As a work of art, This Is It isn’t all that. There’s no cinematography to speak of—just a couple of cameramen running around with videocameras. No lighting—except for the million or so watts from the stage lights. No conscious aesthetic choices—unless you consider the naturalistic, handheld look to be more than necessity. It isn’t edited with innovation or novelty—director Kenny Ortega, who had been directing the concert, organizes footage for each number into self-contained packages strung one after the other.
But then there’s Michael. To lift a phrase from “Dangerous”, the man is divinity in motion (assuming God considers crotch-grabbing to be kosher). Although we see a dozen backup dancers in This Is It learning to be copycats, no one moves like him. On stage he outshines them, though they’re half his age. After more than forty years in the spotlight, he doesn’t have any new moves (as he did 25 years ago, at the 1983 Motown 25 concert) or any new songs (as he did at his 30th Anniversary concert in 2001). His act has been around long enough for current performers to count him as an influence—see Usher (born circa Off the Wall), Chris Brown (born circa Bad) et al. None of that matters. Now, as the New York Times said then (1984), “In the world of pop music, there is Michael Jackson and there is everybody else.”
At least, there was Michael Jackson. Because we know both the backstory and how the story ends, This Is It has accidental emotional hits. When Michael uses his hands to send little energy pulses to his dancers and stage crew, the genuine, innocent gesture creates empathy for a man twice accused of child molestation. When he works out the introduction for “The Way You Make Me Feel” with his arranger—slowly, meticulously, until it feels just right—you can’t help but have renewed appreciation for the musical prowess of a man overshadowed by spectacle and sensationalism. And when at the end of a spectacular, sensational dance routine, frozen in final position, right before the darkness steals him away, Michael smiles… you can’t help but smile with him.
And agree—the show was going to be awesome. For the This Is It tour, Ortega and Jackson shot elaborate film sequences for “Thriller”, “Smooth Criminal” and other numbers. These sequences segued into live performances with pyrotechnics, Orwellian screens, and dancers everywhere—dangling in the air, blasted from the stage floor, moving through the audience. It would have been Jackson’s most expensive—and expansive—show, running through more than JA$1.8 billion and 30 years of music. Jackson was one of a handful of singers with a catalogue deep enough to pick, choose and refuse between hit songs.
Following the months-long media frenzy surrounding his death, and coinciding with an album release, the film teeters on the edge of exploitation. Sony, AEG Live and the Jackson estate are all a little bit richer thanks to This Is It. But then again, having seen Michael’s last moonwalk, so are we.