(by Dustin Putman
By now, most people probably know the backstory. On March 5, 2009, iconic singer and performer Michael Jackson announced his upcoming London concerts in a press conference at the O2 Arena. Ten scheduled dates skyrocketed to fifty due to rabid public demand. Jackson wasted no time going straight to work, preparing for what might very well have been his grand comeback. Clad with backup dancers and singers, a huge tech crew, choreographer Travis Payne, and creative collaborator Kenny Ortega, over one hundred hours of unfiltered rehearsal footage was shot. And then, weeks before the tour was to begin, Jackson happily left the Staples Center following a day of rehearsal, told everyone, "See you tomorrow," and never returned. He would ultimately pass away from cardiac arrest on June 25, 2009. Article continues below
Part concert film, part behind-the-scenes documentary, "Michael Jackson's This Is It" whittles the treasure trove of captured footage down to less than two hours. Director Kenny Ortega (1993's "Hocus Pocus") is careful to be respectful to all parties involved—perhaps too careful, since a person who has been living under a rock could watch this entire movie and still have no clue that Michael Jackson died. Conspiracy theorists and junkies of the sensational will find nothing to whet their appetite, everything on the screen depicting Jackson as a strong, able-bodied man who, at fifty years old, could still sing with the best of them and not miss a step next to his talented featured dancers. There is a stronger, more hard-hitting motion picture to be made—one that celebrates the King of Pop while not shying away from the circumstances surrounding his final days and the impact his sudden death had on those he worked alongside, many just starting out in the business and seeing his London concerts as their once-in-a-lifetime big break. That story, alas, is not told, or even broached, leaving the film feeling somewhat dishonest and emotionally stiff.
Taken on its own terms, however, "Michael Jackson's This Is It" does say a lot about the man of the title, a misunderstood media victim whose legal troubles, plastic surgery, and offbeat persona sadly overshadowed in the last decade why he was so popular in the first place. None of this is brought up on camera, but it doesn't need to be. As Michael meticulously prepares each song performance, instructing in the musical arrangements and studiously rehearsing each intricate dance, stage direction, and bellowed note, it becomes clear just what a masterful musician he was. More than that, he held an amazingly professional work ethic, treated everyone around him with love and respect, and kept a soft-spoken, mischievous demeanor that didn't stop him from speaking his mind and getting his viewpoints across.
More time spent focusing on Michael's interaction with his team of collaborators would have been welcome, but it is the music that is the main attraction. From "Smooth Criminal," which places Michael in a vintage black-and-white crime picture, to the work put into perfecting a new bluesy opening to "The Way You Make Me Feel," to a lovely duet with Mekia Cox on "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," to feet-tapping performances of "Human Nature," "Black or White," and "The Man in the Mirror," the finished product is, if anything, not at a loss for great soundtrack material. If there is one disappointment on this front, it is the treatment of "Thriller." Brand-new scenes—extensions of the classic music video—are revealed, but the rehearsal of the song is slap-dash and only cursorily includes the famous dance.
Whether you think director Kenny Ortega and distributor Columbia Pictures are pure in their reasons for rushing to complete and release "Michael Jackson's This Is It," one would have a difficult time deeming it as exploitative. The film paints Michael Jackson in a glorious light, making certain that, since he did not live to see his visions come to fruition on the London stage, this cinematic rough draft would be a swan song worth being proud of. For fans looking for more substance and less bias, though, they might as well set their expectations on low. By not even acknowledging Jackson's fate, the project's impact is one lacking in much-needed catharsis.