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(Soundbite of movie, "This is It")

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): Okay, this is the harmony. The vocal harmonies on the chorus is - of "Beat It." I'll do the verses, then I'll do the choruses. One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of song, "Beat It")

Mr. JACKSON: (Vocalizing)

Unidentified Group #1: Beat it.

Unidentified Group #2: Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Vocalizing)

Unidentified Group #1: Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Vocalizing)

Unidentified Group #1: Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) But you're driving me mad. So beat it.

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Beat it.

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) No one wants to be defeated. Showing how funky, showing how…

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

When Michael Jackson died on June 25th, he was in the midst of rehearsals for a series of 50 comeback concerts in London's O2 arena under the title, "This is It." Now instead, there is a film called "This is It," which documents Jackson's last weeks of rehearsal at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The director of both the concert and the film, Kenny Ortega, first gained fame as the choreographer of "Dirty Dancing," and recently directed Disney's "High School Musical" movies. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: 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 Michael's 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-old King of Pop. So I braced myself to watch Sony and a bunch of Jackson-estate greed-heads squeeze the last dollar out of a moonwalking skeleton. Well, that skeleton moonwalks pretty well and dances better than almost anyone who's ever lived. And 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, you see that the London concert series wasn't an inherently doomed enterprise.

Touch and go, certainly - 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 — 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" through "Billy Jean" and "Black and White," with elaborate multimedia interpolations. Among them, updates of the incomparable "Thriller" and "Smooth Criminal" videos. Jackson did nothing small.

The challenge for the film's director, Kenny Ortega, who was also directing the stage show, was to remind us why Jackson was the King of Pop, but also leaving in signs of 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, you fear a crack. Yet when Ortega splits the screen into run throughs on two or three different days, Michael's dancing is awesomely on point. 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 going to get the job - which sounds alarming, but makes sense. The dancing is snap and ooze, violent spasm and simmer.

And Jackson's not just keeping up with the young troop. 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.

(Soundbite of movie, "This is It")

Mr. JACKSON: I gotta cue that. I gotta cue that. That should trigger on its own.

Unidentified Man: Guys, that should be a special on our girl.

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

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

EDELSTEIN: 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 okay, he says, then adds, it's all for love. Then adds, just get it there. His singing voice had a long way to get there, and he calls out from the stage that he's saving it, conserving his throat. In some numbers, his vocals have clearly been sweetened after the fact, but Ortega leaves in enough wobbly notes to let you know that even the 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 any humans 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 their scandals and behind their mythical facades, Jackson was working, hitting his marks, working, trying to hit the notes, always working. His discipline and drive outlasted his body, but it's captured here onscreen forever.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter@nprfreshair.

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