Debbie Allen Loved Jackson's 'This Is It'

The movie about Michael Jackson's preparation for a series of concerts in London, This Is It, mixes rehearsal footage with production elements from the planned shows. Dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen loved the film.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Michael Jackson was known as a perfectionist, and it showed in his polished performances marked by sharp moves and rapid fire spins and that perfectly balanced toe stand.

But perfection takes work. During preparations for his sold-out concerts at London's O2 Arena, Jackson let filmmakers shoot hours of rehearsal footage. After Jackson's death this summer, Kenny Ortega, the choreographer who worked with him on the London show, edited the footage to make the film, �This is It.� The footage provides a glimpse of a down-to-earth performer, tutoring musicians and dancers and cracking an occasional joke.

Today, choreographer, actor and director Debbie Allen, who has worked with Jackson, gives us her review of �This is It.� We also want to hear from you. If you've seen the film, did your impression of Michael Jackson change? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Debbie Allen joins us on the line from London, England. Welcome to the program.

Ms. DEBBIE ALLEN (Choreographer, Actor, Director): Hi, Rebecca. How are you?

ROBERTS: I'm well. So what did you think of the movie?

Ms. ALLEN: I loved it. It was really quite emotional for me because -well, first of all, I'm in London, where the whole world was waiting to see him step onto that stage. And so the audiences here have just mobbed the theater. You can't even get a ticket. So I had to go late on a Sunday night to get in, and it was packed. And the audience was so electric and quiet and just - it was as if you were watching a live show.

What I loved about this movie, this documentary, it serves so many different purposes. Anyone who loved Michael and wanted to see him, you do get this in-depth look at what happens behind the scenes, which is actually so satisfying to anyone who really loves theater and music and dance and, you know, the whole how-do-you-put-it-all-together.

ROBERTS: So does this sort of feel like a two-dimensional substitute for the show he would've put on, or is it something else entirely?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, it's something else entirely, but through the lens of this movie, you experience and you get a real idea of how amazing this show was going to be. There was so much work put into and thought and creativity into every image that was going to be projected on any screen, every movement would be made or the lighting or how the production of the set was going to amplify what he was doing. And then just the simplicity of hearing Michael in his own words, talking about those things that really mean something to him, what he cares about, you know, the people, the earth, the planet.

And you get this amazing glimpse of what this set was going to be look like and what it was going to do. There's sometimes where they're actually on the stage, on the set. There's sometimes where it goes into a 3D, you know, image of what it was going to be with the projections. And we see behind the scenes, you know, all that was going on in rehearsals - not all, but at least some of it. You know, because you see him - sometimes, there's a split screen sometimes where you see Michael and you know it's different days because he's dressed differently, rehearsing the same number, which is really amazing to see how creative and improvisational he really is and always was.

ROBERTS: I've heard some reviewers say that they're not sure that Michael Jackson would've liked people seeing the rough edges before the polished performance, that he was someone who prided himself so much on the perfection of his performances that sort of seeing the dress rehearsals might not have made him that happy. What do you think?

Ms. ALLEN: I don't know. Michael was such a lover of film and big screen, and he always wanted that big screen in a way that never quite came to him. And this is a big screen, and I know he would love that. He was always filming everything. When I work with him, he always had somebody there filming whatever it was. It was - there were only sometimes that we were working on something very intimate or something very new to him that we didn't have a videographer. He has a library, I'm sure, of years and hours and days and months of him rehearsing, trying this, trying that.

ROBERTS: Hmm.

Ms. ALLEN: So I know Michael always wanted that big screen, and this is such a kiss to him on the big screen. I mean, he's well represented. It's him. It's in his own words. It's actually what he was doing in rehearsal, and he was always very shy in a way around people that he didn't know. But this is an opportunity for people who really see who Michael Jackson was behind the scenes. I mean, he was on top of things. He was sharp. He knew what he liked. He knew what he didn't liked.

ROBERTS: We are�

Ms. ALLEN: He would - part of the - end result was always - he was a main part of that.

ROBERTS: We are talking about of the movie �This is It� with Debbie Allen. Let's hear from Mary is San Francisco, California. Mary, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Mary, you're on the air.

