Behind his fame, behind his music and, most of all, behind his death: Who was Michael Jackson, really? This Is It, a new film assembled with rehearsal footage from what would have been Jackson’s eponymous, final world tour, doesn’t answer much about the man behind the icon. Instead, the film unfolds more like a feature-length concert movie — arranged around the artist’s biggest songs and punctuated with wink-wink moments — than a revealing documentary.
Yet while This Is It was clearly designed as a feel-good, fluff event for Jackson’s biggest fans, its glossy finish and lack of controversy actually highlights the very paradox that Jackson embodied in his later years. The first and perhaps most striking aspect of the film is the artist’s physical state. Disappearing in oversized men’s jackets and sporting skinny jeans in most of the rehearsals, Jackson appears frail, unhealthy and, considering his facial augmentation, like something other than an adult man. It’s clear throughout This Is It that the icon stands apart from the rest of us. But when he’s juxtaposed with a pack of virile, muscular male dancers or he’s blocking an awkward duet with a particularly beautiful female backup singer, he appears almost child-like, and it’s a continual head-scratcher how he’s keeping up.
With a mix of cues that are both tacit and overt, the film also reinforces why Jackson is the revered icon that he is. His behemoth celebrity status is suddenly abstract when he argues with his keyboardist over exactly how the opening notes of a song should sound, explaining that it should feel like “rolling out of bed.” In another scene, this time for the opening for Smooth Criminal, director Kenny Ortega challenges Jackson on how he’ll get the cue right. Jackson counters that he’ll “feel it”… and that’s the end of the discussion. It’s evident not only that Jackson was intimately involved with his tour prep, but that his weak physical stature belied his strength of artistic vision.
For anyone who lost sight of Jackson the Artist over the years amid scandal and tabloid fodder, This Is It is an unmistakable reminder that the guy actually cared about his music, and claimed ownership of it even when he looked like he could barely moonwalk. Much as Jackson oscillates between roles — a shell of his former self here, a powerful auteur there — so too does the film, employing masterful pacing and a brilliantly edited pastiche of clips to exalt Jackson one minute and gently poke fun at him the next. His boyish narcissism surfaces on several occasions, such as when he complains that an earpiece feels like “a fist” punching his inner ear but explaining, “I’m saying that with love. L-O-V-E love.”
Behind the hype, then (and the obvious financial boon), it’s ultimately plausible that l-o-v-e is what actually drives This Is It — both the film and what would have been the tour. Beneath the paradox and the plastic surgery and even the schmaltzier musical routines, what becomes most apparent is that Jackson had the best of intentions and the most overwhelming of emotions swelling his delicate heart, right up to the end of his last rehearsal. This Is It reveals little behind-the-scene grit but lots of public giving, offering audiences a taste of MJ that will never be possible again.