This Is It was the name of Michael Jackson’s highly anticipated concert tour that was scrapped less than three weeks before opening night, when death interrupted the pasty-faced star’s plans for a comeback. Director Kenny Ortega’s documentary of the same name plays a lot like a concert movie, but given there was never any actual concert it therefore fits into the less salubrious genre of the concert rehearsal movie, which doesn’t carry quite the same razzmatazz. There is something sad and kind of tragic about the moments in which Jackson, who deliberately sings most of the songs half-heartedly, talks about saving his vocal strings for the real deal. Little did he know that singing on a barren stage in front of a near empty auditorium was, well, it.
Produced with the collaboration of the Jackson estate, This Is It is a straight-up compilation of footage that aspires to little more than presenting cinema audiences a taste of what might have been. It offers virtually no insight into Jackson as a person and very little about what he would have been like to work with professionally. The film is unashamedly idolatry; if Ortega’s cameras ever captured Jackson chucking a hissy fit or something similarly unflattering it is safe to assume it would never have been allowed to make the final cut, and that’s an unfortunate state of affairs.
Fans will be glad to know however that This Is it makes it clear MJ still had talent all the way to the end. His voice in particular held itself remarkably well over the years even if his looks and fashion sense were, to be kind, somewhat spurious (note: bright red trousers, a light blue t-shirt and glittery silver jacket just don’t mix). He looks gaunt and unhealthy, like a washed up superstar, but then again the Stones have looked like death warmed up for about the last two decades, so that’s show biz for ya folks (not to mention excessive drug consumption sustained over multiple decades).
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One of the triumphs of Jackson’s music is that his biggest songs don’t seem to have aged at all, which is a particularly impressive feat given their reliance on synthesised beats and keyboard and sound effects. And while fans may be pleased that his voice is more or less the same as it was in the 80s and 90s, there is something un-invigorating and creatively devoid about a musician whose live performances aspire to match the CD versions note for note, syllable for syllable. MJ came up with winning formulas and sought to replicate them time and time again, establishing live performance innovations in other areas such as 3D movie segments, extravagant stage effects and swish-bang dance routines. As they say, it used to be about the music.
For die hard MJ aficionados This Is It is clearly a must-see. However, general appreciators are likely to get restless into the second hour in the absence of commentary, insight, context and other elements that might have helped sustain interest. Whatever appeal the film has – and it certainly has some, if you dig MJ’s music – it owes to Jackson and the tour crew rather than any innovation or creativity on behalf of the filmmakers.
This Is It’s Australian theatrical release date: October 29, 2009.