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Non-Review Review: This Is It

I took my aunt to the cinema this weekend and she waited until we had left the screening to tell me that she wanted to see The Fantastic Mr. Fox, so we had gone to see a very false compromise – the “highest grossing concert film of all time”, the Michael Jackson flick This Is It. It was significantly better than our last attempt to go to the cinema – the truly dire Love Happens – but that’s a mixed sentiment at best, isn’t it?


Is This It?

The biggest problem with reviewing This Is It is that it’s hard to quantify it. If you can’t quantify it, you can’t determine what, if anything, you should expect from it. The moment that “From the Michael Jackson Company” appears on screen at the start, the audience knows not to expect an insightful or compelling look at the man. This isn’t going to be a profile piece – it’ll be (at best) fluff. Nor is it a straight-up concert film. There are musical numbers, but they are crude and not properly composed as showstoppers. Jackson was saving his voice for the tour, so he does more dancing than singing.

There are snippets of “behind the scenes” thrown in which interrupt and disturb the flow of the movie as a concert film. There’s really nothing significant included – Jackson “arguing” with a musician (as much as it seems possible for him to argue) over the introduction to The Way You Make Me Feel, or “complaining” (in the politest terms) about the noise of an earpiece during I Want You Back. I want to accept these as genuine insights into his character (and I’m sure the fans will), but it all seems to carefully choreographed and staged to be taken at face value. The fact that the film has been produced and distributed by those close to him tells us that if there were anything of true insight it’s languishing in a vault somewhere.

There simply isn’t enough distance between those making the documentary and the subjects to call this a documentary. And yet it isn’t content to be a showcase either. There was a lot of effort put into producing video companions for several set pieces (including a Thriller graveyard scene rendered in 3D, and a black-and-white accompaniment to Smooth Criminal), but the movie only gives us snippets (no doubt saving them for separate DVD release). The audio from the concert doesn’t seem enhanced or amended and the footage is conspicuously editted as if it is designed to draw attention to the fact we are only watching a rehearsal and not the real deal.

Those expecting any insight into the the King of Pop will be disappointed. There’s not a lot of him here, and what is seems staged or edited. I am a little bit uncomfortable discussing the lead in this picture as I would discuss a character in any other film, but I accept there’s probably little difference. Still it seems a little tasteless to attempt to dissect his portrayal here or attempting to determine his motivations or what guided or inspired him. Such is discussion in tabloids which I found tasteless and ridiculous. The closest thing to intimacy that this feature affords us is a moment as the lights fade after a rendition of They Don’t Care About Us (complete with fascist-themed dance moves and back-up dancers) and he smiles, clearly happy at his performance.

Still, it succeeds at demonstarting the showmanship of Jackson as an artist. He has some fantastic dance movies and the show demonstrates his fantastic sense of scale – there’s no doubt that those paying for tickets would have got their money’s worth. Even his voice – what little we hear of it – is still fantastic (though weathered a bit), particularly during a rendition of The Earth Song. Still, that’s not enough to justify the movie’s theatrical release of itself – buy a concert DVD, stick in Thriller, enjoy other examples of this.

So, I’m not sure what to make of it. I don’t really know what This Is It really is. Is it a concert film? It isn’t ‘wow’ enough. Is it a look at the final days of a legend? It isn’t nearly detailed enough or insightful enough. Is it a reminder of the magnificence of a musical legend? Maybe, but you’d get a far better look at that be digging out his back catalogue and a CD player.

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