Monday, November 02, 2009

This Is It (2009)

Before the Clearview Chelsea's 5:30 PM screening of This Is It, the theater ran a coming attraction for 2012 I'd never seen before. The footage was familiar — an assortment of the world's recognizable landmarks obliterated by an assortment of the world's most recognizable natural disasters — but the background music was not. Instead of a traditional musical score, the editors inserted a pop ballad by former American Idol contestant Adam Lambert entitled "Time For Miracles." (To watch this trailer, go here). You or I might take the complete destruction of human society as a great tragedy; with the aid of Lambert's ode to undying love, the trailer treats the cataclysm as an exuberant celebration of the human spirit. Yes, the Mayan apocalypse has brought about the end of the world. But look on the bright side: John Cusack ain't giving up on love.

Jarring as the 2012 trailer was, it proved a fitting warm-up for This Is It, a documentary that fashions footage from rehearsals for Michael Jackson's 50 night stand at London's O2 Arena into a approximation of what the final concert would have looked like had Jackson not died following a cardiac arrest on June 25th. The film pauses for intermittent glimpses into the King of Pop's creative process, but it's predominantly a series of musical performances noticeably enhanced by extensive cutting and overdubbing. We might see Jackson and his band on stage performing Thriller, but we hear what sounds like a combination of live performance and studio tracks, maybe even original master recordings in some cases. In finished form, they present an image of Jackson as a tireless, consummate performer. But would our reaction be the same to less polished footage? How much does our interpretation of the sound affect our interpretation of the visual? If a carefully crafted pop melody can make images of global destruction uplifting, can a few carefully crafted audio tracks make an unhealthy man look well?

I don't know. I do know that at times I felt like the movie was trying to convince me Jackson was in better shape that he really was. Certainly he's far skinnier than any of the dancers he's sharing the stage with. Even under a mountain of layers, even in jackets with huge, ridiculous shoulder pads, he looks tiny (as Roger Ebert notes in his review, he's also the only person on stage who's always wearing long sleeves). Near the end of the film, he gives the assembled production a pep talk that is heartfelt but also kind of weirdly rambling; one moment he says they are there to deliver great escapism to the fans and the next he's warning them they all have three years to reverse global warming or the earth will be doomed (Someone call Adam Lambert!).

It's easy to say that Michael Jackson was crazy or sick. But look at what his work asked of him, and consider how you would react in his situation. The This Is It show included a Jackson 5 tribute medley, where Michael would be called upon to sing and dance as he did when he was ten years old. Imagine if you had to sing in public and sound exactly as you did at that age? Jackson is required not just to perform forty year old songs, but to perform them with perfect fidelity; he can't just sing "Thriller," he's got to sing with the signature "Thriller" dance moves and people made up as zombies. We wonder why Jackson stopped making hits, why he creatively stalled out in the mid-90s. How could he move into new artistic areas when he's required to perpetually recreate his past? That sort of pressure to look and sound forever young could drive anyone insane.

Not that director Kenny Ortega pauses for even a second to contemplate the perversity and absurd excesses of the Jackson stage show, and why would he; as the director of the This Is It concert series, he helped invent it. There might have been a truly revealing portrait of Michael Jackson in the raw footage he used to form This Is It, but I imagine the lawyers who ultimately control this material (at least one of whom receives a producer credit on the film) would never allow that to happen. Certainly there are a few tantalizing moments — a few untouched a capella lines here, a cracked joke there — but not many. Jackson is typically seen in wide shots, and often framed from head to toe. That choice ensures we're able to scrutinize his fluid dance steps; it also reflects the way the film always views its subject from a safe distance. The audience never gets too close for his (or his estate's) comfort.

And so we're left to watch and guess. In some ways, that makes the film more interesting; you hang on Jackson's every word and gesture, searching for clues to his true personality, his state of mind, his health, and above all, what his reaction would have been to a project like this documentary? I suspect a perfectionist like Jackson, who we see obsessing over the smallest details in musical arrangements and dance steps, would have hated the idea of giving the public unfettered access to imperfect footage. The fact that This Is It observes Jackson from such a remove, and forces us to consider his performance through a filter of carefully sculpted sound, makes the film both less honest and, paradoxically, truer to Michael's vision. This isn't how it looked and sounded on the stage of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. But this is probably pretty close to how it looked and sounded inside Michael Jackson's very troubled mind.

NOTE: On, Vadim Rizov writes about a fascinating companion piece to the 2012 trailer, an Adam Lambert music video that features the musician singing while people all around him run for their lives.



Blogger The Kid In The Front Row said...

I felt bad that I got really bored by the end. For the last 30 minutes, I just wanted it to end.

It was quite sad viewing. On the one hand, it was great to see MJ up there doing his thing, but he was clearly past his best, he hardly moved when performing really.

Fascinating because of the historical document it is (or is going to be) - but not really worth my $12.50 in Times Square!

5:34 PM  

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