Somehow, Living the RomCom got nearly to the end of this year without once mentioning Michael Jackson - no small feat, given the blitzkrieg of overkill information we've been subjected to since his demise this past June (I know, you're thinking: Wait, wait - Michael Jackson died?! Why didn't anyone say so?). The jaded Industry Insider demon that lurks within me, hearing that a documentary of his concert rehearsal footage was being rushed into production, heaved a cynical sigh.
Fie on said demon. I have seen This is It, and I'm here to merely tell you that I'm glad I did.
Once you get past the tearful testimonials from the show's music and dance crew and some slapdash "putting our icon in historical context" footage, you're suddenly thrust into the rehearsal for the show's first number, and here's the thing: When you watch Michael Jackson singing and moving his way through Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' in the privacy of an audience-free rehearsal hall, all the rest of it - the celebrity lunacy, the sordid child abuse trial, the self-induced disfigurement, the everything baggage that usually comes with this superstar's name - falls away.
All you're seeing is an astoundingly talented artist at home (for clearly, the stage was his second, if not his first native residence), doing what only he could do. And watching this breathes new life into the word awesome.
Honestly, I would rather see Michael Jackson like this - smudged in focus, rough around the edges, half in and out of actual performance mode - than to have seen the finished live show. Even the circumstantial stylistic choice, born of utility - Jackson is almost always shot in full, with closeups rare, and a lot of hand-held angles - gives you the sense of "the real thing," as opposed to the unreal polished perfection, inevitably crowned with over-the-top pyrotechnics, that a stage show would deliver.
Credit director Kenny Ortega for pulling it together, and for letting This is It, with its few but telling glimpses of MJ-the-human-being, provide us with some sense of intimacy - at least, as close to intimacy as one could get with such a heavily-guarded phenomenon. His razor-sharp band-leader's acumen (a brief discussion of feel and tempo in The Way You Make Me Feel is priceless), his high-as-the-sky standards (e.g. the awkward apologies about having to conserve his voice), and above all, his joy at being able to dance so well (there are dancers half his age who'll never come close) - all of this leaves you with a credible portrait of an incredibly gifted man at work.
All the glitz that was meant to go with this - the elaborate videos, the sets, the fireworks - is the least interesting and appealing aspect of the experience. The documentary's low point is a hokey-shlocky "save the world" themed song, all of its bells and whistles being applied to one of Jackson's least effective efforts. The only moment to savor here comes at the literal end of the performance, when he makes a technical decision about how the last bit should be blocked and handled, and you think - Right! - because the man's showman instincts are so invariably spot on.
There's also a few moments of fun and generosity - watch, for example, as he urges guitarist Orianthi to hit and sustain her highest possible note on Beat It, saying, "This is your moment to shine!" - and of course, there's always a poignant sadness in the subtext. Why did it all have to go the way it went, given how incandescently alive this man was?
Questions like this have been much on my mind lately in the wake of my father's passing, and they're not really meant to be answered. As the singer sang, Why? Why? Tell them that it's human nature.
Let the critics and historians try to make their sense of Mr. Jackson. For anybody else asking, What was the deal with this guy?, this sketchy, incomplete, "Michael Unplugged" of an almost-concert film will be one good place to start.