November 5, 2009

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Michael Jackson’s This Is It (PG)
The King of Pop runs through his greatest hits in Michael Jackson’s This Is It, a concert film stitched together from footage of the rehearsals for the concert tour that never happend.

The tour was meant to start in July; Jackson died in June, so there was no tour, no final footage of a finished production presented to a packed concert audience. Instead, the film here — some of it quite grainy — is of various stages of creation. Dancers are still learning their routines, musical arrangements are getting worked out, Jackson and the crew are choreographing the video, pyrotechnics and other special effects that go along with the songs. And to some extent, this might be the more interesting stuff. A well-produced film about a fully realized concert can look very pretty but there are lots of pieces that have to come together to get a production to that point and This Is It gives you the pieces. The dancers, star-struck by Jackson, all but singing A Chorus Line when they talk about what working on the tour means to them; the musicians, discussing the artistry of the music and Jackson’s musical style; the production’s director, pulling together something that has to borrow from theater and movies to work. It’s a fascinating thing to see.

Fascinating, but this behind-the-scenes study doesn’t completely make up for the film’s occasionally disturbing central element.

This movie is rated PG in part for “scary images” — one of which is Jackson himself. His skin is sickly white, his facial features (that nose, that weird cartoony chin cleft) are strange, he is so thin he looks brittle. When the movie gives us a brief montage of his younger years, it’s shocking — you would never guess that the skeletal figure was once the normal-looking kid in the Jackson Five or the guy in the “Thriller” video. The music pulls you back to your memories of the times Jackson’s music was part of the soundtrack to your life but his image jars you right back into his weird personal story.

It takes effort to focus on the dancing (which is truly remarkable — Jackson’s dancers, mostly male, turn out some stunning work) or the music. And in the case of the music, Jackson’s efforts to preserve his voice keep him from always fully belting out the songs.

But if you are a Jackson fan or were a Jackson fan, this is probably as good a way as any to consider the full package of the man, his personality and his music one last time. His music, just his music, is all that will eventually remain; in a few years, he will be a dated pop culture reference and part of the collection on your iPod. Here, you can remember the early days of MTV and “Billie Jean” or the insane amount of hype around the premiere of the video for “Black or White” (man, how to even explain that to a kid who gets most of his videos from YouTube), a few fleeting seconds of which appear here. It’s music history and a pop icon, in all his glory and weirdness. This is it. B

Rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images. Directed by Kenny Ortega, Michael Jackson’s This Is It is an hour and 51 minutes long and distributed by Sony Pictures.