tue 22/06/2021

Film: This Is It | reviews, news & interviews

Film: This Is It

Film: This Is It

The movie of the show that never was: Michael Jackson's affecting swansong

There are several reasons why you might be planning to avoid the Michael Jackson movie, This Is It. The hype about advance ticket sales has been deafening, enhancing the suspicion that the project was cooked up by Jackson’s concert promoters as a catchpenny exercise to recoup their £25m investment in the aborted series of shows at the O2. The star’s death the day after a dress rehearsal is hardly reassuring either. What sort of shape was he in while the film – apparently culled from 100 hours of rehearsals in LA earlier this year - was being shot? You can almost hear the doctored vocal performances and see the body-double dancers at work. This Was Not It, you might well be thinking.
Banish all such thoughts, except the one about the hype. When I saw the film earlier today in the West End, the cinema was virtually empty. But what the hardy band of 20 or so paying customers saw was a revelation. This Is It might not be the legacy movie Jackson would have wished for, but it contains enough to justify that rather tired sobriquet, King of Pop, which he clung to during his final decade of scandal and musical inactivity.
The opening sequence - during which various dancers gush to camera about what a life-changing experience working for Jackson has been for them – is predictably toe-curling. What follows, thankfully, is a gripping series of performances intercut with exchanges between Jackson and his co-workers that demonstrate his intense involvement in every detail of the show. From the playing of the bass lines and guitar solos – “This is your chance to shine,” he exhorts his lady lead guitarist in a break in the run-through of "Black or White" – to the choice of images projected onto the giant screen at the back of the stage, Jackson is the man with the plan. Never mind that the show’s director Kenny Ortega, who also put together the movie, misses no opportunity to get himself into shot; the overriding impression is that Jackson, skinny and frail as he looks, is about to make a comeback to rival that of Elvis in Las Vegas in 1969.
His voice seems to be in remarkably good shape. Technology can do a lot these days to repair faulty pitching but there is clearly none of that in the touching a cappella duet with Judith Hill at the end of "I Just Can’t Stop Loving You", which shows that Jackson has forgotten none of his old gospel tricks. His dancing too is well up to scratch. Fronting a troupe of lithe young things half his age, Jackson’s uniquely twitchy style looks as sharp as it ever did, and it comes across particularly well under the close scrutiny of the camera.
His cinematic preoccupation is one of the main reasons why this movie is a must-see. The specially prepared film sequences that accompany most of the 12 songs are, I presume, exactly what the audience would have seen had the concerts taken place, and they are extraordinary. Highlights include the cunning re-make of an old Bogart gangster flick - in which Jackson himself now appears - that accompanies "Smooth Criminal", and a hilariously OTT farrago of freaks and monster men devised for "Thriller". Even "Earth Song"’s simplistic eco-messages, contained in lavish footage of the wonders of the natural world and the destruction that awaits them, have an undeniable impact.
Interestingly, This Is It studiously avoids playing its potentially most dramatic card, the death of Jackson himself. There are no shots of the weepy aftermath of the news that the show will not be going on. Instead the film ends quietly, with a frozen image of Jackson standing arms outstretched after a mesmerising performance of "The Man In The Mirror". I hadn’t expected to leave the cinema with a lump in my throat, but to my considerable surprise, I did.
This Is It is on general release.

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