Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson - Nelson George (2010)

Part III. COVERING THRILLER

THIS IS IT

ON OCTOBER 28, 2009, I, LIKE THOUSANDS around the world, bought a ticket to see This Is It, the 111-minute documentary carved out of an estimated 110 hours of rehearsal footage shot for Jackson’s personal archives. Despite the international hype and folks dressed up at midnight shows around the globe, I walked up to the box office at the Cineplex theater on Third Avenue and East 11th Street with my friend Tigist Selam, and I purchased two tickets for a mostly empty 1:45 p.m. show. Inside the basement theater we watched the film with about ten other Jackson fans.

Sony released the film in some 8,000 theaters worldwide, with an additional 3,000 in the United States. That’s a nice number of domestic theaters for a documentary about an unfinished concert. But international enthusiasm appeared much higher for the film, with even China, not a place usually considered a safe harbor for valuable U.S. copyrights, booking the film so that it opened concurrently with screenings here.

Although our theater wasn’t crowded, the online chatter about This Is It was standing room only. Reviewers across the globe weighed in and, sometimes reluctantly, found merit in the documentary. “‘This Is It’ isn’t Michael Jackson at his greatest; it’s him preparing to be his greatest. But watching that preparation is gift enough,” wrote Tom Long of the Detroit News. “There’s no sign of sickness here, no sense of an artist past his prime. Instead you see a performer at his peak,” wrote a surprised Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger. CNN’s Tom Charity didn’t want to recommend the film but finally admitted, “Yes, you probably want to see this.” On the Rotten Tomatoes ratings of reviews from the nation’s top film critics, the film received an outstanding 86 percent rating, a real tribute to the smart work director Kenny Ortega (of High School Musical fame) and his team of four editors did.

On Twitter and Facebook, fans were mostly ecstatic. But in the online space, there was a large, well-organized minority who saw This Is It as a collage of lies. “On June 25, 2009 Michael Jackson died. He was 50 years old and the father of three young children. Were you shocked? You should have been,” wrote the folks at a web site titled “This Is Not It.” “In fact, the true state of Michael Jackson’s failing health was being hidden from you by those who are making a profit from the screening of the ‘This Is It’ movie.” Furthermore, the site stated, “a few scenes were selected in which Michael Jackson smiled and showed that in spite of being in a dire state, he was still the greatest star in the world.”

Having been in scores of edit rooms over the last ten years, I know “This Is Not It” is likely more right than wrong. Any edit of 110 hours of footage into under 2 hours of film could yield dozens of different versions. Moreover, any version of the documentary financed by the promoters of the London shows was unlikely to include any images that suggested Jackson was near death’s door during rehearsals. The popular narrative was that the preparation for these shows killed the superstar. As I sat in my seat, I was sure no visual evidence of that theory would be on the screen.

My friend Tigist, an actress-writer of Ethiopian/German descent, a woman who was introduced to Jackson’s work as a child by Thriller while living overseas, teared up the first time Jackson appeared on screen. In fact, for most of the movie’s running time, she was either crying or red-eyed, saddened all over again by the singer’s death.

AT FIFTY, MICHAEL IS a tall, imposing man, with huge hands and long arms. He is clearly underweight, and even though the film doesn’t make him look sickly, he definitely looks frail. There are no close-ups of Jackson in the film. We never get closer than a shot from the waist up, and mostly we see him at middle distance, an adoring remove from our gaze, far enough away for us to see his grace but never close enough for us to be truly intimate with him. His face—the skin, the nose, the eyes—almost feels hidden in plain sight.

This visual strategy makes clear something quite extraordinary. Michael is actually a better, more complex dancer than earlier in his life. Compared to his cocky, committed team of dancers, Michael isn’t as athletic or explosive. But the precision of his movement, how he glides from stage left to right, his sharp head and body turns are more glorious than ever. He appears to hear several kinds of rhythm: the beat of Jonathan Moffett’s trap drums, the bass lines played by Alex Al, and then internal eight counts where he interjects combinations of hand gestures, shoulder shakes, and dance steps.

Watching Michael move recalls listening to a skilled drum circle, where a master drummer creates the central rhythm and other percussionists circle his beat, sometimes joining the central pattern and other times floating off to construct a new rhythm that the other drummers may follow. Jackson dances like that master drummer. It is his feel for “time,” both for rhythm and the pauses between beats, that guides him through the rehearsal.

Phrases such as “Let it breathe” and “I’ll feel it” pepper his instructions to his collaborators. In conversations with director Kenny Ortega and musical director Michael Bearden, Jackson is very precise about what emotion a song, a piano part, or a lighting cue can create when properly placed, all of which are elements of timing. Joy, pain, and pathos are all conjured by what he’d call “magic,” but what I’d call a unique sense of space and time.

Jackson is careful throughout the rehearsal footage with his vocal chords. Sometimes he sings all the words to a song. Often he leaves out parts of verses, especially on up-tempo numbers when he’s focused more on dance moves or staging. This isn’t unusual for a performer in rehearsal, but when you see the rigor of the planned show and Jackson not having done a full-on series of concerts in half a decade, you have to wonder how he’d have gotten through fifty concerts. My plan had been to attend one of the first ten to fifteen shows in London, figuring he’d still be in good shape and in peak voice.

Two moments in the film, one troubling and the other sublime, lingered with me well after I left the theater. During the Jackson 5 medley, Jackson looks uncomfortable. At one point, he stops singing and complains about the sound mix in his headphones, saying his ears feel punched by the sound. The amateur Freud in me suspects the real source of his discomfort is singing those long-ago songs associated with his ten-year-old self, that round-faced, bushy-haired dynamo from Gary, Indiana.

But maybe that’s me projecting my own discomfort onto the singer. The truth is that watching him perform those songs of his (our) youth pulled me right out of the movie, sending me back to Madison Square Garden, watching him gyrate, all brown and 1970s fly. Until he does “I’ll Be There,” I accepted this tall, pale figure as Michael Jackson. When he sings, “Just look over your shoulder honey,” I heard that child’s voice from the Motown records and felt alienated from this man because those Jackson 5 songs are so connected to a particular “Black is beautiful” period. That pictures of the prepubescent Michael Jackson accompany the songs only heightened my disconnect from the film.

And yet this Michael Jackson or, at least, the latest incarnation of the man is a person fully invested with the DNA and talent of that long-gone little brown boy. His “Billie Jean” at Motown 25 back in 1984 was the defining moment of Jackson’s career. Several generations have moonwalked in his wake. However, his “Billie Jean” performance in This Is It is, I think, a bit of perfection that confirms his legacy.

Within the “Billie Jean” dance, which is as familiar as any of Jackson’s catalog, Jackson reinvents himself on the Staples stage. Using his arms and fingers and holding his torso at precise angles that dramatize every movement, Jackson remakes “Billie Jean” as a dance for an older, wiser man. His dancers go crazy (though they’d gone crazy at other times, too), but here their cheers are indeed warranted. And at the end of this magnificent dance, Jackson says, “Well, we got a good feel for it.” No one watching this dance will shrug it off so casually, just as no one watching will understand how dope that performance is more than its dancer. Yet at the time Jackson did this dance, it was simply some sweet moves at a rehearsal and nothing more. But now, and forever, it is Michael’s last act of magic.