In the years since the death of Elvis Presley, performances by Elvis impersonators have functioned as sort of impromptu worship services, with the familiar gestures and inflections allowing fans the chance to ritually deify the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. Michael Jackson has only been dead since June, but the new film Michael Jackson’s This Is It serves much the same purpose for the King of Pop: It’s a ritualistic ceremony that aims to provide catharsis and closure for Jackson’s most ardent fans. At the opening-night screening I attended, fans (many dressed up) cheered after every number, yelled out “We love you, Michael!” and took photos of the screen before the movie started. This is not the behavior of people with exacting critical standards for music or cinema, and that’s fine; for those people, This Is It will be exactly what they’ve been hoping for, and will leave them emotionally and spiritually fulfilled.
But what about the rest of us? For those who may appreciate but not idolize Jackson and his music, This Is It is a disappointing reminder of the shell of a performer that Jackson became toward the end of his life, even though there are enough flashes of greatness to continually ignite hope. Cobbled together from footage of Jackson’s rehearsals for his planned 50-date residency at London’s O2 Arena, This Is It by nature feels scattered and incomplete, although the occasional glimpses of the grandeur of the finished production (mostly via computer-animated concept designs) show the potential for something mesmerizing. Director Kenny Ortega, who also oversaw the stage show, highlights short films that were to serve as transitions and introductions during the performance, giving a sense of the scope that would have been on display.
But it’s not nearly polished or impressive enough to do justice to the songs, which Jackson often barely deigns to sing. He’s put together an eminently professional team of musicians, dancers and background vocalists, but they seem to be propping up a man who is barely there, looking skeletal and drowning in his loose clothing. At times his enthusiasm shines through, as does his beautiful singing voice, but those times are too few and far between, and the periodic behind-the-scenes interviews with performers and crew, all lavishing excessive praise on Jackson, feel like desperate attempts to compensate for what we see in the musical numbers.
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To his credit, Ortega refrains from sensationalistic exploitation of Jackson’s death (other than, well, the movie’s entire existence). There are no postmortem interviews, and only an opening disclaimer and a closing dedication indicate that Jackson has passed away. Still, moments such as when Jackson describes a musical cue he is looking for as “like dragging yourself out of bed” are a little eerie, and the whole thing has a morbid pall over it. This is far from Jackson at his best, and there are no doubt hours of footage in various vaults that show him performing at the top of his game. “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” “The Way You Make Me Feel”—these are great songs. This, perhaps, is not the best way to remember them.