'This Is It': Michael Jackson's Last Act

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Late pop superstar Michael Jackson's last stage moments are captured in the new film, This is it. But will the film return Jackson's name to the all-time ist of legendary performers? Host Michel Martin speaks with Ronda Racha Penrice, author and pop culture critic, for more.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

(Soundbite of song, "Wanna Be Starting Something")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Entertainer): (Singing) I said you wanna be starting something. You got to be starting something.

MARTIN: Now we turn to the King of Pop.

(Soundbite of song, "Billie Jean")

Soundbite from movie, "This Is It")

Unidentified Man #1: There's the man.

Unidentified Man #2: There's Michael.

Unidentified Man #3: Woo.

Unidentified Man #1: The man is here.

Mr. KENNY ORETAGA (Director, and choreographer): We're all here because of him, may that continue with him leading the way.

(Soundbite of sound effects)

Mr. JACKSON: This is the moment.

(Soundbite of sound effects)

Mr. JACKSON: This is it.

MARTIN: "This Is It" is the documentary film pieced together from some 80 hours of rehearsal footage of what was to have been Michael Jackson's comeback tour. It was released yesterday worldwide. That tour, of course, never came to fruition because of Jackson's sudden death in June at the age of 50.

Joining us to tell us about the film is Ronda Racha Penrice. She's an author and pop culture critic and she wrote a review of the film for The Grio and she joins us now.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. RONDA RACHA PENRICE (Author, pop culture critic): Thank you, Ms. Martin for having me.

MARTIN: So, were you excited to see the film? I understand there was a lot of anticipation. There were midnight screening scheduled in some cities.

Ms. PENRICE: Well, I was one of the people who was skeptical about seeing it, but I had so many friends around me who kept pushing me to see it that I relented and I was absolutely ecstatic that I did.

MARTIN: Why were you skeptical to see it?

Ms. PENRICE: Well, because with all the constant information that you've gotten since Michael Jackson's untimely passing, it was portrayed as if it was just going to be more like just reliving all of his great moments, and this was so much more than that.

MARTIN: Well, tell us about it. Let's get to your bottom line. In your piece for The Grio, you write quote, "Clearly separating him from other artists of his day, long-time collaborator and the film's director, Kenny Ortega, emphasizes exactly why Michael Jackson earned his King of Pop title."

Well, tell us.

Ms. PENRICE: Well, what you see is how absolutely involved in these productions he was. From dealing with the music, the lighting, the choreography and coaching the different people who are working with him, also you see him at the rehearsal stage singing and dancing simultaneously. And as we know, there are many artists touring now who don't do that.

MARTIN: So the idea that he was some sort of creation of other minds or other talents, that he was kind of just a cipher for other people's talents - you said if anybody had that question or that idea, that puts this totally to rest.

Ms. PENRICE: Absolutely. You know, what we've seen from Michael Jackson or about Michael Jackson is this constant child-like, forever-boy person. And what you see in "This Is It" is a man. You see a man who is capable of putting together a team and voicing to them what it is he wants to see, while also allowing them to share their talents and for them to all come together to create just a masterpiece.

MARTIN: And I want to play a short clip to that effect. I mean you write in your piece that "This Is It" reminds us that Michael Jackson was a generation of cultivated and honed talent where practice did indeed make perfect. There was no resting on laurels with Michael Jackson. It wasn't just magic. It was tireless work and effort - the two attributes that are not often applied to the genius of African-American performers.

So, liberally - and obviously, you're dealing with a lot of history in that paragraph - but let me just play a short clip of where you hear him playing such an active role in the rehearsal. Here it is.

(Soundbite from movie, "This Is It")

(Soundbite of sound effect)

Mr. JACKSON: I got to cue that. I got to cue that.

Mr. ORTEGA: Yeah.

Mr. JACKSON: That should trigger on its own.

Mr. ORTEGA: Guy, that should be a special on...

Mr. JACKSON: That can't trigger on its on.

Mr. ORTEGA: ...our girl.

(Soundbite of song, "The Way You Make Me Feel")

MARTIN: You also deal in your review with I think a subject that I think is natural. I mean that it's going to be on people's mind. You write: Throughout the film, it's only natural to look for signs of his death. Did Jackson have a premonition? What did you conclude? Did you have a sense that he was ill in any way - under the weather? I mean in the clips that I've seen, he seems very thin, you know, but a lot of performers do to me. So what did you draw from it?

Ms. PENRICE: Well, it was hard to tell if when you saw weariness, was it because he was weary or was it, you know, because he's put in all of this time, work, and effort? It's only natural for you to be tired. But for myself, I did not see signs that he wasn't going to be among us.

MARTIN: Obviously, people bring so much of their own feelings about Michael Jackson to viewing a film like this. But what role do you think this film will play in how we view Michael Jackson's legacy from here on out?

