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Michael Jackson's
This Is It

No matter what you think of Michael Jackson, there's no doubt that his "final" concert tour, "This Is It," would have been one hell of a show. So in terms of show business, Michael Jackson's This Is It could be considered a tragedy, as a legendary event now will never happen. Jackson himself comes off slightly differently than his show.

Putting aside a lifetime of bizarre behavior, we can read a tragedy into the character of this entertainer - a man who only truly understood life when he was in the spotlight, becoming human at last in rehearsal footage caught between public and private life. For fleeting moments, he's not robotically perfect as an entertainer or hilariously awkward hiding in plain sight. This is a Michael Jackson we rarely saw, one who could get lost enjoying his own music, smiling with genuine pleasure. It may sound odd to say, but if Michael Jackson's This Is It captures a tragedy, it's a joyous tragedy.

Then again, such contradictions pretty much defined his whole life.

Largely taken from footage intended for Jackson's own archives, the documentary doesn't quite capture the process of putting together a show. By the time it gets into full swing, most of the spectacle is well on its way to realization. Occasionally, an interview segment will point to something greater - an electric suit for "Billie Jean" that Jackson never got to wear, an opening production number that only exists in advanced animatic form but never got rehearsed. That doesn't get commented upon, however. These are all segments shot while Jackson was still alive, all tinged with excitement. Director/producer Kenny Ortega wisely keeps these from being encomiums; only the opening and closing titles acknowledge the loss.

Instead, interviews with the dancers and singers working on the show feel like video thank you cards to Jackson, and probably would have been. Maybe they're histrionic, but these people would have been part of an historic entertainment event, so that can be forgiven. They talk about his influence, but very much in a way thinking that Jackson would hear them and know how grateful they are.

And rehearsal footage genuinely shows how grateful and gracious an entertainer Jackson was to them in exchange. It's all rough, though well along in development. Though impressive, the dancing isn't quite as precise as it would have been on a show night, but at times Jackson stops and turns to watch in admiration all the work going on behind him.

Though the focus does stay on Jackson, it's also easy to read in that - for him, anyway - he was trying to pace himself and take it a little easier. He dances with the ensemble, but lets them carry the absolute heaviest of the loads. Since none of this was intended for public release, he also marks a lot of the singing, dropping lines, thinking through a number as he performs it and for the most part trying to save his voice.

Yet sometimes he gets caught up and can't hold back. He gets into a good-natured vocal battle on the end of "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" with singer Judith Hill that he's clearly enjoying, forgetting anyone else is around. At the end he complains, "why do you make me do that? I've got to save my voice…" then compliments Hill and encourages her to keep it up. A bemused Ortega just tells him, "you liked it, MJ."

And again, that's the difference. We've seen the calculated performer, whose smiles in concert and in public were more a triumph over his demons, fierce grins pasted on. Here's the childlike pleasure that so many of his friends - let's assume they really were - always said he had.

Not that he comes off as child-like. As many of the musicians comment, he was a perfectionist who truly knew his music inside and out. What he didn't always know was how to articulate himself, and there are a few moments when he struggles not to lose his cool. They're amusing in a way, as he tries to find the right metaphor for what is wrong, and they hearken back to some of his more bizarre public comments.

But the important thing there is that he always treats everyone around with respect. Maybe that was for the cameras, but it just doesn't seem to be the case. Even if it was, there's no question he understood his power. A favorite moment comes when Ortega starts to blow up at the dancers for missing a cue, but Jackson quickly defends them - no, they were waiting for him while he'd stopped to sizzle for a bit. It's bizarre, but yes, perfectly true. In a concert, Jackson would have sizzled.

The production numbers would have been amazing. Ortega includes huge chunks of an updated "Thriller" video that if I'm understanding correctly would have required the audience to put on 3-D glasses. Updated make-up, a much heavier influence from Disney's Haunted Mansion, and a huge robot spider that carried Jackson around would have added up to one dazzling spectacle.

Yet the simpler moments hold the most power. Just Jackson singing, alone and with Hill, have to remind his critics - and I consider myself one - that there was something to him. The dancers all sit out on the floor, just listening, sheer joy on their faces, disbelieving that they get to be a small audience for this man.

There's still a touch of the bizarre here. Footage seems to be culled from no more than four different rehearsals, judging by the outfits Jackson wears. His fabled face never quite looks the same from rehearsal to rehearsal, and even his ears look like prosthetics on the big-screen - this might be terrifying in IMAX. In practice, Jackson also seems to favor padded suits that only accentuate that in the last months of his life, he seems to have had the same proportions as Jack Skellington. (Snarkiness aside, I never realized what relatively huge hands the man had until now.)

Some of his improvisations as he works through the music are a bit twee, as well as some of his ideas that probably would have been included in a more polished concert film. It's also hard not to read into his having to count off his brothers' names in a brief tribute to his family.

No doubt, Jackson was bizarre. In life, his attempts to combat that image backfired more than they helped. With This Is It, though, he finally gets to prove he was human.

Derek McCaw

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