There is something ironic about a full-spectacle production with no audience – just a smattering of stage hands and dancers clapping enthusiastically from the empty stadium floor. Was that what it felt like for Michael Jackson the last years of his life in the US, when much of the American public had turned their backs on him because of the child molestation allegations? Sure, there would always be an audience, but it was no fluke that his comeback would be staged in Europe, for fans who always seemed more forgiving of the tabloidy side of the second half of his life. That said, This Is It shows what an amazing show Americans would have missed, and lucky for us and, well, the rest of the world, we at least have this document of the makings of what looked to be an outstanding concert extravaganza.
I admit, I was an obsessed ‘tween—my room was wallpapered with MJ posters and pictures… and I even had a glove—from age 12 to 14. But even by the time Michael Jackson has released his Thriller follow-up Bad, I was one of the hardcore fans that had drifted, creeped out by his already-changing face and the weird rumors. But while watching This Is It, I was sucked into the spectacle immediately. And when the 60’s Jackson Five “J5” logo came up from the stage and the first chords of “I Want You Back”, I found myself smiling and crying, remembering with fondness how much I truly adored Michael Jackson. This didn’t end through the whole Jackson Five medley, which ended with a tease of The Jacksons’ disco hit “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground),” during which I was transformed back into a adoring fan. I groaned in frustration to my friend, “Aarrrghh… I SO would have gone to see his concert if I could… It’s so unfair!”
This Is It is chock full of hits, from the opener “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” to “Thriller” to “The Way You Make Me Feel” to “Jam”. You quickly realize just how many hits MJ had when you notice how many were left out, even with the film being a solid two hours long. The rehearsals had apparently been filmed for potential release on DVD, as well as for MJ’s personal records, so luckily (and surprisingly) the sound is fantastic and almost all of the film looks great. In the theater where I saw the film, the bass shook the walls, and I’m sure it will sound great when it makes it to home video. Even though I’ll never get to see Michael perform live (believe me I tried in my youth), this film is the next best thing to an actual concert.
Perhaps the most fascinating and revealing parts of This Is It are the behind the scenes workings of the rehearsals, where it is evident immediately just how involved Michael was with every aspect of the show… and he really knows his stuff. He directs the stage hands, the choreographers, the singers, the musicians, and even the show’s director himself, Kenny Ortega. He encourages his co-performers, many of whom are more than half his age, saying more than once, “That’s why we rehearse…” when someone screws up, mortified. At one point he instructs his lead guitarist Orianthi (who looks like Britney Spears but shreds like Eddie Van Halen) on her solo for “Black and White,” vocalizing the solo he wants her to play. Encouraging, he says to her, “This is your moment to shine.” And under his seasoned leadership, the performers do shine.
I (at one time) adored Michael Jackson, which of course flavors this review. Honestly, I don’t know how a MJ-hater would respond to this film (and I have no argument against those who have completely dismissed him for the creepy allegations). But for fans (and former fans), This Is It is an absolute treat. After the film, my friend summed it up best when she wiped away a tear and said, “I had forgotten how much I loved him.”