since Jackson’s death last June, it’s abundantly obvious Sony will extend the run to help fill the unquenchable thirst for the public’s desire and utter fascination with one of this century’s most talented and talked-about performers.
This may be it for now, but not for a long time to come.