Had Michael Jackson’s series of concerts at London’s O2 Arena gone off as planned earlier this summer, it would have almost certainly signaled one of the most dramatic comebacks in pop music history. The rehearsal footage on display in “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” is certainly evidence enough to draw that conclusion, providing a solid basis to imagine the final product while also giving a heretofore unseen glimpse of the star’s creative process — and the latter is both the film’s greatest strength and its most troubling element. Worldwide box office should be monstrous for the Sony release, which grossed $2.2 million domestically from Tuesday night shows.
Despite the grotesque and unceasing curiosity over Jackson’s private life, his working procedure was scarcely documented, and his intense perfectionism is breathtaking to see here. He corrects his dancers while in the midst of striking poses himself, pores over video footage and auditions, works out with a vocal coach and gives his band instructions that are alternately brilliant (“Play it like you’re dragging yourself out of bed”) and Kafka-esque in their impenetrability.
(After a fascinating exchange with keyboardist and musical director Michael Bearden over an almost imperceptibly subtle tempo change on “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Bearden delicately notes that he can’t always predict how Jackson will want certain songs to sound. Jackson snaps back, “I want it like I wrote it.”)
Yet there’s likely a reason that so little of this side of Jackson was ever seen previously; the more one observes his anxiety-riddled drive to present a flawless performance, the more obvious it seems that he would never have wanted audiences to see the performance in such a rough state. Debating a deceased artist’s wishes is always sketchy territory, however, and “This Is It” is a classy film that only affirms the man’s talent. Yet one can’t help but worry that, rather than a bittersweet farewell, the film will merely serve as the opening salvo to a flood of posthumous releases and merchandising that will make Tupac Shakur’s estate seem a paragon of restraint.
But avant le deluge, there’s an incredible amount to enjoy here, and the star’s fans will be in rapture. Though Jackson looks painfully thin at times, his vocal prowess and dancing ability seem to have scarcely ebbed at all in the decade he spent offstage. His singing during “Human Nature” is strong and emotive, his dancing during an extended “Billie Jean” sublime. (“At least we got a feel for it,” he demurs immediately after the latter, and the comment reads more like genuine misplaced self-consciousness than the typical feigned humility of a pop star.)
Director Kenny Ortega’s ultimate vision for the show is fleshed out further with glimpses of interstitial video — the intro to “Smooth Criminal,” which splices a fedora’d Jackson onto vintage footage of Rita Hayworth and Edward G. Robinson, is particularly inspired — and computer simulations of staging concepts that never made it to fruition. (These completed sketches are never shown in their entirety, however, and it’s not unreasonable to imagine that they’ll be the hook for the inevitable deluxe-edition DVD.)
Video and audio quality are of a much higher caliber than the phrase “rehearsal footage” might suggest, although occasionally the filmmakers are forced to cobble together subpar bits and pieces (most notably on “Thriller”). Conversely, the edits of “Beat It” and “Black or White” presented here could practically be released as is and still blow most contemporary pop videos out of the water.
The sole moment when the singer seems irritable or disengaged from the proceedings occurs during a mini-set of three Jackson 5 tunes; the timing of his agitation seems psychologically revealing at first, though it later turns out to be due to monitor malfunction. Indeed, one rarely forgets that these are rehearsals, and at times Jackson visibly holds back, protesting about the need to save his voice for his upcoming performances — one of several instances in which knowledge of the man’s imminent death overshadows the joy of watching him perform.
Members of the band, crew and dance troupe appear on camera between songs to gush (often while tearing up) about the honor of appearing with Jackson. While it’s hard to doubt their sincerity, it all seems a bit creepy when one remembers that this footage was originally intended for Jackson’s personal use.
“This Is It” is assembled with great care, belying its impromptu nature, and editors Don Brochu, Brandon Key, Tim Patterson and Kevin Stitt have done excellent work to pull together a coherent film from endless footage. Even at nearly two hours, the film still feels too short.