Imagine making a feature film out of footage that was never meant to be shown publicly. That’s the monumental task that faced Kenny Ortega, MJ’s collaborator on the This Is It concerts that never were; 50 shows set to kick off in London, England in July, meant to be the final concerts for the almost 50 year old Jackson.
The film is riveting, mesmerizing and unbelievably sad because as we watch them go through their paces, we know something that the singers, musicians and technical wizards don’t: that all of their hard work to perfect their performances will be in vain because the star of the show will die in just a few weeks.
The film begins with testimonials from the excited dancers and a pared down version of their exhaustive auditions to make it onto the tour company. They’ve come from all over the world to strut their stuff. I couldn’t help but recall that Sheryl Crow was once a backup singer for Jackson and that there aren’t many similar opportunities to be an unknown and get thrust before hundreds of thousands of people at a time.
Flash-forward to the final stages of rehearsal, without having to witness the tedium of the dancers having to learn their steps. This was going to be a spectacular show, with original 3-D film footage and loads of special effects. Every time someone would screw up – sometimes Jackson himself, but more often, a musician – Jackson would patiently say, “this is why we rehearse ” and they’d do the routine again.
He looks painfully thin and close up, his face looks as odd as ever, but more friendly and fun-loving than we’ve seen in still pictures. He laughs easily and is obviously, naturally good-natured. Still, I couldn’t help but try to see living examples of some of the details we learned from his autopsy. I would watch his hairline to see if his wig slipped and revealed the black tattoo on his bald forehead, grateful that it never did. But for all of the talk of his strangeness and dependence on pills he was, without a doubt, a commanding presence on that stage. Dancing with muscular young men and women half his age he set the pace and the standard for them all. It was clear that everyone knew they were in the presence of a rare creative genius and they could hardly wipe the grins off their faces for a moment. He had assembled the best of the best – the guitarists are jaw-droppingly good – and they knew this was their shot.
You might think that a man who spent his life creating entertainment could afford to kick back and let someone else take the lead for a while but MJ watched over every aspect of the show, from choosing the dancers to co-directing the short films that would be played in the final production. His passion for the product was evident and these were going to be absolutely spectacular concerts.
And that brings us back to the sadness. It would have been fitting for Jackson to complete these “final” concerts and then ride off into the sunset where he lived the rest of his life in relative quiet. He earned it, by leaving us a musical catalogue that history will eventually rank up there with the Beethovens of the world. This Is It gives us an amazing glimpse behind the scenes into a massive production and the man whose vision it celebrated. I don’t know that Michael himself, a legendary perfectionist, would have approved of the warts-and-all film but it’s powerful and poignant. There’s no gloss or sheen, although there’s nothing negative in it either but there doesn’t need to be. We already know the negative stuff all too well.