When Michael Jackson died a few months ago, I didn't have an opportunity at the time to write down any of my feelings about his passing, much less his career, his legacy, and his impact on my own life. I didn't cry, I don't remember being "shocked," and I didn't really react at all, to be honest, except with some mild degree of incredulity over the way so many people were just wracked with sorrow over the death of someone many of them would have vilified the day before it happened.
But a couple of weeks later, I spoke to my mom, whose well-worn vinyl copy of Off the Wall still takes up a place in my record collection, and who gave me Thriller when I was seven. She mentioned that I was the first person she thought of when she heard the news. Somehow that actually affected me more than his actual death, and I really started thinking about how much his music really meant to me. While that ongoing reflection has mostly manifested itself in repeated plays of both of the albums mentioned, as well as Bad, it made me both curious and apprehensive about This Is It, the documentary Kenny Ortega put together about his final tour.
Last Wednesday I went to see the film, and I wasn't deeply roused by it, either as a Jackson fan or a general filmgoer. Part of this can no doubt be attributed to the fact that the footage was by all accounts never intended to be seen by anyone other than Jackson himself, so any real structure or polish applied to its rough edges in order to create dramatic momentum was done posthumously. But even though I never judged Jackson for endlessly transforming himself into an almost literal shell of his former self, watching him on stage in this documentary, struggling to maintain the energy and focus that once came so easy and natural (or at least looked that way), I couldn't help thinking that Michael Jackson was a figure better celebrated in our memories, even before he passed away.
Watching the film, nostalgia seemed to clash violently with reality: for every terrific performance he gave of a song that I still love, his voice fluctuated, his dance steps occasionally fell out of rhythm, and of course, he just didn't look like the same handsome guy whose moves I mimicked and whose lyrics I memorized on the bus back in elementary school. At the same time, there continues to be something sociologically fascinating about his performance style, and the way it has since become one of the foundations for virtually all modern pop-dance choreography.
During one number, he pretended to be fencing, parrying with an unseen adversary; in another, he dropped to his knees, conjuring spirits around an imaginary bonfire. The dramatic abstraction that he brought to his performances is what led to the kinds of storytelling choreography that we see on Dancing With the Stars and America's Best Dance Crew, where sometimes to great effect and sometimes not, the performers find a narrative that gives their moves deeper meaning.
That said, I don't think it's the filmmakers' or even Jackson's fault that he just doesn't look and sound as good as he once did. The filmmakers certainly deify him in the film, showering him with deference and respect (and I don't think anyone in the film ever says "no" to him); and Jackson seems incapable of not trying to give 110 percent of himself to every single aspect of the performance, even when he acknowledges that he has to save his energy or his voice. Ultimately, Jackson is an artist who fell prey to the vagaries of his own success, driven both by a desire to succeed, and an inability to experience life in any kind of normal way.
Notwithstanding the actual cameras capturing this particular rehearsal session, Jackson lived a life where he was constantly being watched, scrutinized, and analyzed, so he fortified his world with yes-men and people who loved him (or maybe just his money) unconditionally, or at least supported his decisions that way. As such, he simply aged out of relevance; not only did his newer music fail to live up to the rest of his work, but his increasingly eccentric behavior put Jackson in the position where people didn't want to hear anything new, instead poring over his personal woes with gleeful self-righteousness.
Ultimately, however, while the movie hints at these truths, it certainly doesn't focus on them, and overall its release feels more like a necessary step in recognizing his greatness, celebrating his career, and most of all, moving on. It was surprisingly illuminating for me in that capacity – watching him personally revisit his classic songs, music videos and dance choreography, even in truncated form, was a wistful reminder of the days when he was my favorite perform – and in that sense I'm grateful that I saw the film. But overall I hope that This Is It lives up to its name and provides the final tribute to Michael Jackson, because I feel that any further examination of his life beyond the music that is so beloved, for me anyway, will only prompt more criticism, more corruption of his achievements, and less celebration of them.