‘This Is It’ movie review: Michael Jackson doc a rare look behind the scenes

We’ve been led to believe that Michael Jackson, in mountains of debt, arranged a 2009 concert tour against his own will as a way to make some quick money. That he was heavily medicated around the clock, that the strain of preparing for the tour was too much for him and may have contributed to his death. 

And one might be excused for thinking (as I did) that releasing This Is It posthumously a few months later as a worldwide “two week only” event was a cash grab for the Jackson estate. 

All that may be true, but absolutely none of it is evidenced in this film, assembled by director Kenny Ortega and a team of editors from rehearsal footage of Jackson and his production team from April to June. 

It’s a unique and exhilarating film that flies in the face of my expectations, and is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before: part concert documentary, part backstage behind-the-scenes production footage, equally fascinating. 

This Is It begins with footage of prospective dancers about to audition for the concert production, some overcome with emotion. It moves to Jackson’s press conference in London, where he announces “this is itthis will be the final curtain call.” 

And quickly we’re transported to the stage for the remainder of the film: what seems to be a near-complete recreation of what that concert would entail, including full musical numbers back by props, dancers, and digital footage, interspliced with production asides that reveal a Jackson quite unlike the one we might expect. Michael Jackson is vibrant and enthusiastic here – certainly not the sickly or drug-addled figure we might come to expect. 

A decade plus removed from the stage, but he hasn’t missed a beat. The production side of Jackson is revealing; he directed the production along with Ortega, and knows exactly what he wants, and how to carefully motivate his crew in order to get it. Highlights are many. 

They include a rendition of Smooth Criminal backed by a digital montage that seamlessly inserts Jackson into shots taken from Gilda with Rita Hayworth, Dead Reckoning and Tokyo Joe with Humphrey Bogart, Larceny, Inc. with Edward G. Robinson and other 40’s films (and it must have been inspired by this excellent video of Fred Astaire dancing to the song.) Thriller is backed by footage intended for 3D (would the concert audience be wearing 3D glasses?) of ghouls and zombies rising from the grave and walking towards the camera. 

Black or White concludes with a memorable guitar duel between Tommy Organ and Orianthi; I Just Can’t Stop Loving You features an impressive duet with Judith Hill. 

The energy on display is magnetic; two hours seem to fly by, not a particularly easy feat for a concert film or a documentary. It only lags – just a bit – towards the very end, with Jackson performing Billie Jean and Man in the Mirror solo on the stage. The bulk of the film was shot with what appears to be three digital cameras: two of them high definition, one, well, not so high definition. 

The first two cameras capture a near flawless image that belies their behind-the-scenes intent; the third is of an expectedly (but acceptably) lower quality, windowboxed inside the 1.85:1 frame. Audio quality is also flawless. By all accounts, this rehearsal footage looks and sounds as good as any fully-produced concert film. I’m not a particular fan of Michael Jackson, or his music. 

But This Is It is something special, even profound. If the concert went forward, it would have been quite the curtain call for Jackson. Instead, this film serves as a fitting tribute.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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