MARY (Caller): Oh, yes. I just wanted to say that Michael Jackson - it didn't change the opinion. I've always been a fan of his. And my daughter and I, some of her friends, they went to the Imax late at night and it was just so magical. It was amazing. I mean, everybody there was like - it's like - was at the concert. We was standing up. We was cheering, clapping our hands. (unintelligible), like, it was actually, to me, a concert. So I need to go back and see it again so I can really listen to it�

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: �because we couldn't sit down. We were just standing. It's just awesome. And I (unintelligible)�

ROBERTS: Was the crowd lively? Was the crowd�

MARY: �the way (unintelligible)�

Ms. ALLEN: �animated and (unintelligible)�

MARY: �crowd and everything.

Ms. ALLEN: Yeah. That's how he was here in London. I'm in London. I saw it here in London, and they were cheering and people were crying and people were happy and laughing. It was great. I thought it was just great.

ROBERTS: What did you think of the dancing?

Ms. ALLEN: What do I think?

ROBERTS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ALLEN: Oh, I love the dancing. I mean, you always Michael's dancing.

ROBERTS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ALLEN: Michael was one who created so many classic moves and classic staging, like �Smooth Criminal.� There's some things that, you know, are - some things that you always want to see. And he says this in film, you know, I'm going to do the songs that my fans want to see. And that's what he was presenting in this concert. He was giving us all the best and all of our favorite songs and video and his choreography, some of his classics moves.

And it was one thing I realized when working with him. There were times when he wanted to change this or change that, but often he would - may be doing a, you know, some kind of a slight adaptation. But, you know, what he had created was so classic. I mean, why do you want to change it? So you just want enhance it or expand it or, you know, make a medley of it, maybe.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Cindy(ph) in Traverse City, Michigan. Cindy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CINDY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that I had the opportunity to see the movie on Friday. And what I learned about Michael Jackson was how humble he seemed to be. And I mean that because when watching the movie, there was something that wasn't the way he wanted it, he so nicely or so gently went about explaining what he was expecting that part to be or how it should change. And an example I guess would be when he was having a problem with the microphone and he said, you know, and I say this with love, you know, l-o-v-e�

(Soundbite of laughter)

CINDY: �yet, you could see it was something very much that was bothering him and he was trying to work through, and he was just so impressively humble about it.

Ms. ALLEN: You were touching on something that is such a good thing to point out about Michael. I mean, I worked with a lot of people in this business. And there's some that just diva you out, you know�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: �they just walk off stage, throw some - throw a tantrum. That wasn't Michael. Michael just wasn't like that, and he always a very powerful, but it wasn't what he did. If he didn't like something, he had a way to make you know it, and he would tell you in a way that you could accept it, you know? Or help him, you know, help him do better. So, yeah, I think that's a great point that you're bringing up.

ROBERTS: You know, you've worked with so many dancers, so many incredible bodies, such athletic and graceful talent. What was your impression of Michael Jackson's physicality? What kind of a dancer is he?

Ms. ALLEN: Michael brought a style that was so unique because of his sharpness, and it's something I point out to my dancers. I, you know, I started the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles and I train young people daily, all the time. We're always - we're rehearsing for something, a show or just for class or just - and I pointed to them how hard he would rehearse. He rehearsed over and over and over and over and over.

And when he performed, he was so sharp. He was electrifying. You wanted to see him do it again just to say, wow. Wow. In rehearsal, it would be amazing to see him do something twice, two or three times. You know, he didn't just do it once. He might do it two or three times. His dancing really redefined dance as we know it since the moment he did that moonwalk in that Motown special and the whole world, like, stood on its ears and on its toes. There are few dancers in the world that have done that. You know, there's been Baryshnikov and there's Gregory Hines, and Michael Jackson has a category all to himself.

ROBERTS: Did he ever ask you for choreography advice?

