I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Michael Jackson documentary This Is It, but I didn’t anticipate being bored. However, that’s exactly how I felt sitting through this cobbled-together collection of footage taken while the performer was preparing for what was to be the penultimate event of his career. His death casts not only a pall on the film but also proves to be the final, impenetrable barrier in getting to know the man. As put together by director Kenny Ortega from over 100 hours of footage, we get no new revelations as to what made the elusive man-child tick, nor what his real motivation was in coming out of a self-imposed exile for a series of 50 in-house concerts in London. What we get instead is a repetitious cycle of rehearsals that hint at what was to occur during Jackson’s final stand and little else.
After we witness heartfelt testimonials from the many dancers who’ve come to audition for the show and see the intensive cattle call they were put through in order to be cast, we see the gloved one tackling “Wanna Be Starting Something,” struggling not only to find a way to put a fresh spin on this seminal tune but also dust off the cobwebs on his dancing routines. It must be said he’s in fine form, twirling, dipping, and twisting like a man half his age, bringing a sense of energy to all he does. He was still a wonder to watch and the film’s strong suit is witnessing his creative process. A perfectionist, we see the wheels turning as he reinvents “Smooth Criminal,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Thriller,” and others. There’s never a sense that Jackson is resting on his laurels here, but is rather intent on going out with a bang, set on reminding the world that his being called “The King of Pop” was not a thing of the past, but an eternal title.
What’s missing from the film is any sense of urgency as well as bridges between the various stages in the production that we see. One rehearsal leads to the next and there’s never a mention of what kind of pressure Jackson might have been under regarding time constraints, health issues or psychological strain. The engagement was pushed back 10 days because things weren’t ready, but you’d never know it from this. If anything, “This is It” shows us a relaxed atmosphere in which Jackson was at a leisurely pace, tinkering with each aspect of his final hurrah, concerned with nothing but pleasing his fans.
One thing’s for certain — those who would have been lucky enough to have seen the show would have been treated to an unparalleled visual extravaganza well worth the expense. The production values alone spent on a revamped 3-D version of “Thriller” would have been worth the price of admission and seeing this new take on the pop classic is the highlight of the film. For die-hard fans, seeing behind-the-scenes moments like this of Jackson at work will be enough. As for me, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on inside his head and that of his director and those who fronted the money for this production. In the end, I was left bitterly repeating the title as a question.