It took an early, dramatic death to end Michael Jackson’s decades-long professional and personal freefall. Jackson’s passing transformed the hours of rehearsal footage that form the basis of This Is It from special-features fodder for a concert DVD into possibly the most anticipated performance film of all time. Sony paid an astonishing $60 million for the footage, hoping to cash in on a public salivating for anything Jackson-related. High School Musical film-series director Kenny Ortega cobbled the footage together into a strange beast that alternately suggests Outtakes: The Movie! and D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company, another intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the agony and the ecstasy of the creative process.
This Is It follows the skeletal Jackson and his army of collaborators—dancers, musicians, choreographers, special-effects people, and Ortega, who helped mastermind the production—as they prepare for 50 (yes, 50) comeback performances in London’s mammoth O2 arena. Jackson is intimately involved with every aspect of the shameless spectacle; he rules over underlings as a gentle taskmaster, focused yet spacy, in-the-moment yet distracted, anxious and a little aloof. The O2 Concerts were to be a greatest-hits affair augmented by splashy new flourishes like a 3-D “Thriller” sequence and a short film that edited Jackson into Gilda and pitted him against Humphrey Bogart.
At the height of his creative powers, Jackson made it look easy. He exuded childlike joy and effortless grace. By the time preparations for the London concerts began, however, the ravages of age had exacted a fearful toll. Ortega’s camera captures a man who has to work doggedly to conjure up the electricity he once radiated organically. In a telling sequence, Jackson’s competitive streak flares up when he indulges in vocal vamping alongside a fetching backup singer. Finally, Jackson seems to be enjoying himself! It’s short-lived; He stops singing and gently scolds his delighted audience for encouraging him to sing unnecessarily when he should be preserving his voice for the concerts. Yet there are moments throughout when Jackson stops going through the motions and the old magic returns. Those oases of inspiration are doled out far too stingily, however, leading to a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of a project that’s half ecstatic celebration, half creepy exploitation. In that sense, the title seems to be lacking punctuation. At best, it angrily demands to be rechristened This Is It! Too often, however, an incredulous This Is It? seems more apt.