In March 2009, a camera crew was hired to film the rehearsals of Michael Jackson's "This is It" tour. At the time of Jackson's death in June of that year, over 100 hours of footage had been accumulated. This is a supremely, pared representation of that, a glimpse into what that tour would have looked like.
The film is being promoted as a concert film, and certainly that's what it is. That's all it is, and when I say that, it isn't in a complimentary tone.
I'm a fan of Michael Jackson. However, I don't wear the white glove. I can't do the Thriller dance. I've never been to a concert, but I do love the music. I know mostly all the words to all his hit songs. I think he was a phenomenal dancer, gifted, amazing and a true genius.
I was shocked at Jackson's death. I was a little saddened because I understand the loss. He was an entertainer without parallel and one of the greatest American humanitarians who ever lived. I was skeptical like everyone else through his legal troubles, his molestation trial, but I sympathized and to this day I respect him.
I didn't grow up with him like my parents did, so I don't have that attachment. I merely enjoy his work. I was of course eager to see this, as a curiosity, but if you are like me, and are NOT a die-hard fan, I would not recommend this as a film to go see.
Like I said, this film is being promoted and marketed as a concert film, and certainly that's what it is. That out of the way, it's certainly not the best concert film I've seen. It's not even the best concert film I've seen this year. That honor goes to Spike Lee's Passing Strange. It's not the best, if for any other reason, because it's only rehearsal footage. It's not footage from an actual show. It's not even full-dress rehearsals, even though by the time Jackson died, they were only a month away from the concert's premiere.
Obviously, it's Michael Jackson. Despite it only being rehearsal footage, it's still pretty spectacular. From my petty count, Jackson does about a dozen songs, roughly 16. The majority are from his Thriller and Bad albums, his most popular and best-selling albums.
If you were like half the people in the midnight screening, you were tapping your toe, bopping your head, or snapping your fingers the whole way through. Yes, it was only rehearsals, and every now and then, you would see Jackson stop singing and not go all out. Yet, watching and listening to him, even when he's not giving his all, still gave me chills.
We see Jackson's choreographers and director, Kenny Ortega, hire a team of new, young dancers. As I watched these rehearsals, I was amazed how at the age of 50, Jackson was able to keep up with all that high-energy talent, many of whom were less than half his age.
During a brief interaction with Michael Beardon, the musical director on the tour, I learned how smart and how aware Jackson is, when it comes to his music. Say what you want, but the man knew his music. Beardon played one of Jackson's musical numbers, and I watched as Jackson was able to pick apart the key, the tempo, and the rhythm of what Beardon was playng and how it was off to what he had composed.
It really showed Jackson's brilliance. Later, we also see expressions of Jackson's creativity. Yes, he was doing songs that we've seen and heard before, but he never stopped on trying to improve the experience. Jackson had green screens, re-imagining of old, black-and-white films, pyrotechnics, moving stage sets, and even 3-D effects.
Thanks to this documentary, I am convinced that if Jackson had lived, this would have been an amazing concert to attend, and that the fans would have certainly gotten their money's worth.
My only problem, as a film critic, is that this film is nothing but a treat of fans, and only a treat for fans. It's a tribute to Michael Jackson. Produced by friends and family, I wouldn't expect it to be anything but pure adoration, but if I'm going to spend money on a documentary I need it to advance the conversation, and this doesn't.
The film starts out with some of the young dancers commenting prior to their auditions about Jackson's effect on their lives and how being a part of the tour would be a dream come true. At first, I thought this would be like Every Little Step, the documentary earlier this year, which followed a series of dancers trying to be a part of something iconic.
But, no! There's a scene later where we see the dancers who've auditioned on stage. Jackson and his team sit in front of them and have to choose who will go on tour and which won't. You think it might turn into an episode of So You Think You Can Dance with Jackson as the judge. We hope maybe we'll get some insight into how Jackson chooses his dancers.
But, no! We quickly cut away to the dancers already chosen. Except for shots of the dancers cheering as they watch Jackson rehearsing, we don't get much on what these dancers are really feeling and experiencing. We marvel at watching the dancers get "toasted" as well as laugh at watching them learn the art of the crotch-grab, but no further insight is gained.
We get a little more from the band members, like the guitarists. Other than that, we can gather practically nothing from Jackson's team. This would be fine, if in its stead, we get some insight into Jackson himself. If you want that, you're better served watching the Martin Bashir documentary.
This film has no narration, no commentary to guide us. We can tell in brief, candid moments that Jackson was a bit of a perfectionist and perhaps a tad controlling but all the while was loving and generous and spiritual and highly motivated.
However, these are all things that I could have gleaned had I not seen this film. Yes, I know Jackson was a private person, and I should never have expected anything probing, but I at least would have hoped for more here.
One thing I was perhaps new to realize is that on stage, Jackson likes his moments of silence or stillness. He calls it letting it simmer, letting the music simmer, or basking in a moment. Yet, watching Jackson stand still on a stage is hardly compelling enough to pay for a movie ticket.
Jackson does perform a lot of signature moves, but be forewarned, he doesn't do the moonwalk in this.
Two Stars out of Five
Rated PG for some suggestive choreography and scary images
Running Time: 1 hr. and 52 mins.