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Michael Jackson’s This Is It

[Three stars]
Sony Pictures
Directed by Kenny Ortega

Deepti Unni Feb 14, 2010
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Michael Jackson death, seven months ago, unleashed a wave of mass hysteria and public mourning across the world that hadn’t been seen since the equally unexpected demise of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. When This Is It, culled from the rehearsal footage of what was to be Jackson’s final series of shows, aired in October last year, the hysteria still hadn’t petered out enough for an objective viewing of the documentary film ”“ fans and critics alike were still too overwhelmed by the something to separate context and content. Now that the documentary has finally arrived on DVD after a goodish gap, it becomes a little easier to step back and evaluate the film on its own merits rather than its surrounding hype.

This Is It, if nothing else, has no pretensions to profundity. It’s a simple enough documentation of the preparation that went into Jackson’s last shows, artfully cut and edited to give the audience a taste of what they would have seen at the shows. Among these are lavish set pieces, like a kitschy green-screen punch in of Jackson into Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, where he plays an unconvincing gangster chased by Humphrey Bogart, meant to be the video background to Jackson’s ”˜Smooth Criminal.’ Another set piece reimagines ”˜Thriller’ as a Halloween extravaganza complete with zombies, ghosts, gravediggers and vampires, along with 20-feet corpse bride/groom puppets that would float above the audience. Clearly, show and movie director Kenny Ortega was pulling out all stops for the concert. Occasionally Ortega takes the melodrama too far ”“ like in Jackson’s ”˜Earth Song’ where the already theatrical video gets remade with a wide-eyed child actor now trying to save the rainforest by throwing herself in front of a giant bulldozer, which finally emerges on stage behind Jackson. It comes across as hammy and playacted naiveté, reinforced by Jackson’s childish rant about saving the world but it’s easy to see why it might have been overwhelming in a concert setting.

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But, more importantly, what does the film tell us about Michael Jackson and the person he’s said to have become after his tormented last few years? Not much, really. Jackson is quiet, reserved, professional and strangely uncomfortable in company. His interaction with his backup dancers is minimal and unsure, even while they gush sycophantically over his every move. At one point, when they cheer him incessantly as he sings ”˜I Just Can’t Stop Loving You’ with backing vocalist Judith Hill, he pleads with them “Don’t make me sing full out, I have to conserve my voice,” even while the rest of the crew is unsure if he’s joking or serious. Jackson’s speech is always vague and difficult to decipher. On one song, he tells Ortega, “I’m trying to adjust to the inner ear. With the love. L.O.V.E. The inner ear is very difficult to me when you use just your aural, auditory ear. It feels like somebody’s fist is shoved in my ear,” and Ortega is left to decipher that he wants his backing vocalists softer in his earphones. Everyone around Jackson handles him with kid gloves, like he was a fragile something that might break at the slightest incautiousness and Jackson is petulant, childlike and fractious in turns. But he’s also completely consumed by the shows and performances, orchestrating every cue, controlling almost every aspect of the operations to conform to his vision and it’s clear that every one on the sets respects his wishes. Jackson emotes and expresses every nuance of every song through dance and gesture, almost never standing still when there’s music playing and in those moments you begin to see why there will never be another artist quite like him. That all-consuming passion that he had for his music and dance, which also worked to his detriment, was never a put-on ”“ it was just who he was.

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Finally, This Is It will divide people into two camps ”“ those that think it’s just one more way to spin money from the Jackson saga and those who will treasure it as the last good memory of a much tormented star. Either way, for once Jackson will have nothing to lose.

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