At a Times Square megaplex last night, hundreds of fans started lining up well before the 8 PM screening hoping to be one of the first to see the documentary detailing Jackson's planned London shows. How do I know they were rabid? Despite numerous showings on multiple screens last night, the 8 PM screening sold out as soon as tickets went on sale...nearly a month ago. So what's it like to watch the new concert doc 'This Is It' on opening night with arguably Michael Jackson's most rabid fans?
At a Times Square megaplex last night, hundreds of fans started lining up well before the 8 PM screening hoping to be one of the first to see the documentary detailing Jackson's planned London shows. How do I know they were rabid? Despite numerous showings on multiple screens last night, the 8 PM screening sold out as soon as tickets went on sale...nearly a month ago.
The scene, both during the film and beforehand, was the closest you'd get to being at a concert at the movies. While walking down the line (which many people dipped out of to take pictures with a 'This Is It' poster), nearly every conversation was a variation on the same theme; a combination of gossip, nostalgia and anticipation all naturally focused on Jackson. Strangers, some of which donned "Michael Jackson RIP" t-shirts and wore the commemorative "Backstage pass" lanyard handed out by the theater around their neck, bonded over shared memories of favorite songs and whipped out phones to play the singer's classic tracks. Do that in line for any other movie and prepare for a wave of derisive stares. Here, though, it felt more like heightened preparation than selfish annoyance.
One thing quickly became clear: This was not a movie. This was an event. By 7 PM, one hour before show time, you couldn't even see the end of the line.
When the lights went down, the concert feeling only increased. A pre-movie ad for the 'This Is It' soundtrack gets the first round of celebratory shouts. (When's the last time you saw that happen for a commercial?) This is a harbinger for the next two hours, as virtually every song begins and ends with crowd applause and shouts.
The film opens with an array of dancers auditioning for a spot on the tour, telling Jackson what he meant to their lives and thanking him for his inspiration. It's as if they're vocalizing what many in the audience are presumably thinking, as instinctive nods of agreement appear throughout the theater. Whatever other words you'd use to describe Jackson, it's clear from watching 'This Is It' that this was a pure, consummate entertainer and performer; a man whose ability to put on a show hadn't diminished since his early days in The Jackson 5. And hell, I defy anyone to see the rehearsal of 'Human Nature,' with Jackson clad in gold lame pants, a fedora and sunglasses, and not get even a little nostalgic.
Throughout the movie, applause comes where you'd expect it. The pelvic thrusts during 'Billie Jean.' The "Ma Ma Se, Ma Ma Sa" part of 'Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'.' The opening bass line of 'Thriller.' While the sheer quality and joy of the music is undeniable, it's not improbable to think that this crowd, knowing they'll never see Jackson perform live again, really wanted to believe that Jackson was with them, performing solely for that audience. And it's a testament to Jackson's ability that the audience was still able to connect with him in that way. When show (and film) director Kenny Ortega tells Jackson to "hold for applause" after one number, the audience duly acquiesces before breaking out into shouts and claps.
As for the show itself, 'This Is It' proves that the concert would've been a magnificent spectacle to rival any previous production. Giant props, pyrotechnics, crowd interaction and state-of-the-art visuals all would have played a prominent role in the production and, as the camera goes from the stage to the green screen to the wardrobe room, it's impossible not to piece together in your head what the full, completed show would have looked like.
By way of intro, though, we're told that all the footage in the film was originally meant for Jackson's own personal library and as background visuals for the upcoming concert. While Jackson is at times so vibrant, you almost forget that his death made this movie possible in the first place, there's a certain morbid, voyeuristic vibe that underlies the entire project. It's a bit like reading Kurt Cobain's 'Journals,' as the desire to learn as much as possible from our idols clashes with the uncertainty of whether they'd even want that information to be public. Towards the end of the film, 'This Is It' musician Alex Al points out Jackson's perfectionist nature. It makes you wonder if Jackson himself would have wanted the world to see the show (or himself) in this preparatory, raw state.
Whether that weighed on the mind of anyone else in the audience, I can't say. What I think 'This Is It' is about, though, is putting aside's the singer's checkered past and focusing on the performer side that seemed to be forgotten after so many years of inactivity. "We want to take [the crowd] places they've never been before," says Jackson toward the end of the film. And 'This Is It' shows us that the singer wasn't speaking hyperbolically.
At the end of rehearsals for 'Smooth Criminal,' as Jackson marks a new cue to coincide with a background video placing him in a 1940s film noir, Ortega appropriately asks, "Michael, how are you going to see the video change from the marquee to the city?"
A brief pause before the singer calmly states, "I gotta feel that. I'll feel it."
It gets the biggest applause of the night.