Ms. PENRICE: I think that the role that the film will play will be one of acknowledging his absolute, complete dedication to the art form, the actual work that it took to be Michael Jackson.

MARTIN: Who do you think will enjoy this film?

Ms. PENRICE: Everyone. I think obviously, you know, his diehard fans will just be amazed. But I think even if you're skeptical, once you see this film, you will understand a little better, if you're looking at it from a fresh eye -looking at Michael Jackson as the artist, the performer. I don't think that there's any way you can not appreciate that about him.

MARTIN: Ronda Racha Penrice is an author and pop culture critic. She was kind enough to join us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. If you want to read her review of "This Is It" for The Grio, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, go programs, and click on TELL ME MORE.

Ronda, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. PENRICE: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of song, "This Is It")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) ...I can say, I'm the light of the world, run away...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song, "This Is It")

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Every time I'm in love that I feel. And I feel as though I've known you since 1,000 years. And you tell me that you've seen my face before. And you said to me you don't what me hanging round. Many times, you wanna do it here before. Oh, yeah...

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For A Fallen Star, One Final Chance To Shine

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W Michael Jackson in 'This Is It' i

The King Rules: Rehearsals for a London concert series found Michael Jackson and his dancers working on a huge set. Spliced together in a concert movie, scenes from those rehearsals are a reminder of just how good Jackson was performing live. Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures
W Michael Jackson in 'This Is It'

The King Rules: Rehearsals for a London concert series found Michael Jackson and his dancers working on a huge set. Spliced together in a concert movie, scenes from those rehearsals are a reminder of just how good Jackson was performing live.

Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures

This Is It

  • Director: Kenny Ortega
  • Genre: Concert, Documentary
  • Running Time: 111 minutes

Rated PG: Sultry moves, indecently catchy music

With: Michael Jackson

An elaborate 3-D "Thriller" graveyard, dancers leaping from spring-loaded trap doors, flames leaping from practically everywhere, and the point of it all — Michael Jackson — front and center.

It would've been quite a concert, from the looks of it.

Cobbled together by director Kenny Ortega from 100 hours of high-def rehearsal footage, This Is It serves up wall-to-wall music from a concert that wasn't to be, stopping now and again to interject welcome (if not terribly revealing) backstage glimpses of a hard-driving, perfectionist King of Pop in the last four months of his life. Ortega was the director of what was to have been a live London comeback gig, and since Jackson's death in June, he's become the keeper of the star's cinematic flame. He's made it seem as if, in rehearsal, Jackson is calling most of the shots — and creating all of the magic.

To answer the vaguely necrophilic question most viewers will have going in, Jackson looks healthy. Thin, but not painfully so. No obvious signs of sleep deprivation. He keeps up with or outdoes a company of pole-dancing aerialists, not to mention a squad of muscular backup dancers who look to be half his age.

Because the footage was shot for Jackson's private library rather than for exhibition, Ortega doesn't have access to the extra camera angles and cover shots that would allow him to cut away every few seconds. Which is a good thing: For once, you can actually watch the dance moves.

Where another performer might simply hold a note, Jackson holds it while doing hip thrusts, a crotch grab, a twirl or two, and skittering ankle twists that propel him across the stage as if solid floorboards were a conveyor belt.

Michael Jackson in 'Smooth Criminal' i

Jackson and his crew rehearse his hit "Smooth Criminal" in Los Angeles. In the song's intro, This Is It inserts the pop star into a filmed sequence alongside movie gangster Edward G. Robinson and bombshell Rita Hayworth. Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures
Michael Jackson in 'Smooth Criminal'

Jackson and his crew rehearse his hit "Smooth Criminal" in Los Angeles. In the song's intro, This Is It inserts the pop star into a filmed sequence alongside movie gangster Edward G. Robinson and bombshell Rita Hayworth.

Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures

When the director is being playful with technical aspects of the stage show — turning 11 backup dancers into 1,100, say, or choreographing a black-and-white sequence in which Rita Hayworth seems to throw the formerly Gloved One her own glove — you get a feel for what might have been in that concert. A heal-the-planet bit involving a little girl and digitized butterflies looks misjudged, but Ortega is on firm ground when he's showing Jackson simply working — tentative at times, and seemingly unguarded, performing at a level that might not cut it in front of an audience but that is clearly getting there.

Though the star says several times that he's preserving his voice, there's nothing in This Is It that will diminish Jackson in the eyes of fans. And there's plenty that will impress folks who know his work only from music videos and recordings. If you're looking for some insight into the star — or even a full-screen closeup of his surgically sculpted face — This Is It won't be it. But if you're looking for showmanship and powerhouse performing, it's everywhere.

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