'This Is It' Offers Rare Peek At The King Of Pop

W Michael Jackson in 'Smooth Criminal'

Lord Of The Dance: Michael Jackson may have been frail during the last few months of his life, but the rehearsal footage in This Is It shows he could still cut a rug with the best of them. Above, Jackson dons his classic fedora to show his crew what a "Smooth Criminal" really moves like. Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption 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

Few documentaries have been creepier in prospect than This Is It, the sadly apt title for a quick assembly of Michael Jackson's final rehearsal footage, shot while he was preparing for a run of 50 comeback concerts in London.

Anonymous sources after Jackson's death spoke of his druggy frailty, the loss of his voice, his grief at being unable at age 50 to fill his own shoes — the shoes of the 23-year King of Pop. So going into This Is It, I braced myself to watch Sony and a bunch of Jackson-estate greedheads squeeze the last dollar out of a moonwalking skeleton.

It turns out that the skeleton moonwalks pretty well — and dances better than almost anyone who has ever lived. Surprisingly, the movie is vivid and illuminating and sometimes — more often than you'd think possible — inspiring. Watching these numbers, superbly choreographed and designed (and close to finished, too), you see that the London concert series wasn't an inherently doomed enterprise. Touch and go, certainly, because Jackson was striving for the impossible: to go onstage one last time and be as he had been.

This Is It gives you no context and offers no posthumous commentary on the trajectory of Jackson's life. It's just process — it would probably have ended up as a DVD supplement to a concert film. The huge and splashy show was to feature his big hits — from "ABC" to "Billy Jean" — with elaborate multimedia interpolations. Among them were updates of the incomparable "Thriller" and "Smooth Criminal" videos. Jackson did nothing small.

The challenge for Kenny Ortega, the film director who was also directing the stage show, was to remind us why Jackson was the King of Pop while still leaving in signs of his vulnerability. If the film had been edited to make Jackson seem too on top of his game, our morbid curiosity about his imminent demise would go unsatisfied; if he brought out too much of Jackson's instability, the charge of exploitation would be even harder to fight. Ortega gets the balance right. Jackson's legs are pool-cue thin, so that every time he lands a jump, you fear the crack of bone. Yet when Ortega splits the screen into dance rehearsals from two or three different days, Jackson's dancing appears awesomely on point.

PND Jackson in Rehearsal i i

Jackson was known for "pushing the boundaries" in every aspect of his performance. Still, This Is It resists the temptation to make Jackson seem bullet-proof. Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures
PND Jackson in Rehearsal

Jackson was known for "pushing the boundaries" in every aspect of his performance. Still, This Is It resists the temptation to make Jackson seem bullet-proof.

Kevin Mazur/Sony Pictures

A choreographer explains to auditioning dancers that it's not just athleticism that's required: "If you don't have that goo," she says, "that ooze coming out of you, you're not gonna get the job" — advice that sounds alarming but makes sense. The dancing is snap and ooze, violent spasm and simmer. And Jackson is not just keeping up with the young troupe; he's credibly leading them. Before the final round of auditions, Ortega tells prospects that "dancers in a Michael Jackson show are an extension of Michael Jackson." And they do seem projections of his will: He dictates every beat to his dancers, musicians and crew.

Jackson emerges here as a control freak but one who uses the word "love" as a mantra — perhaps because his dad was reportedly so harsh. "It's not right, but that's OK," he says, then adds, "It's all for love." Then, "Just get it there."

His singing voice had a long way to go, and he calls out from the stage that he's saving it, conserving his throat. In some numbers, Jackson's vocals have clearly been sweetened in post-production, but Ortega leaves in enough wobbly notes to let you know that even the iconic "oohs" and "yips" were an effort.

One of the techies gushes that Jackson always has to "push the boundaries" in his work — which must have been especially terrifying to a performer whose boundaries had already been pushed as far as anyone's can go.

No, he wasn't fully up to it, and that white face and nose whittled down to cartilage is spooky to behold. But This Is It is still worth treasuring. Like all great artists, outside the scandals and behind the mythical facades, Jackson was working, hitting his marks, working, trying to hit the notes, always working. His discipline and drive outlasted his body — but now it's captured onscreen forever.

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