I am not a Michael Jackson fan. This is not a movie made with me in mind. I watched Jackson’s career strictly from the sidelines. I saw most—maybe all—of the music videos from his Thriller album only because they were inescapable if you watched MTV at all in 1983. Even though I never owned a Michael Jackson album, it was impossible not to have some knowledge of his music—to say nothing of his well-publicized and downright peculiar tabloid-driven life. My overall take was that Jackson was talented, strange and troubled. He crafted catchy pop songs that were simply not my cup of tea—and still aren’t. So I approached Michael Jackson’s This Is It as a non-fan, who nonetheless recognized Jackson’s merits without having any personal investment in them.
I must say I was surprised at how interesting—and well done—This Is It turned out to be. Actually, it’s something more than interesting: It’s weirdly fascinating. Calling it a documentary is something of a misnomer. It’s both more and less than that because, let’s face it, the film is the official party line, meaning it’s more tribute than documentary. That’s not a criticism, because that’s precisely the function it is intended to serve. And it serves it well. In many ways, it’s a trip down memory lane to salute Jackson’s talent. Regardless of how you feel about the music, it leaves no room for doubt on that score—and it’s nice to see the talent on display without any tabloid-esque side issues clouding the picture.
Despite the film’s virtual deification of Jackson as both artist and idealist—those things are certainly part of the man—what emerges from the skillfully edited raw footage offers us something more than may have been intended. Regardless, that extra something is very welcome. First of all, there’s the fact that the footage is in itself relatively simple, meaning that we see Jackson performing (or rehearsing, if you prefer) without much benefit of cinematic goosing. In other words, this is the real deal laid bare, and it’s very enlightening in that it hardly shows a performer with diminished powers, which you might expect. I’m not prepared to say that you get Jackson at the top of his game, but it’s not far from that.
More telling is the way in which the film reveals Jackson as someone other than the naive innocent he so often tried to play as his public persona. Oh, there’s some of that in the way he handles his musicians in the film, with a somewhat exaggerated enthusiasm, but two points are worth considering about this: It’s a very clever approach to get what he wants from them, and it’s just possible that he really was simply a nice guy. Much more emerges, however. We also see Jackson as a very savvy, very deliberate, dedicated perfectionist who knows his medium and knows how to get what he wants. This is refreshing and instructive in that it paints Jackson as the controlling force of his career.
I’m not credulous enough to take the film’s depiction of Jackson’s creative process entirely at face value. This is, after all, the official version. But there seems to be at least a core of truth in the way the show was being crafted to realize his vision. The manner in which the staging is an outgrowth of the original idea smacks of authenticity, of the work of an artist who accepts that his creation is a living thing with a direction of its own that dictates what it needs to be. And in the case of the show being worked out here, it’s apparent that Jackson was onto something that might well have been the crowning achievement of his career. What we see rates a “wow” in terms of scope and ambition. That we will never see what it might have been is as much our loss as Jackson’s—and that gives the film a surprising resonance. Rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images.