This week the world gets a look at the greatest concert that never was, the film of Michael Jackson’s rehearsals for his comeback tour. Is “This is It” a great film? No, but like the best concert films it works because it captures a time and performance that will never be duplicated.
Cobbled together from rehearsal footage taken as he prepared for a series of sold-out shows in London and destined for the singer’s private library, it presents an unvarnished look at the creative process leading up to opening night. It’s not a polished concert film like “Stop Making Sense” or “Woodstock.” It’s a document of a work in process. Because this footage was never meant to be seen by anyone other than Jackson’s inner circle it’s rough, with raw performances and uninspired, often shaky camerawork. It isn’t the usual slickly produced product we would expect from the Jackson camp, and as such has a ring of authenticity to it that you don’t get in other authorized music films.
It’s unlikely that MJ would have approved of the film’s vision. We get to see how meticulous a performer he was, from giving his band’s bass player a funky vocal interpretation of how he wanted a certain riff to sound, to the way he instructs director and choreographer Kenny Ortega on how to add more sizzle to the show’s set pieces but dance wise there’s nothing as awe inspiring as the unveiling of the moon walk on the “Motown Special.” He seems to be working at half speed, as though he was tired, or saving his energy for the audience or, as history shows us, perhaps not well. It’s rawer Jackson than we’re used to—it’s the work of a great artist who is finding his feet after a long absence from the stage.
There are some flashy moments. We see footage of MJ dropped into a montage of 40s era movies starring Rita Heyworth, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney as an intro to “Smooth Criminal” and the 3-D “Thriller” intro is very cool, but for my money it’s the simpler stuff that really sells the show; the smile that grows on his face after a successful run through of “They Don’t Really Care About Us” or the way he guides the band during the “Human Nature” rehearsal. “Play it like you’re dragging yourself out of bed,” he says to the keyboard player Michael Bearden. Those are the small moments that because Jackson was such an outsized performer, were often missed in the past.
Given the tabloid element that has always been part of Jackson’s legacy it’s impossible to watch “This is It” without noticing how painfully thin he is during much of the film, and reading some ominous foreshadowing into his opening statement: “I’ll be performing the songs my fans want to hear—this is the final curtain call.” Luckily the movie, like the best memorials isn’t about Jackson’s death, but his life and his talent.
It’s also a reminder of what was lost. On stage Jackson was a great performer. Life may have been difficult for him but under a spotlight he sparkled and it’s a shame that we’ll never see the finished “This is It” live shows. From what we see in the movie it looks like it would have been part rock concert, part Broadway show part Busby Berkley spectacle—Jackson says he wanted to take the audience “places they’ve never been before; show them talent they’ve never seen before. ” It’s a good movie, it would have been an incredible concert.