You go to This Is It—the exploitative but bizarrely heartwarming Michael Jackson documentary, tracking rehearsals for the psychotically exhausting 50-concert London comeback spectacular he didn’t live to even start—and you vacillate between a smile and a wince as a clearly driven but heartbreakingly frail MJ rips through take after take of hit after hit, and you find the moment that resonates for you, the throwaway gesture or remark only imbued with gravitas in retrospect. There’s about 20 to 25 such incidents to choose from. The in-ear monitor mini-rant is the one that killed me.
He’s plowing through a Jackson 5 medley—a warm, naïve, thrilling glow still cast over those giddy songs and the endearingly precocious dance moves that still accompany them. This, in turn, is echoed by the vintage footage of a cheery, pre-adolescent Michael and his brothers, now projected on huge video screens behind the current-day, pointedly less cheery Michael as he cuts off the band in mid-flourish and complains of a blaring, newfangled device he’s saddled with that feels like “a fist pushing into my ear.” This isn’t a bratty celebrity tantrum, but a lament, a genuine feeling of anguish he’s trying to counter “with the love,” he explains, somewhat confusingly. “With the love. L-O-V-E.”
Everyone in my theater—Court Street in Brooklyn, showtime 12:01 a.m., Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, pouring rain outside, diehards only—chuckles a little at this, how delicate he sounds even when severely antagonized. Kenny Ortega, director of both the concerts and now the film that seeks to replace them, is heard off-camera, feebly and sweetly talking his superstar down: Is there anything you need? Is there anything we can do? MJ barely acknowledges him, as usual, explaining simply that he’s “adjusting.” He tries to explain the problem. “It’s just so hard when you’re raised . . .” he begins, and the long pause that follows, the awful chasm that opens and that we mentally fill with all the dire and horrifying ways Michael could accurately describe the way he was raised, the way he lived, nearly torpedoes the whole movie, destroys its upbeat, goofy, triumphant vibe, and conjures up the devastating tragedy that caused this movie to even exist, but that, wisely, it almost entirely declines to acknowledge: the suffering that preceded this conversation, and the death that would soon follow it.
And, of course, Michael goes on to explain that he was raised to hear it, not to need a high-tech fist in his ear to keep in time and stay in tune. The moment passes. Earlier, arguing over a “Smooth Criminal” cue with Ortega, the director points out that it’s supposed to be triggered by the fancy film-noir footage on the video screen that MJ, facing the crowd, can’t see: “How will you feel the change from the marquee to the city?” Michael considers this. “I gotta feel that,” he decides, nodding his head. I’ll feel it.” We laugh at this, too. We also believe him.
This Is It is remarkable in its ability to avoid maudlin sentiment or death-foreshadowing pathos, especially considering that after a brief title-card explanation of the film’s circumstances, it begins with people crying. Ah, they’re just backup dancers, pre-audition, gushing about What MJ Means to Them. (What MJ needs from them, as a key choreographer explains, is a certain “goo” and “ooze.”) This is a major theme: how awed and intimidated all these clearly talented artists are to work with or even near him, and how ungraceful and useless they seem in his presence, and how quietly but firmly he coaxes them into doing what he wants, doing it right. To the keyboard player and musical director: Play that particular line “like you’re dragging yourself out of bed.” To the hot-shit guitarist shredding during the climax to “Black or White”: “Hit your highest note. [He sings it for her, for reference.] It’s your time to shine. We’ll be right there with you.” To everybody, all the time: “Let it simmer.” Hold the note, the pose, the dramatic conclusion. “Bathe in the moonlight.” Milk the crowd we can’t see for the rapturous applause we can’t hear.
And that’s the strange and fascinating thing about this movie: Excepting a brief, shrieking-fan-heavy clip from the unsettling circus of a press conference at which MJ announced the 50-comeback-shows-in-London conceit, his only audience throughout what is essentially a low-rent concert movie is those same backup dancers and crew members; you’re eventually overwhelmed by the silence that accompanies these full-length run-throughs of any hit you’d care to name. (Plus “Earth Song,” which you’ll survive.) There’s no screaming, worshipful din to drown out all the detail MJ is painstakingly nailing down here, detail that’d largely have been lost if the show had ever actually gone on.
The footage is rough, as footage never intended for public consumption tends to be, and Michael is clearly a) weak, and b) holding back what strength he has for, you know, the actual shows. The Jackson 5 sequence ends with him vamping a cappella on “I’ll Be There”—”I’m trying to conserve my voice, so please understand,” he murmurs, by way of apology, before moaning through a gorgeous, yearning series of vocal backflips anyway. If that performance embarrassed him, it’s hard to see MJ being thrilled with everything else on display here, even if we mere mortals thrill to the sight of him singing every other line of, say, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ” with his whole body in constant, mesmerizing motion, an endless fusillade of micro-Moonwalks it doesn’t seem like he could control even if we wanted him to.
Which we do not. Even when he’s holding back, the artistry of it all is fairly stunning: “Human Nature” drives my theater nuts, the breathy whispers undercut by brief, playful growls, his body’s wiggly little leans and dips omnipresent, the falsetto that punctuates the gloriously evaporating chorus. “Go on, boy!” people behind me start shouting. “Go on, boy! That’s Mike.”
We are similarly enamored of all the new set pieces: The 3-D graveyard fantasia of “Thriller,” the retro-futuristic mashup of The Big Sleep and The Matrix that drives “Smooth Criminal,” the giant props (spider, bulldozer) that suddenly materialize onstage. I suspect most people initially regarded these London concerts warily—as an ill-advised potential catastrophe MJ didn’t have the power to pull off anymore. But This Is It, if nothing else, makes clear how incredibly hard he was working, how seriously he took himself even when no one else did. It’s maudlin and brutal, but he died trying to do this. And though the film mercifully avoids any death-porn melodrama, this will occur to you during the climax of, oddly enough, “Beat It,” when he’s full-on spazzing out to match the hard-rock frenzy, flat on his back, legs waving in the air, that nefarious earpiece out and dangling like a popped eyeball. He is passionately applauded, both on-screen and off-. But there aren’t enough of us. There never were.