Fans will cheer Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Haters will sneer (as expected). But Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and other first-class filmmakers who failed to transition Jackson onto the big screen during his pop-idol years ought to weep at the missed opportunities that This Is It makes apparent.
Based on rough video records of Jackson’s rehearsal process prior to his planned comeback and world tour, This Is It captures Jackson at peak inventiveness. His genius is brought closer and clarified. Behind the tabloid image, he’s seen thinking, devising, improvising—and performing masterfully.
At age 50, Jackson was still a prodigy; possessed of protean talent and when in the company of collaborators (“These dancers are an extension of Michael,” says director Kenny Ortega) he is inspired.
Several of the rehearsal numbers—especially a nearly acapella “Billie Jean” and a stirring new arrangement of “The Way You Make Me Feel”—immediately rank with the greatest musical performances ever seen on the big screen. That’s the opportunity lost by such pop-attuned directors as Scorsese, Stone and, especially, Spielberg—who betrayed Jackson by cutting off ties following the witchhunt and erroneous accusations of bigotry that met the 1995 release of “They Don’t Care About Us.” Spielberg’s failure to engage Jackson on a movie-musical project (Peter Pan or Earth Song or Childhood) deprived the world of a possible Minnelli-level masterpiece.
Ortega’s collage work on This Is It shows the same care for dance and spectacle that distinguished his original High School Musical from its poor sequels. He blends behind-the-scenes details with prospective stage concepts so that Jackson’s showbiz vision remains a tantalizing probability. Both marvelous entertainment and post-modern deconstruction, its art value is as high as Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense. Ortega integrates addition footage commissioned for the world tour—mini music videos that recall Jackson’s great achievements in that field.
The what-if aspect of This Is It has a poignant element. It recalls the posthumous ballet sequence of The Red Shoes (1948) where empty ballet slippers trace a late artist’s well-rehearsed steps. Yet, This Is It is too vital to be elegiac. We’re watching a virtuoso in the midst of creativity. This is pop, after all; plus a dazzlingly accomplished run-through of some of the greatest music of our lifetime—whether the scorching “Black or White” (a song many Americans still can’t face that occasions Jackson’s gracious encouragement of a shy white blond female guitarist) or the
magnificent “Jam”—the most powerful rock song ever to masquerade as funk.
Jackson’s concert version of Smooth Criminal features a new movie-intro where he is inserted into Hollywood mythos, interacting with Rita Hayworth in Gilda as well as Bogart, Robinson, Gloria Grahame and a panoply of movie land immortals. This flamboyant sequence asserts Jackson’s physical oddity yet it proves Jackson’s fame equaled theirs and surpassed their talent. Just as Richard Pryor had to make his own concert movie to show the rich artistry Hollywood ignored, this Smooth Criminal clip glimpses the new Astaire and Kelly Hollywood should have embraced.
Look at Jackson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” improvisation: music goes through his body, inspiring physical poetry-pointing, picking notes out of the air like berries on a bush. He’s some kind of pop mandarin whose art (performed at the crossroads of genius and injustice) is just beginning to be understood. This, indeed, is it.
Armond White’s new book, Keep Moving: The Michael Jackson Chronicles is available at firstname.lastname@example.org
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