THIS IS IT is a masterpiece of editing. HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL director, Kenny Ortega, cuts down hours of concert rehearsal footage into the skeleton of a live show. We have two further things to be thankful for. First, that the rehearsals were shot on hi-def Red One digital cameras with rich sound. Second, that Michael Jackson is so astonishingly talented that even watching him marking out steps and singing every other line is fascinating enough to sustain our interest. The resulting movie is a pretty simple film documenting what would surely have been a remarkable live concert - combining Michael Jackson's superlative choreography, extravagant sets, and intensive use of CGI rich video footage. As a film, I can't fault THIS IS IT. It does what it's meant to do: it provides ticket-holders with a vicarious experience of the concert they will never attend; and it provides the concert-backers with some financial recompense. Everyone goes home happy. And if you go home with the Blu-Ray disc you get the video shorts for Thriller and Smooth Criminal that would have been played before the performances and further behind the scenes footage of the casting process and production design. You even get members of the production reminiscing about Michael - a video eulogy. Stuff to keep the fans happy.
Still, my experience of watching this film was conflicted. Once again, that's nothing to do with any flaws in the film-making, but rather to do with the complex nature of our relationship with Michael Jackson as a media object. I grew up in adoration: going to the Bad tour concert at the Milton Keynes bowl was by far the best concert experience of my youth; we played the Thriller cassette on constant loop for about a year, so much so that we bought about 5 versions because they'd wear out or get caught in the car cassette player; my cousin Miguel had a mini Beat It jacket and new all the dance steps. Michael Jackson was just part of what it was to be a kid in our house. But by my late teens, Michael was already Wacko Jacko - a man who had too much money, too much fame, and was surrounded by too many yes-men. His music didn't seem relevant. His persona was just weird. And then, as the nineties continued, he became sinister. Even if you didn't believe the worst of the allegations, his apparent erasure of his racial identity through plastic surgery, his bizarre marriage and child-rearing - it was all too tragic to contemplate. There was something hypocritical and patronising about Earth Song and Black and White. So when Jarvis Cocker mooned Michael at the Brits, I was with Jarvis, not with Michael. In later years, as he became even more reclusive, paranoid, persecuted, one couldn't help wonder why someone didn't just take him in hand and tell him to stop. And finally, in La La Land, Michael bought access to anesthetic drugs and died.
So, when the movie came out in theatres I didn't want to watch it for the same reason that I didn't want to go to the concert. I wanted to remember Michael as the sweet kid in the Jackson Five, or as the charismatic young man in Off the Wall, or as the icon in Billie Jean live at Pasadena for Motown 25. I didn't want to see a financially desperate man forced into touring - who died during the preparation - pimped out by his concert promoters, who were shamelessly exploiting the grieving fans. The film gave me another chance to marvel at Michael's talent. But it wasn't happy viewing because it just makes you think, yet again, how wasted that talent was in his final two decades, and how corrupted our memory of that talent will always be by the controversies surrounding his private life. You look at the concert footage and you see him direct everything just as he wants it, but never raise his voice. Sure. He doesn't have to. The deference, the worship, is palpable. No wonder he ended up in the mess he did.
THIS IS IT is a deftly edited concert rehearsal video of a superlative talent. But it's also documentary evidence of the hermetically sealed world in which a megastar was allowed to indulge his every fantasy to whatever end. As such, I found it a profoundly sad film to watch.
THIS IS IT was released in October 2009 and is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray on February 22nd.