When I found out that the two new releases I might get to see this weekend were Kenny Ortega's "documentary" on Michael Jackson and Mira Nair's biopic on Amelia Earhart my initial response went something like this: I'd rather have my brains scooped out of my cracked-open skull by a zombie in possession of a red, long-handled Dairy Queen sundae spoon than see either of these two pics. Maybe even a zombie from the "Thriller" video. Seriously.
The two screen scenarios involving the "King of Pop" and "Lady Lindy" each reanimated in what looked like uncomplicated and sentimentalized cinematic celebrations of the celebrity dead seemed only to promise two hours of tedium spent sitting in a comfortable chair in a nice dark room. And both films seemed ironically appropriate viewing for the Halloween weekend—both a species of zombie exploitation flicks.
Films in which dead "stars" are brought back to life to stumble around for the benefit of the audience are not exactly my cup of tea, or my bowl of brains, for that matter. The choice between zombie number one (the guy with the glove), or undead corpse number two (the one wearing the soignée bomber jacket) was not a great one as far as I was concerned. I rather glumly set off to have my brains consumed at the 4:20 Carmike 10 Friday matinee showing of Michael Jackson's This Is It.
I was way off the mark. The film was decidedly not the graveyard that I, never an MJ fan, expected. Quite the contrary. The film is not well constructed—it seems almost asleep or unconscious in its form—but Jackson lives in the fullness of his artistic power in it.
Don't look for This Is It to do anything to match or even appropriately frame what Jackson, with all his visual and musical genius, was capable of producing. What the film does do, however, is document the power of Jackson the artist. Despite its awkward, shambling, ham-handed melodramatic cinematic "style," the film follows and records Michael Jackson preparing for a world tour—and he's not the creature of the deadening narratives of tabloid journalism and American celebrity culture.
There is some of the otherworldliness, the sheer strangeness of the man on display here—his constant and often unmotivated invocation of the principle of "the love" is a marker of the curious, inexplicable way in which Jackson lived his personal life. But never mind all that distracting noise. It's the music and the fluid glide of his dancing that really matters. Jackson performs with an extraordinary skill and craft that leaves absolutely no doubt about the validity of his supernova status.
When Jackson begins to rehearse "The Way You Make Me Feel" with his musical director, Michael Beardon, Jackson demonstrates his uncanny virtuosity with sound and movement and with the art of bringing them together. Using primarily his voice and his body—hands, shoulders, legs—he is able to communicate to Beardon that he wants the music to slow down.
"Drag it a bit. . . . like you're dragging yourself out of bed," Jackson tells Beardon. But, it isn't in words that Jackson is really able to say what he wants. He schools Beardon in song and dance. After the extended dialogue in music and body the two have regarding the pacing of "The Way You Make Me Feel," Beardon says to Jackson "Can't nobody hear what you hear." Jackson's response is telling: "I want it the way the audience hears it."
The concert was constructed around Jackson's catalogue of hits, primarily those that come out of the transformative, hit-generating, award-winning 1982 album Thriller. "Beat It," "Billie Jean," "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'," and "Thriller" are all represented in the film, as are some new numbers: "This Is It," for instance. Videos made specifically to accompany the concert performance are included along with footage of the concert rehearsals. A reach back to the days of the Jackson Five, with a medley of songs including "The Love You Save," and "I'll Be There" is particularly satisfying, accompanied as it is by montage shots of the group and Diana Ross grooving to what is still badass Motown magic.
There is pleasure for Jackson's fans, really for any viewer of this film, to be had in seeing the new "videos" of the old hits, but to watch Jackson build a performance is truly astounding. This film, as flawed in some ways as its star—albeit in different terms—does the work of documenting a socially significant artist still honing his craft and re-creating musical and performance art in the pop music genre he once dominated.
I'm still not an MJ fan, but I get it now.
Michael Jackson's This Is It continues at the Carmike 10 and Village 6.