October 30, 2009 in Features

‘This Is It’ shines light on Michael

Carrie Rickey Philadelphia Inquirer
 
movieweb.com photo

“This Is It” follows Michael Jackson prior to his death on June 25. movieweb.com
(Full-size photo)

“Michael Jackson’s This Is It” looks beyond the reconstructed face and spindly body of the late King of Pop and basks in his meteoric light.

Culled from more than 100 hours of footage documenting Jackson’s preparing for what was to be his farewell concert stand, the film is a privileged peek at the creative process of pop music’s Peter Pan.

The show Jackson was putting together was a compendium – and cinematic reimagining – of his greatest hits, from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” to “Man in the Mirror.”

The film, directed by Kenny Ortega (“High School Musical”), is an unfinished work, a lyrical and intimate tribute to an unfinished life.

The digital videos taken at rehearsals are rough, not perfectly lit or focused. And Jackson, who played the scarecrow in “The Wiz,” looks positively scarecrowlike. (When not obscured by fedora, sunglasses and tendrils, Jackson’s face, reconstructed and Kabuki-pale, has the shock of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.)

But once he starts dancing with hoofers young enough to be his children, Jackson, who died at age 50, radiates pure energy.

He comes across as a more robust dancer than singer. In the film, recorded over a 10-week period before his death on June 25, Jackson is not always in voice. He says he’s conserving his throat, but he does let it rip for “Human Nature.”

Jackson and Ortega had cinematic concepts for the concert production of “This Is It,” including a re-do of “Thriller” that would take it from a John Landis vampire frolic to a Tim Burton goth prom.

Influenced by “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” they conceived “Smooth Criminal” as a movie in which Jackson sings to Rita Hayworth and dodges bullets shot by Humphrey Bogart.

For Jackson, as for Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, a song was a three-minute drama. Dance and film were not bells and whistles, but ways for him to underscore a song’s subject matter.

Because Jackson seems most concentrated, most alive, when he is performing, it would probably be a mistake to call “This Is It” a backstage movie. Yet there are lovely backstage moments when he serenades Ortega in Spanish or generously gives direction to a guitarist, telling her to amp it up: “This is your moment to shine.”

“This Is It” is Jackson’s moment to shine. For two hours, he’s alive and kicking it.

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