Michael Jackson's This Is It Review

Michael Jackson’s relationship with the visual image has always been a schizophrenic one. On the one hand there are the music videos. Here we find the biggest budgets and biggest directors attached, from John Landis and Martin Scorsese to Mark Romanek and Spike Lee. The extended promo for Thriller was even entered into the National Film Registry in 2009 thereby securing its preservation in the Library of Congress. Yet on the other hand his cinematic efforts have oftentimes been downright strange. Notwithstanding a brief cameo in Men in Black II, we have seen him play the Scarecrow in The Wiz (Motown’s re-jig of The Wizard of Oz), the haphazard vanity project that was Moonwalker, and an appearance in Captain EO, the 3D short made for the Disneyland resort that pooled the collective talents of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Rick Baker. In years to come, however, the strangest of all may very well be seen as Michael Jackson’s This Is It: the documentary that was never meant to be, about a series of concerts that never were.

Announced on the 5th of March 2009, the fifty This Is It concerts were to have taken place at the 02 Arena between July of 2009 and March of 2010. Jackson’s death in June of last year meant that they never materialised, though rehearsals had taken place and footage of these was shot on a series of cameras. Ultimately, you feel, this material would have served as a ‘special feature’ on some future DVD release of the performances. Yet Columbia Pictures snapped up what had been shot and the result was Michael Jackson’s This Is It, released mere months after its star’s death.

One of the questions those who didn’t catch the film on its record breaking theatrical run will ask is: what exactly is This Is It made up of? Essentially we have nothing more than an assemblage; no new material has been shot since Jackson’s death and as such there’s no real context within which to place the existing footage. The key elements come during the opening titles: This Is It is offered as “a precious gift” for its audience and presented “for the fans”. The lack of any addressing of the various controversies surrounding Jackson is expected, and fully warranted given that the concerts themselves would have similarly existed within their own bubble. But there is also a sense that this film closes everything off; we watch almost two hours of rehearsal footage, interspersed with the occasional X Factor/American Idol-style tearful interviews with the dancers as well as some of the material that would have made up the concerts' visual accompaniment, and the film ends. No voice-over. No intertitles. Nothing to allow anyone outside of Jackson’s most fervent followers to genuinely latch onto what’s happening in this footage.

As a result it is difficult to get a hold on quite how to view This Is It. The film is structured so that we get various songs played out in full albeit cut together from various days of rehearsal. This satisfies those who wish to hear unabridged versions of ‘Smooth Criminal’ or ‘Beat It’ and maybe those who wish to see Jackson stripped back to the essentials; no pyrotechnics or costumes here (at one point he accompanies a group of made-up ‘Thriller’ dancers in a bomber jacket). But the rest of us are left to question how rehearsed, as it were, these sequences are. How much is Jackson holding back? Is he simply trying out or riffing on ideas? Certainly, we can make educated guesses and no doubt feel fully satisfied that the footage here in no way represents how the final concerts would have actually felt like in full flow. The incomplete picture that this material presents is only made to feel more incomplete by This Is It’s refusal to do anything more than simply show it.

The temptation is to lay at least some of the blame on Kenny Ortega’s presence as director. Ortega also served as co-director of the concerts themselves, as well as co-choreographer alongside Jackson; indeed, he is a heavily featured presence throughout the film. As such the impression given is that he was too close to the footage to really do anything substantial with it. (Factor in the need to get This Is It into cinemas as soon as possible and perhaps he simply did not have the time.) Of course, the relationship between Jackson and the media meant that This Is It was never going to get the Nick Broomfield treatment afforded Driving Me Crazy (his hilarious 1988 backstage glimpse at preparations for a new Broadway production encapsulating the history of African-American dance). But an outsider take on the footage would undoubtedly have opened up the film to a wider audience even if it maintained the hagiographic take that Columbia Pictures were no doubt after.

Ultimately you begin to realise why so many commentators latched onto the evidence of Jackson’s clarity of thought or his belying of his age that we see here. (He looks astonishingly spry and youthful as he goes through his ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ routine.) It is simply because these things are some of the very few tangible elements onto which we can actually grasp during This Is It. For the average viewer the film’s novelty soon wavers in the face of repetitious sequence after sequence. This may be ‘it’ for the most obsessive of fans. For the rest of us, it is perhaps nothing more than a footnote.

The Disc

No complaints at all when it comes to This Is It’s presentation on disc. The only surprise is the lack of a DTS track. But otherwise the picture remains crisp and clear throughout, bearing in mind that this footage was never likely to gain such a widespread release, whilst the DD5.1 copes ably with all that is thrown at it. The aspect ratio of 1.78:1 has been opened out slightly from the original theatrical 1.85:1, though it is doubtful this will affect anyone’s enjoyment. And there’s little else to say: Sony do just what you would expect from such a new production. Various subtitles are also available for the main feature, as listed on the left of your screen.

The release under review here is the two-disc ‘special edition’, though in truth the majority of the extras are also included on single-disc version. They amount to nine featurettes (six on the single-disc edition) plus the theatrical trailer. (The disc also opens with the promo for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.) Essentially, however, we can consider all of these as a single entity owing to the fact that the same talking heads crop up in each, the only difference being that each tackles a different area. Indeed, take a scan over their various titles - ‘Memories of Michael’, ‘Staging the Return’, ‘Meet the Dancers’, etc. - and it is immediately clear as to what these areas may be. Interestingly, the talking heads were all recorded after the film had been put into production and as such they do allow for much of the context that was missing from the main feature. With that said, there is also a great deal of fluff occupying their various running times, leaving one with the impression that they should really have been edited into a single piece, one that could relay the information and sidestep the gushing, or at least diminish it just a little. As such we do get a worthwhile compliment to This Is It itself, but with clear misgivings.

All of the subtitles available for the main feature (excluding English HOH) are available for each of the featurettes. For those wishing to know which of the supplements are missing from the single-disc edition, these would be the ‘Meet the Dancers’, ‘Meet the Vocalists’ and ‘Meet the Band’ additions, totalling approximately 48 minutes.

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