Michael Jackson’s This Is It, the hagiographic concert documentary hastily cobbled together from behind-the-scenes footage of the late pop star’s planned series of 50 London concerts that of course never came to fruition, arrives on DVD with no actual, concrete mention of his passing on the cover box. This is slightly strange but, in its own way, also makes perfect sense. After all, for his diehard fans, Jackson the entertainer was always someone who existed outside of and apart from the tabloid frenzy that engulfed his personal life. He was simply a showman, and therefore his corporeal death — while grievous in that it robs them of new material — is almost of little note or consequence in relation to the creative celebration that this glimpse behind the curtain provides.
On a personal level, I think it’s never really a good sign if your film’s title is an anagram of Shit, It Is, but This Is It recovers from this unfortunate fact to provide a somewhat humanizing portrait of its legendary star. A box office smash for distributor Sony upon its rushed release late last fall — the movie bowed to $23 million en route to $72 million domestically, and raked in another $187 million worldwide, where Jackson’s, umm, offbeat personal life hadn’t dented his commercial viability in quite the manner it had Stateside — This Is It works, on a very simple level, because you get to see Jackson doing what he truly loves, and almost inarguably was born to do. Stripped free from his garish, almost willfully bizarre public persona, you’re able to just fall in love with the man’s music all over again, or at least appreciate his talents and work ethic.
Directed by Kenny Ortega, who was also spearheading the rehearsals for the aforementioned concerts, This Is It offers hardcore Jackson fans and noobs alike a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the performer as he developed, created and rehearsed for shows that would have taken place in London’s new O2 Arena, beginning in July 2009 and continuing through March 2010. Chronicling the months from April through June of last year, the film is culled together from more than 100 hours of private footage, featuring Jackson rehearsing a number of his songs for the show.
The results are almost always interesting, and in a couple instances fantastic. Celebrating the singer’s love of Old Hollywood, “Smooth Criminal” found Jackson seamlessly sharing the screen with some of the greatest movie stars of all-time in a new black and white vignette that was a nod to its original music video. “Thriller” was getting a thrilling new 3-D treatment, with video featuring a whole new cast of zombies, ghosts and ghouls falling prey to Jackson’s dance moves. There were plenty of live, on-stage theatrics and pyrotechnics planned, as well. “Beat It” was to feature Jackson on a cherry-picker, extended out over the crowd, and end with him setting a jacket on fire, in a seeming homage to Jimi Hendrix. And, based on the pre-visualization animation, the heal-the-planet message of “They Don’t Care About Us” was apparently to end with Jackson facing down a bulldozer on stage.
For all this sizzle, though, one of the more interesting segments in This Is It is just a fairly straightforward run-through and presentation of “Billie Jean,” in which Jackson dusts off some old dance moves, without the benefit of a choreographed dance troupe behind him. This run-through, and “Man In the Mirror,” which closes the 111-minute movie, are among the strongest impressions made. There’s not really a sense of whether the material presented here represents the concert’s actual run order, and a bit more commentary or explication of some of the attendant creative decision-making going on would be of value. That said, the editorial imperative is clearly to get as much footage of Jackson shoehorned into the film proper as possible; a lot of that other stuff about which I was wondering ends up in the supplemental material.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, This Is It comes presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track and optional English and French subtitles. Two solid documentaries, “Staging The Return: Beyond The Show” and “Staging The Return: The Adventure Begins,” anchor the bonus material, which shows Jackson developing and overseeing technical elements and music mixes, in addition to actually rehearsing. If his on-stage perfectionist nature — even only half-assing it on vocals, in order to conserve his voice — didn’t clue you in, watching these featurettes will give you a sense of Jackson’s unerring attention to detail with regards to his professional presentation. While on a purely physical level it seems hard to believe his body could have withstood the challenges he was laying out for himself with this series of concerts, This Is It leaves no doubt that he was swinging for the fences.
Another featurette illuminates more specifically some of the concert’s specially designed costumes, while “Memories of
Michael” collects cast and crew tributes, many of the teary-eyed variety. There’s also a segment which spotlights the search for the show’s 11 incredibly talented back-up
dancers (from a pool of more than 5,000 applicants), as well as the film’s theatrical
trailer, which did a crackerjack job of not only selling the movie to
its hardcore fan base, but also making it seem both exciting and like
more than a chintzy cash-grab. Oh, and according to press material, additional features exclusive to the
movie’s Blu-ray release include the complete and uncut versions of “Smooth Criminal” and “Thriller,” along with a special making-of featurette on the accompanying video content for “Smooth Criminal,” and a BD-Live enabled “movieIQ function,” which lets viewers
add their favorite songs from the film to an emailable playlist. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here; to purchase the Blu-ray via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) A- (Disc)