This Is It

Documentary with Michael Jackson. Directed by Kenny Ortega.
Rated G. 111 mins.

This Is It is an event before it is a film. 

Michael Jackson was a world personality as well as the 'King of Pop'.  His death at 50 and the puzzlement and investigations about his health condition and his medication seized the headlines.  It must have come as an enormous shock to those who were working with him on the concerts that were planned for London, 50 of them and sold out.  Was Michael Jackson's death the end of his fame and popularity?  Interesting to remember that John Lennon was killed at age 40; Elvis died at 42, Judy Garland at 47, Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin also at 47.  To varying degrees they and their music live on.

Columbia Pictures quickly bought the footage taken during the rehearsals for the concerts for $60,000,000.  Director of the concerts, Kenny Ortega (who had directed the High School Musical movies) was commissioned to develop a movie out of the footage which would be released worldwide on October 28th, just over four months after his death on June 26th 2009.  They achieved it and here it is, This is It.

Here is a perspective on the film from someone who is too old to be a Jackson fan – and remembers him first as singing Ben in the horror film of that name, the sequel to Willard, released when he was only 13 (and singing tenderly to Ben who was a rat!).  It is a perspective from someone who is aware of Thriller and Jackson's huge success and popularity with both his singing and dancing, from the Jackson Five days to 2009, as well as the myriad stories of his eccentricities, his Neverland Park, his friendship with children, his marriages and his own children and the charges and court cases. 

The first comment about the film is about how Jackson himself comes across in This is It – quite impressively.   We are presented with a man (turning 50 but not seeming like that at all) who gives no indication that he would soon be dead (much of which, of course, can be attributed to judicious editing to give a favourable impression).  Rather, he is very much alive.  The rehearsals show how demanding his singing and choreography were.  It seems they did drain his energy and he needed painkillers and aids to sleeping.  But, on stage, he is seen as fully alive, full of verve.

It's the professionalism of the man that is also very impressive.  Any potential candidate for the TV reality shows like The X Factor, Pop Idol..., should be made to sit down and study this film, to see that Jackson has learnt and perfected his craft, knows music and how it works, understands audience responses and does not tolerate in himself anything haphazard.  As we watch the succession of songs in rehearsal (interestingly pieced together from several occasions as we can see by the different clothes he wears), we realise that he knows the songs perfectly, has created his choreography with meticulous detail and timing (with the assistance of Travis Paine), and remembers it accurately.  He is no slouch, no taking lazy short-cuts.  And he expects this of his singers and dancers.  You can see from each song how he takes it all for granted and is at ease while the others are striving very hard to do their best.

Jackson is also more articulate than might have been expected.  He can be twee, often talking about love and repeating 'God bless you'.  But, as he comments to his rather deferential director, Ortega, we hear a vocabulary that is extensive and expresses, sometimes imaginatively, what he wants of himself and others. 

The concerts would certainly have been spectacular, many of the stagings of the songs extravaganzas in themselves.  Huge city skyline sets.  Sets remembering the Jackson Five.  Computergraphics multiplying ten dancers into millions on a screen.  We see Jackson and Ortega supervising the up-to-date filming of cemetery sequences for Thriller.  And, amusingly, taking a number of old black and white classic movies and filming, in black and white, Jackson's involvement in some sequences:  Rita Hayworth's Gilda singing Put the Blame on Mame, Humphrey Bogart and a gun chase...

The concert was to highlight ecological issues with images of nature and 'Heal the World'.

For those who wondered what the concert would be like, the film offers plenty of song, dance and production glitz.

For the performers and the huge technical staff, they can be happy that their work has been caught on camera (maybe all the filming was for an intended film of the concert after the tour since so much of the detail of rehearsals was filmed and available for This is It).

And that is where the film is particularly interesting.  We are on stage or backstage all the time.  We hear the experts in lighting, staging, costume and so on commenting.  We see auditions, support dancers learning their steps and, as the director says, being extensions of Michael himself: the robotic movements, the moonwalking style, the crotch-clutch-thrust gyrations...  We see how Jackson himself handled rehearsals, giving all his energy and wanting perfection.

This is It is far more interesting and enjoyable than anticipated and is certainly an excellent tribute to Michael Jackson's talents.

Sony  Out 28 October

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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