“What is a genius? One whose inspiration demands change.”
These words were spoken from one genius to another. The recipient of both praise and a BET Lifetime Achievement Award was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. The speaker: Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson was a man whose inspiration was forever changing, defining popular music decade after decade in his 40-year career in the music business. From his iconic work with his brothers as the Jackson 5 to crafting the one disco album to rule them all in Off the Wall to his work on Invincible that saw Michael standing right alongside the pop stars influenced by his fame with a cutting-edge R&B album.
Anyone who’s spoken with me over the past few months knows I have grown to become a fan of the late King of Pop. It has gotten to a point where I now own every studio album during his time under the Epic Records label, safe for Off the Wall which I plan on purchasing as a vinyl record. For a kid who spent his high school years knee-deep in rock and heavy metal, and for a kid who never really grew up with MJ in the same way kids from the 70s, 80s, and 90s did, I myself am surprised that his music and craft has captivated me in the way it has. And as you guessed by the date on which this is published, and the subject of the review, this will be a bit of personal piece as much as it is an assessment of the motion picture in question.
This Is It was the first major piece of media to be released in the wake of Jackson’s passing. It was not without its controversies, with everything from conspiracies of body doubles and doctored footage to the more substantial disavowals of the film from members of the Jackson family and substantiated claims of concert promoter AEG Live’s exploitative practices in both rehearsals and in releasing This Is It to begin with. However, much like Jackson himself, This Is It transcends its controversies and shows off a Michael Jackson as passionate and as energetic as ever.
This Is It is cobbled together from rehearsal footage recorded for the purposes of fine tuning the concert series and for Jackson’s own archives, something he had been doing for ages, best exemplified by leaks of his rehearsal footage from his Dangerous World Tour in the early 90s and the reports that rehearsals for his ill-fated HBO special, 1995’s Michael Jackson: One Night Only, were recorded as well. While all the footage is not the highest resolution (especially given that some of it is letterboxed), it still paints a vivid portrait of the man’s final performances, and what performances they are.
Michael Jackson is a man renowned for his singing and dancing abilities, a man who could move with a tremendous amount of grace, fury, and sensuality, sometimes all in one motion. And here, the steps are all there, if a little shorter, and intermingled with plenty of improvisational moments. And its not forgetfulness on Michael’s part. Even when Michael is experimenting with moves on “Billie Jean,” inarguably his most famous routine, the routine that debuted his iteration of the moonwalk, he is still hitting all the common beats of the number. The sharp shuffling, the moonwalk itself, it is all there. Even though Michael caps off the performance saying “At least you get a feel for it,” it is still one of the most electric moments in the film.
Michael’s gifts as a singer are also more than apparent. Even when merely “marking” his music (singing at a lower volume), the man can be heard tearing into tracks like “Beat It” and “Black or White” as if he were recording the album-ready versions. His legendary four-octave tenor is all there, and all soaring. His moment of singing the Invincible ballad “Speechless” acapella is a standout vocal moment. And this is a man at 50, singing and dancing at half his age, which is coincidently the height of the Thriller era.
You may notice that much of what makes the film is Michael himself. Sure the production of the concert series is made apparent thanks to neat interviews with crew members, dancers, musicians, and director Kenny Ortega, the dramatic interludes made (including a superb set of sequences made for “Smooth Criminal” that insert Michael into the world of film noir Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid-style), but This Is It knows why we are here: to see the world’s greatest entertainer in his final moments, so full of life and passion, the power of music bringing himself and those around him into ecstatic, energetic moments.
For all the controversy, scandal, rag paper headlines, doubts, and hardship that came before and since, I don’t think I’ll forget that while I was doing whatever the fuck I was doing in the summer of 2009, a man who has inspired me in both my music and my writing was singing and dancing like his life depended on it, by God did it. Not just for any financial reasons, but because it was what made him. Michael had been singing and dancing his way through life since his time in Gary, Indiana, staring wide-eyed at the television in the wee hours of the morning, seeing his idol shaking and moving like there is no tomorrow. And once Michael is in the recording studio, he soars. Go listen to “I Want You Back;” the kid’s 11 and he is belting it out like the music cannot escape fast enough. And he never truly stopped. Even when there was not an album coming out, Michael would cut demos like they were going out of style. Never before or since has there been a man quite as enraptured by his own music, so much so that he must move if the music commands. No wonder he cut the track “Slave to the Rhythm” and embraced that phrase in his 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey. It describes Michael the artist to a T.
You may also note my focus on Michael the consummate craftsman as opposed to any other, and that is because that is the focus of This Is It. By the time 2009 rolled around, it was half-past time that Michael was able to show the world what he could still do. In spite of all of the confusion and accusations surrounding the documentary, it accomplishes just that. It is not the smoothest of films when it comes to editing, as the team of four who cut the film are not the best at integrating the cinematics with the performances, but it never becomes a matter of pacing. To tell you the truth, I feel that this would have done the numbers it did (becoming the highest grossing documentary and concert film of all time mind you) had they laid out all the footage shot from end to end, in chronological order. It is a world of magic making that is so easy to get lost in.
I have never understood that criticism about the film, that This Is It neglects to show the “real” Michael Jackson, as in a greater focus on the man himself, his personal life, the whole nine as it were. However, and forgive me in pulling a bit of a “gotcha” here, but perhaps what is here is the whole nine. This is Michael Jackson, simple as. He has the perfectionist drive that James Brown had, the childlike playfulness that he was noted for, and the complete mastery of his craft. It is all here, and all laid bare. This truly is it.
If there is anything left to say about This Is It, it is as follows: as a glimpse into the greatest entertainer of all time’s final performances, you cannot do much better. If you are a fan of the icon or of concert films, this may prove a damn fine outing. For all its flaws, it really is carried by Michael. His talent, his charisma, and above all, his humanity. He was an absolute genius, and as his improvisational spirit here has shown his inspiration was ever-changing, and evolving. Rest in peace Michael.