Director: Kenny Ortega
Starring: Michael Jackson
Several of the ways you could say the phrase “this is it” convey an appropriate tone for approaching the posthumous Michael Jackson concert movie, which takes the three simple words as its title. A master-of-ceremonies would whip up a frenzy of anticipation with a fevered “This is it!”, but an ungrateful child on Christmas morning might open an unwanted gift with a peevish: “This is it?” Meanwhile at the start of a horror film, a honeymoon couple would draw up outside an abandoned lakeside home and say (through rain, lightning and apprehension) “This is it...” before a sinister weirdo would clamber out of a coffin to haunt them until the credits roll.
When the self-styled King of Pop died in June, he was 19 days away from beginning a 50-date world tour, his first in 12 years. It was among the most eagerly-anticipated musical events of the decade, and due to be called This Is It. Jackson had already penned and recorded a song of the same name, and although this film ends with a quick rendition, what’s showing in cinemas now is just a small part of whatever “it” was planned to be.
The director Kenny Ortega has hastily cobbled together footage from auditions and rehearsals, occasional snippets behind-the-scenes at the studio, and a handful of concert idents already recorded before death intervened. Originally intended for Jackson’s personal library, this is less “it” than what’s left of “it”, or what an army of lawyers and family members will let us see of “it”. Hence a degree of exhilaration at the glimpse of a master’s curtain call, but one tempered by a dose of disappointment at what we will never see – plus a certain sense of unease at the otherworldly presence, days from the grave, stalking our screen.
There was always something ghoulish about Jackson, whatever the truth of the various allegations that plagued his life. A household name since the age of five, he reached a level of celebrity that rendered him no longer just a famous human; fame somehow became his species. In This Is It, we see a great deal of the familiar apparition – a body ravaged by plastic surgery of a peculiar whitish hue – and although it may speak a recognisable language, it moves and sounds like nothing natural at all.
This is part of Jackson’s sensational appeal as a showman: he invented a new way to dance – part slithering lothario, part asexual robot – and his effeminate yelps provide the staccato punctuation to a voice as smooth as treacle. He does not provide any commentary in This Is It, meaning his spoken voice is heard only when offering saccharine-drenched tributes to his dancers, else squeaking instructions to musicians to “Let it simmer” and the like.
In rehearsals, he is often “saving” his vocal cords for the concerts, but there’s enough in the film – particularly the run-throughs of his early- and mid-career classics (I Want You Back, Billie Jean, etc) – to remind any cynic that he was a singular talent behind some era-defining, bone-fide musical brilliance. The lost shows would clearly have lived up to the hype. Jackson’s dancers, many of whom give glowing and sincere acknowledgement to their employer as the sole inspiration for their career choice, are impeccable, whether they are being fired through the stage on pneumatic lifts or rendered in CGI and transposed into a break-dancing army.
There’s also some real invention in some of the short films made as backdrops to the on-stage shenanigans. The most notable is one in which Jackson is implanted into a 1940s noir, catching his trademark glove tossed to him by Rita Hayworth. Jackson, the Smooth Criminal, is then pursued by Humphrey Bogart and a BB gun. The concert (and by extension this film) only falls flat when the energy of his classics yields to the duds in his repertoire, such as the execrably earnest Earth Song and its “What about the children?” naffness.
All in all, if you want a warts-and-all document revealing the truth behind a complex, tortured genius, then this ain’t “it”. But as a fascinating chapter in the canon of an enigmatic, much-mourned megastar, then yes, this is it.