The short answer to this question is – yes. This Is It, the 121 minute extravaganza compiled entirely of video footage shot from rehearsals, offers a tantalizing glimpse into the mind of ‘The King of Pop’. Its star is, of course, Michael Jackson. Frail as he may look: at one point during some pop and locking I did think he might break in two like a twig, he holds his own amongst dancers thirty years his junior. An imperious and almost regal grip over the production is made clear from the beginning, his breathy tones not quite disguising the extreme meticulous and precise nature of his demands. Jackson, you see, is all about ‘the hold’ – the beats before the start of the song. He takes this knowledge of a rising climax that will have the audience in a feeding frenzy and positively makes his musicians sweat, instructing them ‘just four more bars. Four more bars’.
When he does finally decide to begin a song his voice is, quite frankly, a revelation. Clear and strong, at odds with his fragile speaking voice, it could cut through ice and leave a river in its wake. A recent revelation that original recordings had replaced some of the footage to ‘preserve the magic for fans of Michael’ (the words of director Kenny Ortega, not me) slightly dispel the magic. What cannot be altered, though, is his movement. Though the infamous moonwalk is not put on display, the amount of twisting and turns will make your head spin. The lead guitarist (Orianthi Panagaris), her calmness nicely punctuating Jackson’s energy, at times struggles to follow him as he bounces around the stage.
As a fan, I was disappointed with the absence of less known, but equally powerful songs such as ‘Dirty Diana’, ‘PYT (Pretty Young Thing)’ and ‘Liberian Girl’.
It is clear also that the performers, including, at times, Jackson, are not performing at their full capacity – understandable seeing as this was, to them, ‘just a rehearsal’. The female singer who duets with Michael (Judith Hill) must have been horrified to hear her pretty lacklustre rendition of ‘I just Can’t Stop Lovin You’ shown to millions.
Nonetheless, the tour promised to be truly spectacular, akin more to a theatrical production than a concert. One scene shows Jackson and Ortega with the head of special effects as they revel in the sight of a CGI army, his dancers made, with the blessing of green screen, into a vast militia. However, whilst there are moments of brilliance, the Bogart/Bacall interlude in ‘Smooth Criminal’ being one particular delight, other vignettes fall far short of the mark.
‘Earth Song’ is accompanied by a truly dreadful montage, complete with kitschy woodland and a small girl larking around with butterflies in her hair. The video, following on from Jackson’s unintentionally funny on-stage proclamation of ‘the Earth is sick – it’s like it has a fever’, renders global warming as nothing more than a child’s view of the big bad world, And that, in fact, is what Jackson is – a child. We see Ortega, who reminded me of Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings, fawning obsequiously over him, constantly reassuring and fulfilling every whim. His childlike and shy nature can also be seen in his chemistry with fellow performers, which is basically non-existent. There is almost no interaction with his dancers, presumably leading to their god-like reverence of him, and any interaction with female protagonists is really painful to watch. The moment when he puts his arms around his romantic lead in ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ actually invoked a shudder from the audience, a reaction Ortega presumably wasn’t looking for.
As costumes go, the bag is pretty mixed. We see him in full costume, including what the costume designer tells us are creations of Swarovski and light lasers, entirely new technology made exclusively for this tour. We see him painfully thin in Balmain-inspired, pointy-shouldered jackets. Then again, we also see him swathed in layers of tracksuit and puffa jacket, looking; it has to be said, like a ghostly tramp. If his diamond glove is anything to go by: just sold for 420,000 dollars when appraised at just 60,000, Michael Jackson memorabilia mania is not quite over yet.
It is hard to see This Is It from the viewpoint of a neutral observer. After all, who doesn’t like Michael Jackson? I must concede, though, that if you are not of a fan of his music then this may drag. For any persons on the fence, though, I would encourage them to disregard any personal prejudices about Jackson’s very skewed private life, and revel in the magic that is the King of Pop.