Ms. ALLEN: Yeah. I actually choreographed him, and I actually - he used to come to my house. I have a dance studio in my house. I used to train him. He wanted to learn new things. This was what was amazing. Michael would spin like a top, I mean, just (makes noise) so fast. But he wanted to learn how to turn like Baryshnikov. I said, Michael, you already turn - Baryshnikov can't do what you do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: He said, but I want to learn it, Debbie. I said, okay. So we worked on that. Then he wanted to learn about tap dancing. He really loved Savion Glover, and he really wanted to work with Savion Glover. And we were - we actually had spent time working on a movie idea for him and Savion. And so, he wanted to learn how to tap dance. So he actually would come to my house and we would work very privately. And I would sometimes be with kids or with his son while he was in the studio practicing with one of my master friends. Paul Kennedy, actually, was the main person, and then there was (unintelligible). So I have worked with him. I was a supervising choreographer on a big special he was going to do, and I've known him over the years. Our friendship has always been based on dance, and I've known him since he was probably about 14 years old. That's how long I knew Michael.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You have this inside perspective, knowing him for so long. Do you think people who see this movie and got to kind of lift the curtain on the rehearsal process, do you think we learn something about what a consummate performer he was when it came to his art?

Ms. ALLEN: You do, because you will go to many concerts, you will see various artists, but you won't see the kind of detail and the kind of execution that you would see in - even in the preparation for �This is It.� Michael liked to rehearse. He liked to work. And he was there for everything. You would see him in the auditions. He didn't leave that up to somebody else.

He would be in the auditions when you're auditioning to cast people to be next to him. He was there. If you're shooting whatever the footage is of a little girl in the rainforest, he was there looking to see how was it shot. He was there. So I think it gives another sense of - another regard for him and respect for the genius of who Michael Jackson really is and who he's always been to us and to see it, as you so gracefully say, the curtain lifted behind the scenes.

That's why I'm so happy about the movie. I actually sent Kenny Ortega a text message as soon as I got out the theater to thank him and Travis for, you know, making it possible for all of us to experience this. It's an experience. It's an experience, this movie. And you get a sense of not just the genius, but how hard he worked in and how involved he was in that every aspect of what he was going to do.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Tara in Tacoma, Washington. Welcome to the program, Tara.

TARA (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hello. You're on the air.

TARA: Yes. First of all, Debbie, I've enjoyed your work for many years.

Ms. ALLEN: Thank you.

TARA: Thank you. The thing that really saddens me, such a brilliant man, such a wonderful person. How - no matter what the review, there's always some mention of his troubles that occurred in California. When I was buying a ticket for the show, a lady next to me said something like, you're going to see that child molester?

It's as if our public has to make someone a star, and then tear him down again. And, unfortunately, I don't know that this movie, no matter how wonderful it was, and I felt it was, too, is going to change any of those perceptions. It's kind of an ugly mindset that this country has.

ROBERTS: Tara, thanks for your call.

Ms. ALLEN: Well, to that, all I can say is everyone certainly has a right to their opinion. But at the end of the day, what do they really know? What do they really know? What are the facts, you know?

ROBERTS: And�

Ms. ALLEN: And, you know, Michael was exonerated from all those charges. Michael is not - didn't run away from this country. He's not sought - he was not sought after by the law. I was with Michael and with my children, and all of my - many of my friend's children who, you know, like the Pied Piper, wanted to just go to Neverland. And I would take a carload of kids up there.

My son, Thump, he just adored my son when he was a young boy. And he would take him on rides, and I was there, you know? I was always a good mom because I was there, you know? So, people can say what they want, but I was there, and I was with Michael in his room with kids. And that was his playground. That's what Neverland was, his playground.

And there was a part of him that never got to play enough, and he just loved the idea that - and he loved children. And so I never believed that he could ever hurt a child or bring any harm to anyone. It was not his personality. And people can say what they want to say, but that's my opinion.

ROBERTS: We are almost out of time, but I want to ask you about a show you've been working on, �Oman�O Man!� Tell us about that.

Ms. ALLEN: Oh, �Oman�O Man!� is going to play at Royce Hall starting December 10th through the 12th. This is, I think, one of the most important things I've ever done in my life. I spent a year researching and trying to be inspired to write this piece. And what it is, is through dance, through music and through art, we will unify other cultures.

We start - we open your eyes to Muslim culture, Christian culture and -it's about two boys in a military academy who - one is American, one is from Oman, and they happen to be roommates. And through their very innocent and very honest conversations, we learn about their histories and their religions, and it is such a wonderful piece(ph).

ROBERTS: I'm afraid we have to leave it there. Debbie Allen joined us on the line from London, England. Thank you so much for your time.

Ms. ALLEN: Okay.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, Political Junkie Ken Rudin is back with election analysis. Don't miss it. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

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