As I watched THIS IS IT, the Michael Jackson concert documentary, I kept wondering what MJ himself would have thought of it. Being the perfectionist that he was I’m sure he would have been horrified that his semi-polished rehearsals were being seen by everybody. I don’t think this means it is a bad film, though. In fact I loved this film and I will probably buy it when it comes out on disc. The fact that we see him making mistakes makes him seem much more human than he did on all the gossip-rag shows. Or, for that matter, in any of the perfectly edited videos he made of himself.
I’m sad that he had to die for this side of him to be revealed. But the result is a film that ranks up there with Truth or Dare, Sign O the Times, Bring on the Night or Stop Making Sense. Unlike those films, though, it has the unique perspective of revealing how a major concert of this type is put together, even though it is a show that is ultimately doomed.
Personally I am slightly obsessed with the great 80s pop icons. Sometimes the images of these icons overshadow the skilled musicianship of the performers. Madonna is exactly the same, for instance. Her genius as a recording artist is not mentioned nearly as much as who she is adopting. How often do these gossip shows ever talk about the music? Don’t get me wrong, Michael Jackson’s personal life left a lot to be desired, but if you want to deconstruct who he was as an artist this film offers a rare glimpse.
There are brilliant performances, intermingled with the actual CGI-heavy short films that were going to be a part of the show. There are also some interesting virtual reality set pieces to show the audience how the show was going to look onstage at the O2 arena. It would have been such an amazing show. There are extended grooves of songs from Thriller, that are better than the originals with an unbelievably funky saw-bass groove. Surprisingly nothing from Invincible or Blood on the Dance Floor is included in the set list. (You mean he didn’t play Morphine?) His voice is angelic and I must say I was surprised at how strong it was, given that he was just about to overdose. Do I think he looked strong? No, not at all. He was very thin and gaunt, resembling a Tim Burton/Edward Scissorhands version of himself.
My favorite part of the film are his discussions with music director Michael Beardon. I am a music director and I felt for this guy when Michael Jackson is telling him how to play the groove in The Way You Make Me Feel. This type of situation, which I have to face from time to time with performers, must have been multiplied in stress by a million given that it was Michael Jackson telling him how to play. MJ is sometimes very amusing when he says non-specific things like “Play it like you’re having trouble getting out of bed”. Who knew he was funny? Not me.
There are two contradictions that occurred to me while watching this film. First, to me funk is simply the coolest music that has ever existed. And Michael Jackson is clearly a funk master. And yet during his life he seemed very uncool at times. This was partly because he was so mainstream and partly because of his fascination with stupid things like Peter Pan. He was really kind of a square, if I may bring back a Happy Days word. So how is this square so brilliant at making the coolest and sexiest music known to the world?
The sexuality is the other contradiction. He is one of the most sexual performers I have ever seen. There is a dance in this film, an extended version of Billie Jean, I think, where he takes his crotch grab dance to new heights. It is now a crotch stroke. How was someone, who was so sexual in performance mode, so oddly asexual when he was just having a conversation with someone about how to dance?
I can only speculate but I think the contradiction is simply that he had to hide his sexuality so it came out in his music and not in his personality. This is part of his tragic story, a story which I am sure is misunderstood to some extent. Thankfully this film shows how much of a genius he was at what he did best – music and dancing. The fact that the concert is called THIS IS IT, and the song they found in his desk drawer starts with the line “This is it” seems like a moment of synchronicity to me. Michael never planned to include that song in this show, and yet it fits perfectly as the title song to the soundtrack of the documentary. That is a meaningful coincidence if I ever saw one.