The King holds court

Michael Jackson the artist is showcased in posthumous concert film

MJ shows the hardbodies how to get air.

MJ shows the hardbodies how to get air.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It
Directed by Kenny Ortega. Feather River Cinemas and Tinseltown. Rated PG.
Rated 4.0

It would be so nice, just once, to be able to comment on the art without qualifying it or justifying it against the rest of the circus that has always surrounded Michael Jackson’s life. Amazingly, in the documentary Michael Jackson’s This Is It, we are afforded that chance: to experience the artist in his element—largely unencumbered by commentators and social anxiety—as he puts in hard work toward the goal of outdoing a life filled with dynamic performances.

After Jackson’s death on June 25, This Is It was speedily put together by choreographer/director Kenny Ortega utilizing onstage and behind-the-scenes footage filmed at the Los Angeles Staples Center during rehearsals for Jackson’s planned 50-night residency at London’s O2 Arena.

It had been more than a decade since Jackson performed live, and the intent was to put on a greatest-hits show. Jackson said that “this is it” for him playing live in London, and some thought the shows would be his retirement from live performances altogether.

Ortega does an amazing job of editing together everything leading up to the planned show into another kind of performance. This Is It isn’t a complete, polished concert, and it’s probably better for it. What we see instead is the building of a show: the dancer auditions and rehearsals, band rehearsals, set and light designing, the making of film-quality videos and the evolution of individual numbers from walk-through to full dress rehearsal.

Since the cameras were on site mostly for archival reasons, Jackson wasn’t playing to them. He was instead intent on communicating with his collaborators. We spy on the evolution of band rehearsal, with Jackson helping his music director understand the feel of a particular intro by telling him it should feel like you’re slowly getting out of bed, and we see his excitement during the filming of an updated (3-D) “Thriller” video/film when the monsters properly play to the camera.

Truthfully, just listening to this packed set of Jackson’s most powerful hits—from as far back as his Jackson 5 days (“The Love You Save,” “I”ll Be There”)—booming from the theater speakers while Jackson dances along was worth the price of admission. The best of these moments are when the band is in full swing at full volume, as in the movin’ opener “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” or the hyped-up mid-film numbers “Black or White” and “Beat It,” where Jackson coaches his young blonde, female guitarist to really hold the high notes by gesturing to the would-be audience and saying that it was her moment to shine.

Even the barely rehearsed numbers are satisfying, as Jackson’s emotional commitment is constant, and his uncompromising style comes through despite his restraint. Walking through an on-the-street scene from the “The Way You Make Me Feel” video, Jackson makes the interplay between him and a gorgeous, long-legged female dancer half his age seem not only plausible, but inevitable. Jackson is surrounded by a cast of dancing studs with pro-athlete physiques, none of whom can touch—even when he’s at half-speed—his natural grace and connection to the fun sensuality at play in his music.

The only real off note—and it was a real clanger—was “Earth Song.” The sappy enviro-awareness slow dance makes “We Are the World” seem like a party anthem. It and its accompanying heavy-handed video backdrop—featuring a little girl’s rainforest frolicking being interrupted by bulldozers—lands on stage like a giant, flashing “Take a restroom break now!” sign. Mostly, the leaden tune just doesn’t hold up in comparison to the rest of the tight greatest-hits set (and besides, the rousing version of set closer “Man in the Mirror” does a much better job of proselytizing).

At the end of the film, Jackson stands onstage joined in hands in a large oval with the show’s musicians, dancers and crew and shyly reminds them of his intention of putting on a transcendent show for his fans: “We want to take them places they’ve never been before. We have to bring love back into the world.” The somewhat awkward and otherwise inconsequential moment takes on a profound sadness as the reality sinks in that the plans and preparations we just witnessed would never be put into action and the dreams of the artist would be left unfulfilled.