It’s tough to discuss anything about Michael Jackson without immediately going into a conversation about the man’s troubled life. Try mentioning to someone that you love the song ‘Billie Jean’ and within moments, you’re sure to be debating his molestation accusations. And this isn’t a recent trend, 20 years ago, people were obsessed with his Neverland Ranch and his pet monkey. Throughout the man’s entire life, people have constantly lost sight of his brilliance as a musician and focused on other parts of his life.
That was until he passed away in the fall of 2009 and then the same media hounds that crucified him for the past 15 years now wanted to pass him off as a saint. So it was with much trepidation that I sat down to watch THIS IS IT. The way I see it, you have Michael the man and Michael the artist. Given the uniqueness of who Michael Jackson was, it’s important to separate the two. With that in mind, THIS IS IT is a great homage to Michael the artist. Lost in the drama surrounding Michael the man is the fact that Michael the artist was absolutely amazing as a musician. I don’t mean impressive, or very good, I mean he was jaw-dropping phenomenal. Love him or hate him, his prowess on the dance floor and ability to sing (at the same time) were unquestionably breath-taking.
The film, however, is pretty average. It benefits from having a great subject matter and a timely release, but the actual construction of the film is pedestrian. Director Kenny Ortega had his hands tied in the sense that he had to put a movie together from footage that wasn’t intended to be an actual movie and I’m sure he also felt pressure to include full dance/song sequences. After all, we don’t want to see people talking about Michael, we want to see Michael. With that goal in mind, Ortega succeeded in showing us plenty of Michael singing and dancing to his greatest songs.
But the gem of the movie came when we saw Michael talking to dancers, backup singers, keyboardists, stage hands or anyone else involved with the show. The tagline says “like you’ve never seen him before” and that couldn’t be more accurate. We, as an audience, are used to seeing a shy, subdued Michael. In his element, he is a commanding, authoritative leader that knows what he wants and why he wants it. I was most impressed with these scenes and I wanted more, especially when he was on stage. I liked hearing him direct people while he went in and out of song.
The movie had done a pretty good job of focusing on Michael the artist until the last 5-10 minutes. As soon as they started the song ‘Man in the Mirror’, Ortega couldn’t help but play a clip of Michael preaching about the environment and love and all the things that have made him a punch-line for so many years. It was so important to focus on Michael the artist and I hate that they ruined what could have been a perfect separation of man and artist. For 90 minutes, I was transfixed on Michael the artist, but sure enough, as soon as the credits rolled I became involved in a conversation about Michael the man. I don’t know what about him was fact or fiction, but I do know that he was a great musician and a talented performer and that’s how I want to remember him.
Staging the Return (40:47): Travis Payne, one of the choreographers, talks a lot through a lot of this featurette, which is basically focused on the events leading up to the start of his London performances. It’s nice, but it almost felt like a commentary that splits interviews with the film. This would have been a good time to show some of the footage that ended up on the cutting room floor, but instead they chose to use a lot of scenes from the movie.
The Gloved One (15:14): This one focuses on Michael’s wardrobe. It may sound boring, but it was actually really neat to see the clothes they had planned for Michael to wear. I always thought that Michael’s outfits were crazy, but he managed to make them work. This was a pretty cool featurette and the clothes were crazy.
Memories of Michael (16:19): This one takes a bit of a somber tone because people are talking about their views of Michael. It’s a little overly sentimental and staged, because the people they’re talking to were all involved with the show. But Kenny Ortega tells a good story about a phone call from Michael. And that’s really where this featurette shines; when people tell their stories about first meeting him.
Auditions: Searching for the World’s Best Dancers (9:50): Dance fans will appreciate this featurette about the search for 11 backup dancers. They go from 600 to 200 to 11. In the film, I thought hearing from the dancers was pretty cool since they worked their whole life for a chance to dance with Michael. This was a very cool featurette.
Thriller and Smooth Criminal Vignettes: For a few songs, they filmed mini-movies that were to show in the background. This is the complete look at those, which is a great, great special feature. These were a lot of fun and you can just imagine how cool this would have been to see on the big screen, right before Michael came out and sang the songs.
Making Smooth Criminal (11:09): This is simply the making of the new video for Smooth Criminal. It had new interviews, but it could have been inserted into the main featurettes and that probably would have been better. But the song is one of my favorites, so it was nice to get some extra information on the making of the mini-film.
There is also the Theatrical Trailer and some Previews