I have never been a big fan of Michael Jackson. That could be considered offensive to say in a review of a film put together so soon after his death. As a child of the ‘80s, however, I am fully aware of the man's iconic stature. My parents weren’t fans and neither are any of my friends from that time period. All I really have known about the man is that he is mostly referred to as “The King of Pop” and has about a “million” hit singles played regularly on the radio or at Halloween parties.
The songs I am most familiar with are definitely his hits from when I was growing up as a child. From “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” “Thriller,” and “We Are the World” to “Bad,” “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Man In the Mirror” and the Disneyland 3-D film Captain EO — this is what I am most familiar with. Going into This Is It I was worried I wouldn’t be as familiar with his material and not have any kind of connection to make as a new fan.
Aside from the fact that he is a tabloid star and has had two “Weird” Al Yankovic spoofs, “Fat” and “Eat It,” it was quite the treat to hear a soundtrack consisting of all the songs I did know and was surprised by how many of his more recent tunes I knew as well. I am pretty sure there were maybe two songs performed in the 112 minute runtime that I flat out did not know. Not a bad track record for someone who owns no Michael Jackson albums to this day.
Upon sitting down for the film I was totally unaware that it was directed by Kenny Ortega. I would have to say that as much as I am not a huge fan of Michael Jackson, I am even far less of a fan of Ortega’s. This is the man responsible for the glut of Disney merchandising and local filmmaking hemorrhaging at Salt Lake City’s downtown East High School. Yes, the director of this great documentary is none other than the same man who has unleashed three High School Musicals upon an unsuspecting public starting back in 2006.
Ortega was announced at one point to be sought after as director of the upcoming Footloose remake starring High School Musical’s own Zac Efron. While I am not in the demographic of the HSM films I do have to admit that Efron is the least irritating thing to emerge from the epidemic of said trilogy. And after seeing how genial and wholehearted Kenny Ortega is while directing I hope that they both manage to set their sights higher for future projects.
This Is It consists of footage shot during the rehearsal stages of Michael Jackson’s planned return to the stage, overly elaborate at every turn yet immaculately and loving constructed to appease longtime fans and win over new ones. What is seen in the film was definitely going to be a return to form for a man long considered the butt of years of jokes, spoofs, and satire.
The film opens with on-screen interviews of his personally selected background dancers. Listening to them praise the man that they have yet to work with and discuss how much of an effect Jackson has had on their lives leading up to their moment to shine on stage with one of the world’s biggest stars churns up an emotionally heartbreaking undercurrent.
Watching everyone perform together in what could have been quite the extravaganza is nothing less than the spectacle you'd imagine it would be. At one point Jackson is rising in the air on a lift and he is so excited and wants to be raised so much higher that he seems to forget where he is and lets go of the handrails prompting automatic concern from director Ortega, who begins pleading with him to stop using his hands and hold on. One can’t help but think that in spite of his untimely death, at least someone was trying to look after him.
As much fun as it is to watch the man who would’ve turned an amazing 51 years old this past August dance with as much conviction as he did with the Jackson 5 and his early solo years, something happens halfway through the show. A petite blonde guitarist steps from out of the shadows and almost completely steals the spotlight. Orianthi Panagris may only be half Jackson’s age but this “youngster” can play the guitar and is even encouraged along by Jackson to take her playing to another level when he has a one-on-one moment and he keeps telling her, “This is your time to shine.” He couldn’t be speaking truer words.
But of course the true spotlight of the film is always shining directly on Michael Jackson and that is obviously where it belongs. No one may publicly know what was truly going on behind the scenes in his home life causing his death on June 25, but seeing the man still able to moonwalk like he first did when he invented the move is breathtaking in every right. I don’t think I’ve personally seen him exude this much energy in years, period.
In a couple of weird life-imitating-art-imitating-life moments we see what would have been a new rendition of a “Thriller” video which was filmed in 3-D and would have been implemented into the stage show. Complete with background dancers dressed in Halloween costumes and a giant spider that makes quite an entrance, it would’ve been a pretty unique update of a true classic video (originally directed by John Landis).
The second instance is when we see them filming Jackson against lots of green screen for another video update pitting him against Humphrey Bogart himself in scenes from The Big Sleep for “Smooth Criminal.” I don’t think I need to spell out the weird yet cool visual of seeing a man so recently deceased inserted into a film from so long ago with another iconic symbol himself deceased. However, seeing Jackson running around sets and sliding down banisters is truly astonishing for a man said to be continually hopped up on drugs and under constant medical care.
He says many times mostly throughout the beginning of the film that he is doing this show “for the fans.” While this would’ve been his final curtain call, in a way it still wound up holding true even if not in his original intent. While his 50 sold-out London shows obviously had to be canceled, what we were given in a way is a chance for truly the entire world to share in one last moment that will be more defining that he ever imagined. The film has made me a believer in the “King of Pop” and even if this is it, it is more than enough.