THIS IS IT, directed by Kenny Ortega, rated PG, 112 minutes.
What becomes clear the moment we see Michael Jackson in the opening moments of “This Is It,” the documentary that chronicles the intense rehearsals of Jackson’s 50 London-based concerts that failed to take place due to the performer’s drug-induced death in June, is that “This is It” the movie never should have happened.
At least not under these circumstances.
On the other hand, if what audiences see here is any indication, the concerts absolutely should have happened. And what a shame that they didn’t. Everything about this movie propels the reasons the world fell in love with Michael Jackson when he was a child, and then later when he realized unparalleled superstardom as a young adult in the wake of his hugely popular albums “Off the Wall” and most notably, “Thriller.”
Watching the documentary is a curiosity not only for the insider’s glimpse we’re offered into how Jackson and his director Kenny Ortega (also the film’s director) were staging the shows, but because Jackson’s talent is so massive, his ability to thrill and to touch remained enough to quash, at least for two hours, all the gossip, allegations and lawsuits that plagued him for years.
For too many of those years, it seemed that Michael Jackson already had died, at least creatively. He produced only four albums after “Thriller,” and while “Bad” remains the best of the lot, each album (with some singular exceptions) showcased a disappointing, encroaching repetition that made him less relevant and cutting-edge.
And so what “This is It” accomplishes is key to not only preserving his memory, but also to galvanizing his myth. Onstage, Jackson still moonwalks, still thrashes in white tornadoes of dry ice, still brandishes his signature moves, but there are new moves to be had here and a voice that is still strong.
At age 50, Jackson’s lithe body doesn’t make sense — his altered face and lighter skin color aside, everything about him is just as fluid as we remember. Throughout, there never is a question that he sings nearly every song in the movie live, often powerfully though more quietly as the tour draws near; he wanted to preserve his voice.
More over, nothing about him signals an addiction to drugs. Watching the movie, you can’t help wondering how he possibly could nail those ridiculously intricate moves had he been on drugs. It doesn’t add up, yet there he goes, sliding down a banister as if he were 12 in a clever cutaway sequence for his performance of “Smooth Criminal,” or leaping across a giant stage as if invisible strings were attached to his back.
Beyond the music and the film’s brilliant editing, which cuts together pieces of what never was meant to be shown to the public (at least not like this) with a seamless, almost prophetic ease, is the glimpse we’re offered into how Jackson approached his art and how he addressed those assisting him in realizing his vision. He is gracious, loving and grateful. He doesn’t say much, but when he does speak, he’s sincere, funny, focused and firm.
He knows his craft, he knows what he’s creating is manufactured pop, and he is aware of the power of it all, particularly in a wonderful scene in which he teases out of his musical director the exact tempo he’s seeking in a song he knows better than anyone else. When he’s alone at the center of the stage, that smile on his face is genuine. A thousand lighted, whirling distractions assail him, but he remains the exclamation point in the room. It’s bizarre. Though he’s been away from the music industry for years, that self-imposed moniker of his — the King of Pop — now is without argument. Nobody ever has done it like this.
In the end, “This Is It” crushes the viewer with a jumble of feelings — sadness, joy, fascination, exuberance, awe and then, just as it all was coming together, tragedy. The movie’s genius is that it offers no narration, nothing that connects us from point A to the inevitable point D. That would have been an intrusion.
Instead, we’re allowed to be voyeurs, and what we see throughout is a performer who was on the cusp of realizing what likely would have been his third professional peak. The first came when the Jackson Five hit the scene, the second came with the advent of “Thriller,” and now there is this concert that nearly was but never was. Deliberately designed to celebrate all that Jackson gave us during his 40-plus-year career, the show also reveals the potential rebirth that was to come should he have lived to enjoy it.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.