Now that I’ve gotten all my gripes out about the This is It soundtrack, I’m more than happy to pen some thoughts on the actual film, now out on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
For years after Michael Jackson rose from a nasty string of legal troubles in 2004, I had been ruminating on what could become of one of my favorite pop entertainers. His rumored forays back into the recording studio always left me cold; why would he collaborate with will.i.am or Akon when he had Quincy Jones on speed dial to orchestrate a classy comeback?
I remember thinking, as one rumor put him in the midst of planning a Vegas act, that he needed to do something big with his art. Maybe turn himself into a James Brown-style showman, heavy on musicality and less on artifice. Maybe by the end of the decade, he could do a soul-baring Rolling Stone interview, where he stopped acting for the cameras that followed him for most of his life and speak from the heart on his highs and lows.
Of course, that never happened. First he planned a series of wildly ambitious comeback concerts. Then, with only weeks to go before they began, he died, plunging millions – myself included – into a rush of nostalgia and a deep questioning of what might have been. Last October, we got our answer.
This is It is not conventional on any level. It’s not really a documentary, it’s not fully a concert film and it’s absolutely nothing like what anyone had seen or expected of Michael Jackson for close to 20 years. Jackson seems hungry in the footage shown; although he’s clearly conserving his vocal and physical energy and playing to his biggest performing strengths during the set, he’s almost a different person. Gone are the pseudo-military affectations in his wardrobe, replaced by sharp suit jackets. Jackson’s house band, led by keyboardist Michael Bearden and featuring standout guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, tears into his hits with as much zeal as when the tracks were first recorded.
The film isn’t perfect, either on a narrative level or a technical one. Some may tire of seeing Jackson clearly save his best moves for the London shows; he runs through “Billie Jean” without a single moonwalk. Some of the gaps in the show – namely the actual presentation, with enormous LED screens and 3-D effects, seem somewhat glossed over. Even nitpicky things like song credits are inaccurate. (This is admittedly a slippery slope: Columbia, a division of Sony, distributed the film with the help of Jackson’s personal company – but licensing even pieces of the original master recordings required permission from Sony’s music division, namely Epic Records. I counted at least a few instances where snippets of master recordings – namely “HIStory” and “Another Part of Me” – went uncredited.)
The biggest problem of This is It, however, is purely a matter of fate. Jackson’s concerts, had they happened, would have been really good – maybe better than anything he’d done live since 1988 or so. But would we, the cynical audience, having accustomed ourselves to a flakier, slipshod Michael Jackson, have removed the veil of cynicism to recognize these shows for what they really were? The inability to answer this question may haunt you long after the movie stops.
Now, if This is It was a less-than-perfect experience in theatres, it really shines on DVD. Putting the feature on a TV screen makes the experience intimate, allowing you to really bask in what Jackson was trying to accomplish.
And the special features fill in those missing gaps about the show. Separate features outline the costumes that Jackson would have worn in the shows (they’re head and shoulders above those silly sequined military coats from the 1990s) and flesh out the staging of the show. (Blu-Ray viewers get an added treat: the full video clips for “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal” – the latter a real highlight of the show – in their unedited glory.) The documentary on the backup dancers is kind of a fluff piece and the full proper documentary meanders a bit, but many of the interviewees, including show director Kenny Ortega (who’d previously worked on Jackson’s Dangerous and HIStory tours) and Michael’s legendary manager Frank DiLeo, give more than just simple pull quotes about how much they loved Jackson. They really let you into this once-in-a-lifetime experience of working with one of the century’s greatest entertainers.
All in all, if you’re a fan of Michael Jackson’s work – and want a fleeting glimpse into what his creative process looks like – This is It lives up to its name.