Review: 'This Is It': What might have been
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After a dazzling solo run-through of "Billie Jean" that had the backup dancers watching below the stage whooping and hollering, Michael Jackson said humbly and sweetly, "At least we get a feel of it."
And that's all "This Is It" can be. A feel of what those 50 sold-out shows would have been like at London's O2 Arena this summer. The feel is that they would have been spectacular.
Using rehearsal footage meant for the Michael Jackson library, director Kenny Ortega shows us that Jackson in comeback mode was anything but that frail, skeletal figure we had grown accustomed to on tabloid TV. Far from looking like he was on death's doorstep, at 50 Jackson seemed to have the same swagger, moves and voice he did at 25.
3 1/2 stars = Very good
- Rating: PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images.
His backup musicians tell us several times that he's a perfectionist, but we can see that for ourselves in "This Is It." We see it as he's instructing the dancers and musicians on the precision of the timing or the exact feel of the groove. "You gotta let it simmer," he tells one musician working on "The Way You Make Me Feel."
At one point, when Jackson is frustrated with the choreography or music and Ortega assures him, "It's gonna be there, it's gonna be there," Jackson asserts in that gentle boyish voice, "Well, get there!"
Based on that perfectionism, Jackson would probably die again if he knew "This Is It" was opening in theaters this week. They were about a week away from the full dress rehearsals in London, so the footage in this near-concert film, shot over three or four rehearsals, is more about the staging. Jackson is singing at maybe 50 or 60 percent to conserve his voice for the real deal, and after getting carried away with a female singer on a duet of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," he scolds himself repeatedly, saying, "I shouldn't be singing out right now."
Those who were holding tickets for those shows, or hoping to see them one day on this side of the Atlantic, now get a glimpse of what they missed -- and it was special. Jackson and Ortega were fashioning every song into a production. The 11 backup dancers, handpicked by Jackson, were amazingly acrobatic, although they weren't going to steal the show from the star. The musicians were smokin', especially guitar phenom Orianthi, an Australian bombshell who was going to blow it out on "Beat It" and "Black or White." There was a Jackson 5 medley that would have been a showstopper. They had shot a new creepy cemetery video for "Thriller" and one for "Smooth Criminal" that inserts a gangster Michael into a Humphrey Bogart movie.
There's a problem during rehearsal, though, with the cue on that song. If the video is behind Jackson, Ortega wonders, and it's a silent moment, how is he going to know his cue?
Jackson ponders this for a second and says, "I gotta feel that ... I'll feel it."
Watching his artistry throughout "This Is It," we're somehow sold on the fact that he really will.
If Jackson was a drugged-out, burned-out mess in the days preceding these O2 concerts, then Ortega is a master of editing and CGI. The rough performances and rare peek at Jackson's creative process we get here is a gift, especially coming after months and months of morbid post-death analysis.
For 112 minutes, we get the King of Pop the way we want to remember him.
First Published October 29, 2009 12:00 am