As I watched Michael Jackson's This Is It, I found myself wondering exactly what I was supposed to be reviewing. It's nearly impossible to separate the context of the film from the film itself -- that it was supposedly never meant to be a documentary and is only now being seen by public eyes because of Michael Jackson's death in June as he was preparing for his last tour. And, as difficult as it is, I'm obviously not reviewing the person himself. Was I reviewing his performances? That's not it, either, because they're rehearsals and Jackson was saving his voice and strength for the tour. The documentary itself is a strange, confusing look into Michael Jackson's world, or at least the version of it that his friends, family, and/or estate wanted us to see.
Producer Randy Phillips is quoted in the production notes as follows: "What makes this footage so compelling is that Michael is so open and unguarded. From March 5 when we did the press conference [announcing Jackson's tour] to June 25 when Michael died – we had a three-person crew with HD cameras." The production notes also say they shot "more than 100 hours of rehearsal footage shot in Los Angeles." Why were three people shooting with HD cameras, producing over 100 hours of footage that "was never intended for wide release"? And if it was eventually going to be part of a behind-the-scenes doc, then why did it often look blurry or shaky, and why, if there was so much more footage to choose from, are we seeing rehearsals that seemed to be from a handful of different days, judging by the different clothes Jackson wore?
Most of the film is footage of Jackson rehearsing, but mostly without the backup dancers. It's far more illuminating to see the young dancers he'd chosen to go on tour with him look into the camera with tears in their eyes and thank him and describe how he'd changed their worlds before they'd ever even met him. In fact, I wondered if those interviews were done after Jackson's death. Either way, This Is It would have offered viewers a much richer, more compelling experience had it focused on not just the glimmers we see of Jackson's talent but also his interactions with other people. We're given just a few minutes backstage with the dancers in rehearsal -- they're literally practicing how to grab their crotches -- and a few interviews with some of the other musicians that feel like afterthoughts.
It's fascinating to watch Michael Jackson control every nuance of the performance, from the dancers' cues to details in the music that a layperson would never notice, but be unable to actually describe why his earpiece hurts without director and friend Kenny Ortega sussing out his meaning. (The levels were off, and it felt like "fists in his ears.") The most interesting parts were when Jackson was actually interacting with other people and the words he used to describe things: music simmers and bathes in moonlight; he's expressing his frustration with his problems with his earpiece with love ("L.O.V.E.," he says). When the music director makes a joke about bringing more booty into the song, Jackson sort of walks away giggling like he'd heard a naughty joke. When Ortega tells him that the cherry picker he's on is only on the low setting, he laughs and says that Ortega shouldn't have told him that because Ortega knows he'd just want to go higher.
The footage that really sings is the version of Thriller they were working on and the weird music video intro for "Smooth Criminal" that uses '50s movies with Jackson inserted into them. I am curious to know if Thriller was finished after Jackson's death, because the doc shows him and Ortega watching the screen wearing 3D glasses as it's being filmed, and we're shown a 2D, more final version. I realize the documentary had to have had some added bits to give it a smooth narrative arc, but it made me question how much more was added – or left out.
Even though I'd probably never go to see Michael Jackson in concert, I can see that the show would have thrilled and amazed fans, and that this film will be one way for them to experience just a bit of what could have been. I was most impressed with one kid who was definitely not old enough to remember the premiere of Thriller on late-night MTV (as some of us were, ahem) dressed up in a fedora, black-sequined jacket, and silver-sequined glove and socks. I'm an optimist, and I don't think that this was created for purely monetary purposes. And I hope that it's true that Jackson really was saving up his energy and voice for the actual concerts, because even though he sounded and moved damn well for a 50-year-old, we weren't shown him doing full dance sequences with his backup dancers. But I could have done with fewer clips of Jackson practicing and many more of him and his crew actually interacting and practicing and planning what would have been It.