Less documentary than closely and manipulatively edited homage to the new-agey “genius” of frequent Michael Jackson collaborator and High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega, This Is It is about as honest as the song it’s named after—which was co-written with and then stolen from Paul Anka in 1983, sold to the ’80s freestyle starlet Sa-fire in ’91 as “I Never Heard,” and blithely repackaged without acknowledgment to either by the Jackson estate earlier this year. To be fair, Ortega’s This Is It, culled at breakneck speed from a few weeks worth of rehearsal footage from what was to have been Jackson’s comeback tour, probably didn’t have a lot to work with: America’s tolerance for the minutiae of blocking and lighting cues is presumably low, even when it’s Michael, and how many times can you really show Jackson dressing down the band, over and over again, for failing to correctly “bathe in the moonlight”?
Many, many times. More bonkers Jackson-at-work moments would’ve helped, but mostly we just see the kid from Gary, Indiana dispensing hugs and God-bless-yous to an awed cast and crew. Watching various dancers and guitarists grin irrepressibly during their one-on-one run-throughs with the man is one of This Is It’s few pleasures; ditto for Jackson’s dancing, which is constant and never less than unreal, even when he’s just imitating the gestures stewardesses make in the aisles of a plane. As for his voice, well, mostly he’s conserving it—lest we forget, this show was to be repeated in front of a live audience 50 different times at London’s O2 arena over a nine-month period. Were Jackson still alive (the film never alludes to his death except for terse scroll at the beginning and the requisite dedication at the end, though the teary and fragile vibe throughout seems to correctly presume a certain level of audience familiarity with the fact that Mike’s no longer around), he’d be about halfway through.
It would’ve been a spectacle. The film rescues a couple of quintessentially MJ set-pieces first designed as concert interstitials, in which Jackson gamely has himself CGI’d into first Gilda and then The Big Sleep—weirdly, he never seems more real than he does acting in digitally-effected black and white. Less palatable is the rehearsal team’s decision to remake for the concert screen John Landis’s “Thriller” video in 3D (?!!), sans Vincent Price but plus the spider from Lord of the Rings. For this I blame director Ortega, originally Jackson’s “creative partner” on the tour, who here badly overreaches his yes-man, set-therapist, pyro-encouraging role—as he does in so many other places in this film and earlier, on the stage—only to find himself lost in his own funhouse. ”Gravedigger!” he shouts at one point, trying to get some poor zombie to correctly hit his mark. “Into the camera!”