This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
Where to Begin
Several months ago, I was one of the millions — or even billions — who was floored upon hearing the passing of the King of Pop. He had been my idol back in the fourth grade. Even when the fairytale of fandom ended through growing up and the discovery of other genres of music, the perverse stories of his various scandals and the cover-ups of these scandals still made its way into various media outlets, enticing people into believing in the worst. The fact was, regardless of the tone of the stories, it still meant that Jackson was mortally part of this world, and because he had proved himself to deserve the title “King”, I took to the belief that he was invincible. The world did feel a little bit different when many were proven wrong last June.
However, due to the efforts of producer Kenny Ortega, Jackson fans were once more given the hope of yet another mortal performance of the King. Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” is a concert film of the rehearsals made for the ill-fated tour of the same name. Even without the earthly presence of Michael Jackson himself and all that he went through, the film did not reach the silver screen without some degree of controversy (and hype, of course), from accusations of body doubles from Michael Jackson’s own father Joe, to protests pertaining to the idea that it was an elaborate scheme to cash in on the singer’s death. I won’t launch into a spiel over what could have happened or what wasn’t shown in the film, because there are many underlying factors that can invalidate many of these conspiracy theories, and most of those answers are forever resting alongside the mortal remains of Jackson. I’m simply going to cover what was featured, and what was featured were none of the external elements that tried to destroy him.
Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’
The film opens with Michael Jackson’s backup dancers giving video testimonies and praising him. Few were tearful, and most were emotional. My mind immediately compared it to the “American Idol” hopefuls who, during auditions, divulge their hopes and dreams. However, unlike “American Idol”, these talents have guaranteed their spots in the concert. Then, it segues pretty quickly to the creative process of the concert, with Kenny Ortega’s voice in the background giving instructions to a carefully selected crew and production team.
I guess this is around the point where the film can be experienced in more than one way: as a fan, and as someone who wants to understand the mechanism behind details. And was Michael Jackson a man of detail! It’s common to find people who are either masters of one craft or the jack of many; Jackson made a marriage of the two.
He commanded a larger-than-life presence, poring through lighting technicalities, directing the shoot of the zombies for his performance for “Thriller”, conducting the tempo of the accompaniment and transition between songs, teaching dance moves to his backup dancers, and directing backup singer Judith Hill’s movements for their duet in “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”. Most of all, he commanded an extraordinary amount of awareness from everyone involved in the project: everyone had to act upon his cues. His alone. It was the only way the magic can happen. The light and sounds had to follow him, and how he felt the performance instead of calculating sequences. No one was allowed to deter their focus onto anything else. Everyone needed each other, and Jackson needed them just as much.
Stage-wise, the techniques are mind-blowing. Sophisticated pyrotechnics, the use of the cherry-picker, elaborate sets, costume designs that appear to have an aesthetic relationship with lighting, and high-budget shoots were the background to the King himself. While the film itself is certainly a polished version of the rehearsals, I am very intrigued over how the brainstorming process is like, from when things were still more intangible to the unification of final ideas. But I guess some things are meant to be respected by leaving alone their notion of mystery.
Of course, the film wasn’t devoid of funny moments. Jackson was captured clowning around briefly before switching back to work mode, an amazing show of work ethic by not getting too distracted. His backup dancers cheered him on during some of his performances, particularly when he did the infamous crotch grab. Of course, his backup dancers had to learn that very move later.
If there were any Michael Jackson critics that were to watch this film in hopes finding more fuel to feed their antagonistic pursuits, then it would be all in vain. Quite possibly due to being legally bound to keeping a positive image of the singer, the entire two hours did not affirm any of the cruel labels Jackson had to endure in the light of all his tribulations with the public. There wasn’t even as much as a glimmer of his supposed Peter Pan complex, unless one would call his impassioned plea for the salvation of the planet characteristic of that, but one would be cynical to do so. It was simply Michael Jackson the professional, the industrious worker, the passionate musician, the human who strongly believed in love, the 50-year-old adult. The most critics could probably get would be a repetition of the external controversy surrounding this film, and perhaps a comment on how skinny Michael Jackson looked in it. But then again, didn’t he always possess that type of physical frame? The very physical frame that made him able to do those trademark otherworldly dance moves at that age?
Whether or not there were underlying health issues that plagued the singer during the filming of these rehearsals, it simply wasn’t the focus of the film. Jackson preserved most of his voice during rehearsals to build it up for the big performance, and there was a particular point where the planned Jackson 5 segment was difficult for him to perform. There were clear moments that he wanted to belt certain songs out and knew he had to save his energy, citing an example of his amazing and (again) very adult self-control.
“This Is It” reveals to the viewers that Jackson’s energy when weaving together a concert is pure. His chiding is composed, shaming temperamental divas. When he would disagree on a certain creative process, he ensured it wasn’t without a cause or concrete explanation behind his stance. He made himself accessible with that, and the people who worked with him seemed to find it easier to willingly say, “Whatever works for you, Michael.”.
What works for Michael? Apparently, nothing less than a magical result, which is precisely what this film delivered.