After an interminable advertising blitz replete with hundreds of magazine covers, extensive features, wall-to-wall news coverage, and television adverts, kicked off with the single biggest marketing push of all time — the untimely death of Michael Jackson — This Is It mercifully arrived in theaters last night for its limited two-week run (which is sure to be extended if there’s an audience for it). Finally, we’d get a closer look at Michael Jackson’s final days on Earth, procure some insight into what kind of person he was, maybe even find a few answers and, hopefully, gain a little closure on the life of one of the Earth’s most popular, most talented, and most enigmatic musicians.
Instead, spoiler alert we get two hours of rehearsal footage.
Granted, This Is It was never technically advertised as anything more than that. But given the immersive hype, the amount of coverage devoted to the movie, and the fact that it was billed as “The Event of a Lifetime,” it’s still a huge letdown to discover that This Is It really isn’t anymore than Michael Jackson, a few musicians, a lot of dancers, and a series of technicians preparing for a show (that would never take place) in front of a crowd of no one. It’s a bit like watching an exhibition football game in an empty stadium — sure, you might see Tom Brady or Peyton Manning out on the field, but how hard are they really trying for a game that doesn’t count?
Indeed, over the next few days, you may read quite a few reviews of This Is It or see hours of coverage of the movie on newscasts — they may attempt to sell their own coverage of the film by suggesting This Is It is two hours of “raw” and “candid” coverage. Grasping, they may even try to read something into the personality of Michael Jackson based on two-hours of sometimes banal rehearsal footage. It’s bullshit, people. Complete bullshit. There is nothing here, folks. This Is It is empty of revelations or insights. You’ll know as much about Michael Jackson when you leave the theater as you knew going in, which is that he’s kind of a weird dude that can dance your fucking face off.
Granted, many of the performances are impressive — for a 50-year-old African-American white man with body dysmorphic disorder, the “King of Pop” could certainly move. But he’s still somewhat limited by the fact that he’s a 50-year-old African-American white man with body dysmorphic disorder, and he’s been trotting out those same moves for 40-plus years, and they were a lot more impressive 20 years ago. He’s not as agile anymore, he gets winded (which might have something to do with the fact that he’s hopped up on enough pharmaceuticals to kill a horse) and, for the purposes of the rehearsal, he’s saving his voice, so he’s not exactly putting his all into the vocal performances.
Indeed, there’s not a clever way to describe This Is It except for exactly what it is: For two hours, Michael Jackson rehearses many of his most famous songs and, because they were still eight days out when Jackson died, it’s not even a full-on dress rehearsal. On several occasions, Jackson will stop a number mid-performance to provide instruction to his musicians or dancers. Some may suggest that he’s being a perfectionist, but for a man about to put on a multi-million dollar 50-day series of concerts that’s meant to resurrect his career after a decade of dormancy, a certain amount of attention to detail seems not only ideal, but necessary. For a man who has gained as much success as MJ has, you’d be surprised if he was the lackadaisical type who showed up on the day of the performance and winged it.
Occasionally, they do cut away from footage for a few seconds to allow some of his musicians or dancers to say something trite about MJ — “He’s the reason I got into music,” or “Working with Michael Jackson is the pinnacle of my career.” Basically, it’s exactly what you’d expect an employee to say about his or her boss while a camera is on them. There are no testimonials from celebrities or family members, but the film’s director, Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), who also directed the concert, does inject himself into the film on far too many occasions to kiss the man’s ass. I’m not sure what color Michael Jackson is, but his shit is still brown, and Ortega’s sycophantic face is covered in it.
Indeed, This Is It is carefully controlled to present MJ in the most favorable light possible. If he had any bitter disagreements — as you’d expect with a production this large with as many people involved — they are not presented here. There are no episodes of weirdness, either, beyond the run-of-the-mill weirdness you’d expect from Jackson. In fact, at no point in the entire film is it even mentioned that Jackson is dead, that he had a violent substance abuse problem, or that he died from a lethal combination of propofol, lorazepam and midazolam. If the rest of Jackson’s career had been as well orchestrated as this movie, he’d never have had a public image problem to begin with.
This Is It isn’t a complete waste of time, however. While there are no revelations or epiphanic moments, there is a certain nostalgic value in the film — if you grew up on MJ, many of the songs and performances may send you back to a certain place or time in your life (for me, it was my childhood, and I fucking hated my childhood). It’s not out of the question, either, that you may look fondly back on the career of Michael Jackson and remember a time — before the weirdness, the plastic surgery, the change in skin color, or the pedophilia allegations — when he was a piece of our pop-culture history that we could be proud of. But given the last two decades of Michael Jackson’s life, This Is It isn’t really an effective enough piece of MJ agitprop to make you forget that the strange circumstances surrounding his death weren’t exactly incongruous with the rest of his late career.