That Was it: This Is It reviewed

by Stephen Tall on November 1, 2009

A deluded tribute to a drugged-up man-child; or loving testament to a still-great entertainer? This Is It – the film of the rehearsals of the stage show for Michael Jackson’s never-to-be 50-concert series – falls between these two stools, and many others: part homage, part DVD extra, part documentary.

As a film it never quite works out what it wants to be. This will matter less to Jackson fans* than it will to the Jackson-curious. The film consists of a medley of Jackon numbers spliced together from the various rehearsals between March and June. With no chronology it’s impossible to work out if those times when Jackson is at his most energetic and coherent are at the earliest rehearsals, while those where he looks a little less sharp are towards the end of his life.

And of course it’s impossible to tell if the editing process – cutting hundreds of hours of footage into an 111-minute movie – has favoured both Jackson’s memory and the reputation of the show’s ‘co-creator’, Kenny Ortega, who just happens to be the film’s director. How likely is it that scenes of Jackson being clearly unfit to sustain such a gruelling concert itinerary would have made it the final cut? Nor do I wholly buy the notion that this footage was shot purely for Jackson’s private library (as the film disclaimers at the start) – surely the promoters will, even before his death, have realised the commercial value of such behind-the-scenes access?

That, of course, is the sceptics’ stance. Judged on its own terms, two things are clear: 1) This Is It would have been a visually remarkable show, and 2) Jackson, at his healthiest best, was still one helluva singer and dancer – really, for an emaciated 50 year-old his performances are stunning. The film also preserves Jackson’s creativity: it’s he who insists on allowing the music to ‘shimmer’, who controls the cues, who has an acute sense of visual spectacle. Whatever the truth off camera, the film shows that Jackson could be sharp, intelligent, and generous – as when he insists on guitarist Orianthi Panagaris being given a long, solo spot (“this is your time to shine”).

The two best turns are Smooth Criminal, which morphs in and out of a black-and-white Bogart/Heywood film noir featuring Jackson; and Thriller, with some spectacular special effects. However, the performances do not match his live concerts from the 1980-90s (most of which are available on YouTube) – after all, these were just rehearsals, with Jackson rarely giving it everything as he would have in front of a packed stadium. But the visual metaphor is stark: here’s one of the great pop icons, looking frail, performing to an audience of a couple of dozen stage-hands and dancers. The film’s an interesting curiosity; but, if you’re a fan, it’s not the best way to remember Michael Jackson. And, if you’re not a fan, you’ll learn nothing new here about what actually happened in the months leading up to his death.

* such as me … I even dragged my mum along to the cinema to watch Moonwalker with me, back in 1987: we were the only two poeple in the entire cinema.