Cash grab or fond farewell? That is the still unanswered question after viewing This Is It, self-proclaimed King of Pop Michael Jackson's new concert documentary. Though Poppa Joe may have already answered that question in a recent television interview in which he so heartwarmingly stated, “He's worth more in death than he was alive.” Nice. The Father of the Year Certificate is in the mail, Joe.
Those seeking insight to Jackson's final days may want to keep refreshing the TMZ website, as Jackson, much like he did in life, keeps the audience at arm's length from his private persona, only allowing peeks into his presence as an orchestrator/organizer/intensely focused entertainer. For those who wish to witness the minutiae and cogs of what it takes to stage such an elaborate concert such as the one planned, This Is It is a curious, engaging glance at the man behind the curtain.
In the moments where Jackson is attempting to extrapolate on the inspirations of his songs and arrangements, the same individual emerges that we saw on the infamous Martin Bashir interview that ran on ABC a few years ago. He appears to be an individual who's passionate but puddle-deep. He talks about issues from only a surface perspective, not really seeming to go beyond headline chatter.
Take his analysis of "Earth Song": “I love the planet. I have this thing for trees, the colors and changing of leaves.I love it.” It sounds almost like a fifth-grader's take on environmental issues, and echoes the shopping spree scene of the earlier documentary in which he cavalierly clicks off items in a shop that he “needs” for his house, regardless of expense (and regardless of how broke he was at the time). You can sense that he means what he says, but lacks the focus to delve any further.
But when in the staged musical moment, he emerges much like a savant, able to recount each instrument's note progression, each vocal pattern, and each calculated step on the stage.
Throughout, even though his stage musicians throw out the expected bon mots to his talent (they're on camera and expect to work again, what else are they going to say aside from things like “he's a genius,” “this is a lifetime opportunity” and various other accolades?). But you can sense their enthusiasm that this will hopefully rocket them to stardom.
The songs are essentially unchanged from the album versions. Apparently his focus is more on the theatricality of it all, allowing viewers to sing along completely in sync, but providing them with newer, flashier pyrotechnics.
The only drawback of the film from a narrative perspective is through no fault of its own or its director, Kenny Ortega, and that is the big “payoff” of watching them all performing these numbers in front of a throng of fans, to see if their rehearsals have paid off. That's typically what a documentary film of this sort works for, and obviously never comes to fruition with This Is It.
But it earns points for not trying to lionize or saint the man, though some may argue that it never covers all the messy stuff, thereby only giving part of the story. To them, I argue, if you look at the best “concert” documentaries of the past (Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz), they set out with a singular vision to tell the story of the making of the concert itself, not by aiming to be the definitive assessment of an artist's life (again, there's plenty of tabloid fodder to filter for that).
This Is It will hardly be “it,” what with some unreleased material of Jackson's rumored to still be in the vault, Tupac style. But as a “making of” documentary, it serves as a diverting curiosity, one that most likely would have ended up as bonus material on a DVD, had the actual event come to fruition.