During Larry King’s seemingly interminable coverage of Michael Jackson’s untimely death this past June, an earnest correspondent ventured into the late singer’s vacant Neverland ranch to conduct an exclusive tour. While detailing the hard-hitting intricacies of Jackson’s bedroom door, a slim shadow appeared briefly, appearing to cross the corridor before disappearing. Within hours, reports surfaced that CNN had possibly captured footage of the ghost of Michael Jackson. Though the hasty hypothesis was certainly an outlandish one, it seemed to pale in comparison to the host of bizarre tales that had swirled about the eccentric entertainer for most of his life.
In the days and weeks following Jackson’s passing, the media divided airtime between grimly recapping the murky details of his personal life and reverently exalting his artistic genius, which was to have been showcased in a series of sold-out London concerts. The ill-fated tour, billed as “the final curtain call” by Jackson himself, is now the subject of a documentary entitled “This Is It.” Directed by Kenny Ortega, Jackson’s creative partner, the film provides an unusually pared-down view of the performer at work, far from the manic frenzy that seemed to characterize much of his esteemed career.
Ortega, a long-time Jackson collaborator, refrains from digging up archival footage of past stage endeavors—one tear-streaked face amongst a sea of roaring spectators, the brief burst of stunned applause from a 1983 audience witnessing the moonwalk for the first time—and instead uses the bulk of the film to offer a glimpse of his plans for the future. Not content to simply belt out his greatest hits to a packed arena, Jackson’s best-known songs are paired with various elements of cutting-edge technology to create what would have been a truly innovative stage experience—wardrobe designers were working with scientists to incorporate new visual effects into the Jackson’s costumes, while his classic music videos were being reimagined and reworked to fit new choreography.
Though Jackson and Ortega shared directorial duties while producing the tour, “This Is It” witnesses the extent to which Jackson’s relentless perfectionism drives the entire show. Far from the shaky, soft-spoken intonations audiences are used to hearing from Jackson, he speaks in an unmistakably succinct, deliberate manner throughout the film. Issuing sometimes minute and nuanced commands to a corps of dancers, musicians, choreographers, and crew, he manages to dole out his authority with an uncanny blend of warmth and immediacy. Responding to a musician’s reassurance that he’ll eventually achieve the sound they’re looking for, Jackson brings the playful exchange to a close, succintly stating, “Well, get there.”
Just as the film is missing much of the rabid fan appreciation typical of Jackson’s shows, his rehearsal performances reveal a subdued version of the explosive entertainer’s song and dance capabilities. Often reminding his colleagues that he’s conserving his energy for the actual show, it’s hard not to wonder just what the final product would have looked like, though the film certainly captures a great deal of his signature showmanship. Still, the lack of opening-night caliber fanfare allows “This Is It” to highlight the dual nature of Jackson’s creative vision. Simultaneously exacting and nurturing, he pushes his colleagues to the full extent of their abilities. Unable to signal to his young guitarist the intensity with which he would like her to approach her guitar solo, he finally sings a high note, instructing her to allow her guitar to wail accordingly, noting, “This is your time to shine.”
If Ortega seems intent upon illuminating Jackson’s subtleties in “This Is It,” it’s because the director is all too familiar with Jackson’s creative process, having worked with Jackson on his last two world tours. Ortega utilizes split screens to show the barely discernible variations of Jackson’s dancing, jerkily grooving to the same song on three different occasions. He often focuses on his facial expressions—a tense grimace taking shape when something doesn’t sit right with him and a serene smile of satisfaction when a musical number has gone off without a hitch—as well as his hands, which never seem to stop moving, giving nearly imperceptible cues to musicians and dancers, silently conducting the music, and expressing the sentiments behind the lyrics of his songs.
After a particularly rousing rehearsal of “Billie Jean,” Ortega makes his way through a group of slack-jawed dancers to the stage, summing up Jackson’s performance with a single word: “Church.” Indeed, “This Is It” is replete with reminders of Michael Jackson’s unique greatness, from the fancy footwork to the sparkly accoutrements to the piercing vocals. Yet the poignancy of the film hinges on the less obvious aspects of Jackson’s accolades—his extensive creative and technical involvement in the execution of a large-scale concert event and the hushed awe of all of his colleagues. By serving as a quiet tribute to Jackson stripped of the usual fanfare, “This Is It” exposes a side of the artist that would likely have remained hidden if he had lived to complete the tour.
—Staff writer Roxanne J. Fequiere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.