Michael Jackson’s This Is It (Columbia Pictures, PG)

michael-jackson-this-is-it-rehearsal.jpgAll who shared the stage with him were clearly electrified just being in his presence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The King of Pop may be dead, but his music and legend live on. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the new feature-length film This is It, a montage of raw rehearsal footage providing a behind the scenes look at the world’s biggest star preparing for the biggest-selling concert tour that never was.

Michael Jackson’s "This is It" comeback tour sold out a record 50 shows in just a few hours – the fastest concert ticket sales in history. More than one million fans would have witnessed the shows around the world when all was said and done. Tragically, just a couple weeks before the first show was to take place at London’s O2 Arena, Jackson died of cardiac arrest at age 50.

The stage production’s director, choreographer Kenny Ortega, along with Michael Jackson’s estate and Columbia Pictures, took raw footage of the concert’s rehearsals from March through June 2009, the singer’s final months, and created a fitting tribute to the man and the artist.

As the film opens, the dedication reads simply "For the fans." Indeed, This is It is a love-letter to Michael Jackson fans around the world. It doesn’t bog viewers down with documentary-style history lessons on Jackson’s life and career, or pander to any of the curiosities about his infamously bizarre behavior and appearance. This is It lets the music speak for itself, sticking only to the perfectly flawed performances (after all, these were rehearsals), and showing audiences just what it takes to pull of a production of this magnitude.  

Certainly Jackson, just weeks prior to his death, appears frail and thin – a more fragile and delicate version of the powerhouse he was in his prime; but his voice is still there, as are his one-of-a-kind moves (who else could dance like that at 50?) and the unwavering creative vision that has made him the greatest entertainer of his generation. He promises and asks his dancers, singers and band, to put forth all they have to give the audience an experience like they’ve never had before.

Although Jackson clearly goes easy on his vocal chords through many of the rehearsal numbers, not often "singing out" as he would in an actual live performance, the magic still comes through; and all who shared the stage with him were clearly electrified just being in his presence.

Through performances (both dress and casual rehearsals) of hits including "Human Nature," "Smooth Criminal," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Black or White," "Beat It," "Billie Jean," and "Thriller," Jackson proves he is a tireless, consummate professional and gives fans a glimpse of the genius behind his elaborate stage and video productions.

The choreography (like all Michael Jackson productions) is nothing short of incredible and all of the show’s dancers hold their own recreating Jackson’s signature moves and combinations from famous video sequences like "Beat it," "Smooth Criminal" and "Thriller." Jackson’s tour band is also incredible, giving a rock n’ roll edge to what we mostly think of as pop radio songs. Badass female guitarist Orianthi Panagaris is a standout, shredding through elaborate solos, encouraged by Jackson to let herself "shine."

There are moments during the film where Jackson’s fatigue and frailty are all too evident, and one cannot help but wonder how he really would have made it through 50 live shows. He seems particularly vulnerable during a montage of early Jackson 5 songs, fumbling through the words and not quite able to keep up. But just when it seems he’s lost his edge, Jackson takes the stage alone to sing "I’ll be There," ending by reciting the names of each of his brothers and adding "God bless Joseph and Katherine Jackson." The auditorium falls silent and tears fall from the on looking dancers’ eyes.

One of the most impressive aspects of the stage show, as well as the film, are the elaborate and high-tech video productions designed as a backdrop for big numbers like "Smooth Criminal," "The Way You Make Me Feel," and "Thriller." The updated "Thriller" video, shot in 3-D, uses modern technology to more dramatically recreate the feel of the original, as the costumed dancers come to life onstage. For "Smooth Criminal," footage filmed on green screen drops Jackson next to Rita Hayworth in film noir classic Gilda. It seems a shame the amount of work that went into the entire production for no one to have ever experienced it live. It really would have been the greatest show on earth.

Although the tour was not to be, the film version of This is It is an enduring gift to fans of Michael Jackson – perfect in its imperfection and simplicity; an honest portrait of an artist hard at work, doing what he loved best, and inspiring all around him. A | Amy Burger

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