I was skeptical when this film was announced. Oh, I was not surprised. It seemed like the next step for the concert promoters who are still trying to recoup the massive amounts of money they lost in the death of Michael Jackson. But I thought the film would be some sort of disastrous attempt to cobble together some sort of concert film out of the rehearsals. The trailers did not help alleviate my fears. And the director of the project, Kenny Ortega? As in, the guy who directed the High School Musical items on celluloid (I cannot bring myself to ever refer to those collective pieces of junk as films) would be overseeing this film? Choreographing the shows is one thing, making a competent film is something else entirely. It was sheer curiosity that drew me to the theater rather than rabid fandom.
Well, luckily, it is not a concert film. What this is is a fascinating examination of the creative process by one of the most popular entertainers in history. It is the last glimpse we get into the human side of Jackson before his tragic death.
This would be where I recap the plot, but what’s the point? We know what it is….it’s the final rehearsals for Jackson’s canceled “This Is It” tour, from March up until his death in June. That is all we know, and that is all we need to know.
First, the style of the film. This was an item that I was worried about. It seemed to me like the people involved would just splice everything together without caring, knowing that people would come to see the film anyway (this is also known as the “Jerry Bruckheimer syndrome”). That is not the case. The film, as we are told, is only captured on a few cameras but it seems like hundreds were available, capturing every moment of the creative process. The film is shot in a variety of different styles, and it is all edited together seamlessly to the point where I ceased to notice. It reminds me of the something the Maysles brothers may have done. There is no omniscient narrator who interjects himself into the narrative tries to explain what is going. The audience is placed at the rehearsals as close as they possibly could be. The cinematographer and the editing team deserve Oscars for their work.
The center of the film is also rightly placed at the creative process itself rather than Jackson. This is a film that could be about any performer preparing for a grueling series of concerts. One of the best rock documentaries of all time focuses on The Talking Heads (Stop Making Sense). How many people actually own one of their albums? It is not about the performers: the subject goes much deeper than that. In this case, the subject is an artist at work trying to reclaim his glory days after most of the world has forgotten him. It showcases that artist’s songs and how he plans to revamp them for a modern audience. One leaves with the impression that Jackson would have managed to do exactly that.
So the film succeeds as a documentary beyond my wildest expectations. Yet I have so far mentioned only the style. What about Jackson and the concert? Well, I can say the concert would have been an incredible performance. The film shows several of the 3-D videos shot to introduce some songs. My personal favorite is the “Smooth Criminal” intro, in which Jackson attempts to win the affections of Rita Hayworth and becomes involved in a Tommy gun match between Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. Others involve a remake of the Thriller video involving ghosts flying through the audience and corpses rising from their graves and one for “Earth Song” in which the audience is transported into a rain forest. The backing musicians all show incredible talent (the guitarists even get involved in a sort of duel during “Black Or White”) and one sequence would have had a bulldozer coming on stage. Also involved are a mechanical black widow from which Jackson would emerge during “Thriller” and a set that would have Donnie and Marie Osmond salivating. This set was to be where Jackson performed Jackson 5 hits. This was to be one of the most elaborate concerts of all time that would have certainly set some new standards.
But the elephant in the room is that this was the last footage that Jackson shot, shot while he was was taking enough drugs to render an elephant comatose. That is not on display in the film. Jackson never gives any hint of illness or even of slowing down due to his age. He keeps perfect timing with dancers half his age. He has not surrounded himself with “yes” men who would tell him what he wants to hear. Ortega even berates Jackson in one sequence for missing his cue. Jackson works endlessly with the dancers and micromanages the musicians, telling them exactly what he wants down to the number of bars they should hold a note. “He knows his records” one of the backing band members comments. It sounds simple enough, but looking at Jackson working on the music, that phrase takes on a whole new meaning. How did he manage to get through these rehearsals? I can only imagine Jackson coming home from the rehearsals unable to move, knowing that he could try and survive the arduous task just one more day with pills and dangerous drugs that should not be available for public consumption. Did he ever think that the work would eventually cost him what it cost him? I don’t know and I don’t think he does either: Jackson never lets on to anyone involved in the production. He has become a performer first and human being second. But we still do see the human being trying his best to reach the lofty goals he had set up for himself.
He does let on one item. When he died, I speculated that he was doing the concerts simply because that was the last haven he had. Neverland was gone, there was only the stage left. That phrase popped into my mind more than once. At the end of one song, a knowing smile crept onto Jackson’s face. This was a man who was finally finding some peace in his life. He has moved on from many of his demons in the past. For example, I do not recall the word “child” being present in the film at all. His new focus is on ecological issues-“Earth Song” holds a special place in the film and offers opportunity for the one scene from Jackson that may be called an “interview.” Jackson was looking to reinvent himself completely and actually manages to do so.
Of course the film offers an enormous anti climax. The concerts were never to take place-Jackson died eight days before he was scheduled to begin his final dress rehearsals. The death is not mentioned in the film. But it’s specter hangs over the audience. We know what happens and as the film progresses, it is impossible not to think about. We feel the loss of something that could have been incredible. This really is it.
But what a thing “it” is. It is the most intimate portrait of Jackson’s creative abilities that we will ever see. It is also a love letter to his fans the final curtain call as he describes in the film. One fan in the audience yelled out “We love you Michael” upon the film’s conclusion. I think the film shows that, whatever trials he faced in his life, he loved you back.