It’s no secret that Michael Jackson owed a lot of money when he died, and lots of people wanted to get paid. Chief among those owed were the folks putting together Jackson’s London-based concert series dubbed This Is It, a 50 date engagement that was supposed to be a big payday for creditors and Jackson’s triumphant artistic return.
In the end, This Is It went from being a spectacular live show to the bizarre film in theaters now. This is a rushed cash-in featuring footage of Jackson rehearsing, cobbled together to create the strangest of concert films. We see Jackson working with director Kenny Ortega to craft a show featuring all of the big Jackson hits, coupled with a massive multimedia presentation, including 3-D screens and multilevel staging.
Certainly, this film is not something Michael Jackson would’ve wanted us to see. There are many moments when, even in the process of rehearsal, Jackson shines as a performer, but most of the numbers include him understandably “half-assing” it so that the singer could preserve his voice.
As for signs in this footage that these rehearsals were Jackson’s final days, there are plenty. Jackson appears gaunt and obviously tired. Some of his backstage banter is incomprehensible mumbling (subtitled so we can understand what he says). There are moments when he gets excited but, for the most part, he comes off as dazed. This makes moments like his quite pretty vocal solo during a take of “I’ll Be There” quite remarkable. He certainly lights up when it comes to the music.
It is interesting to watch Jackson putting the pieces together for his show, apologizing profusely every time he disagrees with the director, or mildly chastising his fellow performers when they egg him on into bigger vocal moments. The man clearly did more than walk out on a stage, take orders, and perform by the numbers.
Scenes of Jackson interacting with footage of Humphrey Bogart for “Smooth Criminal” and a new rendition of “Thriller” that plays like Disney’s Haunted Mansion indicate that this would’ve been a fun concert to watch. There’s even a segment dedicated to the Jackson 5. The show itself, while clearly motivated by the need to pay some bills, has the look of something that would’ve been a major treat for fans.
But the resultant film is not a major treat, fan or not. It has the feel of something patched together quickly and shoddily to make a fast buck. Seeing Jackson in this condition, doing something he probably shouldn’t have been doing because of his physical and mental state, feels dirty. His death is proof of his inability to handle the situation he put himself in. And, as entertainment, it’s a mixed bag.
This movie doesn’t stand as filmed proof that Michael Jackson could’ve physically pulled off his long London engagement. Much of the performances are edited together from different days, and nothing really plays from beginning to end. For all we know, Jackson could only rehearse for minutes at a time before collapsing on a cot somewhere. Through it all, there is a pervading feeling that Jackson, while not completely miserable, would’ve rather been doing something else. He definitely seems exhausted.
Let’s face it, most of what we are seeing here isn’t good enough for special features on a DVD, something Jackson still probably wouldn’t have allowed. This movie has me thinking a lot of performers will now prohibit cameras and filming during dress rehearsals for big shows, especially if they live fast-paced or drug-drenched lifestyles. In the end, This Is It is not “It,” the dazzling entertainment spectacle Jackson hoped to deliver. Instead, it’s a chronicle of a desperate man falling apart and still managing a few sparkling moments before life gets the best of him. His performance of “Human Nature” might be decent considering the circumstances, but this is an overall morbid and unfortunate experience.
Still, people got to get paid.
[Editor’s note: to learn about movie reviewer Bob Grimm’s horrifying experience listening to Michael Jackson’s music while under the influence of marijuana, check out “The Grimm reefer,” A&C.]