Movies & More

Is 'This' all there is?

There was a moment in "This Is It," the Michael Jackson musical documentary that opened Oct. 28, that rivals any scare offered up by "Paranormal Activity."

The moment occurs during a London press conference where hundreds - it could be thousands - of fans greet Jackson's arrival as if they are finally meeting their Messiah. They scream and go all googly-eyed in a way that made me believe that, had they gotten the chance, they would have eaten him like ravenous zombies.

As the author Jane Porter once wrote, “The mob is a sort of bear; while your ring is through its nose, it will even dance under your cudgel; but should the ring slip, and you lose your hold, the brute will turn and rend you.”

While watching the movie, and on occasion tapping my foot to all the classic Jackson songs, I kept thinking of other celebrities that fell prey to the demands of fame, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis chief among them. This is the kind of pressures that Jackson was under, which makes what happened to him seem more understandable.

As for the film itself, it doesn't quite stand on its own. It depends on two main reactions from the audiences that see it. One, it's clear that Jackson's London shows, the 50 comeback performances that the movie reports were sold out in advance, would have made spectacular musical theater. The dancing, video, pyrotechnics and music would, it seems, have given a new meaning to the term concert extravaganza. And the loss of this is, indeed, sad.

Two, though, is even more important. Call it the Jackson curiosity factor. Ignore, if you can, the charges thrown at Jackson over the years involving child abuse. Just stick with his changing facial features. What's clear from "This Is It" is that, after the years of plastic surgery and other various processes, Jackson came to resemble something out of "The Wizard of Oz" more than anything resembling the cute little boy who once performed with his older siblings.

What you see in the film is, then, is actually fairly sad. True, the film is a compilation only of rehearsals, and at no time does Jackson actually let loose with all of the riveting stage presence he once had. But there's at least a suggestion that, at age 50, he no longer possessed that presence. It may be that the very reason for all the flash of the show was, in addition to wowing the crowds, an attempt to cover up Jackson's loss of voice, energy and imagination.

What Jackson does show in the film are moments from the past, almost a greatest-moments collection, that work with the familiar music to remind us of what he once was. But they are the same moves, augmented now by a troupe of younger and more versatile dancers. The now-thin voice is enhanced electronically and accompanied by a covey of excellent musicians. The videos, too, lift Jackson beyond his own limitations by pairing him with scenes from classic noir films starring Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth and Edward G. Robinson.

And all that might have been enough to make for a great stage show. It's less successful in the film because, as with most penetrating cinema, the camera hits on an essential - if in this case unintended - truth. And that is for all the flash and fire, it is Jackson who is at the heart of the action.

Not the Jackson of the Jackson 5 or the Jackson of '80s-era videos such as "Billie Jean" or "Thriller" but a Jackson who, slowly but inexorably, had become a near parody of his former self. The fans screaming for their savior may not have seen that Jackson, but anyone looking clearly certainly will.

That's why "This Is It," for me at least, is less a celebration than a fright show all its own.

Below: The trailer for "This Is It."

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